December 06, 2005

Anti-intellectualism is all the intellectuals' fault!

There's a nice little gem of an idea in this Nicholas Kristof column, but it's kind of buried under a pile of shit.

The good point:

This disregard for science already hurts us. The U.S. has bungled research on stem cells perhaps partly because Mr. Bush didn't realize how restrictive his curb on research funds would be. And we're risking our planet's future because our leaders are frozen in the headlights of climate change.

While our universities are home to great scientists, our society as a whole is pathetically science- and math-illiterate.

But what cause does he identify for this? Not our crappy high schools. Not the recent resurgence of general anti-intellectualism in American populism, nor the political opportunism of movement conservatism that helped it come about. No, the problem is that highly educated people aren't majoring in the sciences in college.

But there's an even larger challenge than anti-intellectualism. And that's the skewed intellectualism of those who believe that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes. That's the hubris of the humanities.

Look, the problem isn't just that we are, at all levels of society, woefully ignorant of science; the problem is that we are, at all levels of society, woefully ignorant period. People who majored in liberal arts don't know jack about math and science; but, at the same time, very few math, science, and engineering majors care about those humanities classes they're required to take; and the vast majority of people, who don't go to college at all, never really get exposed to either the natural or social sciences. The vast majority of 'real' adults seem to have some vague opinions on contrversial issues, but care much more about things like gas prices, what's on sale at the local giant box store, and who was caught fucking who in the janitor's closet, than Beauty or Truth (to say nothing of the Good).

What we need, at least as a first step, is to vastly improve the education of our teenagers in both the sciences and the humanities, not get all upset because no-one at the Times can solve a calculus problem.

Update: Echidne had much the same reaction I did, but adds

True, but does knowledge about the DNA suffice? Surely a more important field of study for a future leader would be ethics, and studying ethics is part of the liberal arts curriculum. Though of course it would be nice if the future leaders could first be persuaded to believe that the Earth is older than a few thousand years...

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