In 1980, scientist and writer Isaac Asimov argued in an essay that “there is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.” That year, the Republican Party stood at the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, which initiated a decades-long conservative groundswell that many pundits say may finally come to an end in November. GOP strategist Steve Schmidt (who has been regretful about choosing Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate in 2008) recently pointed to what he called “intellectual rot” as a primary culprit, and a cult-like devotion to irrationality among a certain segment of the electorate.
It’s a familiar contention. There have been critiques of American anti-intellectualism since the country’s founding, though whether or not that phenomenon has intensified, as Susan Jacoby alleged in The Age of American Unreason, may be a subject of debate. Not all of the unreason is partisan, as the anti-vaccination movement has shown. But “the strain of anti-intellectualism” writes Asimov, “has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
Asimov’s primary examples happen to come from the political world. However, he doesn’t name contemporary names but reaches back to take a swipe at Eisenhower (“who invented a version of the English language that was all his own”) and George Wallace. Particularly interesting is Asimov’s take on the “slogan on the part of the obscurantists: ‘Don’t trust the experts!’” This language, along with charges of “elitism,” Asimov wryly notes, is so often used by people who are themselves experts and elites, “feeling guilty about having gone to school.” So many of the American political class’s wounds are self-inflicted, he suggests, but that’s because they are beholden to a largely ignorant electorate:
To be sure, the average American can sign his name more or less legibly, and can make out the sports headlines—but how many nonelitist Americans can, without undue difficulty, read as many as a thousand consecutive words of small print, some of which may be trisyllabic?
Asimov’s examples are less than convincing: road signs “steadily being replaced by little pictures to make them internationally legible” has more to do with linguistic diversity than illiteracy, and accusing television commercials of speaking their messages out loud instead of using printed text on the screen seems to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the medium. Jacoby in her book-length study of the problem looks at educational policy in the United States, and the resistance to national standards that virtually ensures widespread pockets of ignorance all over the country. Asimov’s very short, pithy essay has neither the space nor the inclination to conduct such analysis.
Instead he is concerned with attitudes. Not only are many Americans badly educated, he writes, but the broad ignorance of the population in matters of “science… mathematics… economics… foreign languages…” has as much to do with Americans’ unwillingness to read as their inability.
There are 200 million Americans who have inhabited schoolrooms at some time in their lives and who will admit that they know how to read… but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulation of half a million. It may be that only 1 per cent—or less—of Americans make a stab at exercising their right to know. And if they try to do anything on that basis they are quite likely to be accused of being elitists.
One might in some respects charge Asimov himself of elitism when he concludes, “We can all be members of the intellectual elite.” Such a blithely optimistic statement ignores the ways in which economic elites actively manipulate education policy to suit their interests, cripple education funding, and oppose efforts at free or low cost higher education. Many efforts at spreading knowledge—like the Chatauquas of the early 20th century, the educational radio programs of the 40s and 50s, and the public television revolution of the 70s and 80s—have been ad hoc and nearly always imperiled by funding crises and the designs of profiteers.
Nonetheless, the widespread (though hardly universal) availability of free resources on the internet has made self-education a reality for many people, and certainly for most Americans. But perhaps not even Isaac Asimov could have foreseen the bitter polarization and disinformation campaigns that technology has also enabled. Needless to say, “A Cult of Ignorance” was not one of Asimov’s most popular pieces of writing. First published on January 21, 1980 in Newsweek, the short essay has never been reprinted in any of Asimov’s collections. You can read the essay as a PDF here. There’s also, one of our readers reminds us, a transcript on Github.