On educational anti-intellectualism: a reply to Steve Wheeler

Suppose a student arrived at the age of 18 not knowing anything significant about World War II or almost any other war, barely able to do arithmetic, ignorant of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, and most other great writers, and wholly unschooled in the hard sciences (apart from some experiments and projects which made a few random facts stick).  Now, we can charitably concede that such a person could know his way around a computer, the Internet, and other technology very well.  He might have any number of vocational skills and have a job.  We can also imagine that such a person even writes and speaks reasonably well (although this seems unlikely).  Finally, we can imagine such a person being happy with himself and his “education.”  This is all easy to imagine, because such students are being minted with appalling frequency these days in the U.S. and (to a lesser extent) the U.K.

Let us try to put aside our differences about educational philosophy for a moment; surely we can agree that, objectively speaking, this student is ignorant. He lacks an adequate amount of–to employ some jargon used by epistemologists, and by Steve Wheeler in a recent blog post that I responded to–“declarative knowledge.”

So next, let’s suppose that an education professor (whether this corresponds to Wheeler remains to be discussed) were to maintain that (1) our schools should be teaching even less declarative knowledge than they have been, (2) such traditional subjects as literature, history, geography, science, and French had become unimportant, or at least much less important, particularly now that Google supplies instant answers, and (3) we should not teach individual subjects such as those just listed, but instead mix various subjects together in projects that display how holistic and interrelated the world is.  Now, whatever else he might believe or say, it is reasonable to conclude that these recommendations, if followed by schools, would contribute to ignorance of the sort described above.

Now, I do not claim to have an interesting theory of anti-intellectualism.  But I do think that we can identify a theorist as anti-intellectual if his theories, when implemented on a large scale, would obviously and directly lead to widespread ignorance.  This isn’t a definition; it’s merely a sufficient condition.  (Forgive me for not refining this formula further, but I think it will do well enough.)  I could say more plainly that such a theorist supports ignorance over knowledge, but of course most people will deny supporting that.  So–to use some other philosophical jargon–I only ascribe the view to him de re, not de dicto.

This is not necessarily “anti-intellectual” in some more derivative senses, which have a lot of play in the media today.  For example, an anti-intellectual according to my test might also be an academic and staunchly in support of universities and academic work; he might support a technocratic government of experts; he might support science against faith-based criticisms.  But these are, I maintain, derivative senses of “anti-intellectual,” because universities, experts, and science are each bastions of knowledge. Knowledge is the main thing.  So in a more basic sense, to be intellectual is to be a devoted adherent of knowledge, and particularly of abstract or general knowledge.  I don’t intend this as a theory of anti-intellectualism, but more of a general, rough sketch.

Someone who recommends (or whose theories entail) that students should gain much less knowledge than they otherwise would seems to me a better example of an anti-intellectual than, say, a creationist or a climate change denier.  This is because the ignorance permitted is not limited to a particular topic, but is thoroughgoing–and deliberate.  The (perhaps fictional) education professor I described earlier is opposed to students getting more declarative knowledge, per se, than they get right now.  Whatever their problems, you can’t say that of the creationist or the climate change denier; at worst, their positions make them hostile to particular examples of knowledge, not to knowledge per se. Which do you think is worse?

In his recent post, Steve Wheeler defends himself against my charge of “anti-intellectualism.”  Now, I hope it’s very clear that my posts are not only about Steve Wheeler.  He’s just one example of a whole class of education theorist.  He has merely stated the position of educational anti-intellectualism with admirable clarity and brevity, making it especially easy for me identify and dissect the phenomenon.  Wheeler cites another Brit, Sir Ken Robinson, as someone who shares his views.  I’m sure he will not be surprised to learn that I have, in fact, responded similarly to Robinson (though I forebore to apply the label “anti-intellectual” in that case–I came close).  I also responded to another theorist Wheeler mentioned, John Seely-Brown, in this paper.

In his defense, Wheeler archly, with great irony, claims to be “gratified that someone with such a standing in the academic community had taken the time to read my post and respond so comprehensively” and “My list of peer reviewed publications and the frequency of my invited speeches around the world will not compare with his.”  In case you have any doubt, let’s just say that I am pretty sure Prof. Wheeler took the time to look at my site and gauge my meager academic and speaking credentials.  That would be the first thing that most academics would do.  So of course Wheeler knows that, in fact, I don’t have much standing in the academic community at all; I have very few peer reviewed publications, and my speeches, most of which were not for an academic audience, are not as “frequent” as his.  He has me hopelessly outclassed in these areas, and he knows it.  He’s the academic and the intellectual, and I’m the outsider–or so he seems to convey.

But his deliberate irony backfires, I find.  It is very easy for a distinguished academic, like Wheeler, to be hostile to knowledge, or science, or reason, or the prerogatives of experts.  Otherwise perfectly “intellectual” people have been justly called “anti-intellectual” because of their hostility to the products, power, or institutions of the mind.  “Anti-intellectual intellectual” is no more a contradiction than “anti-Semitic Jew” or “anti-American American.”  So this defense is incorrect: “It seems a contradiction that he can view me as a ‘serious theorist’ and then spend the majority of his post trying to convince his readers that I am ‘anti-intellectual’.  Surely the two cannot be compatible?”  Surely they can–and in our twisted and ironic age, all too often are.  So, while I have respect for Wheeler’s work, it doesn’t defend him from charges of anti-intellectualism.  He would conscientiously, on principle, deny our students just the sort of knowledge that he benefited from in his life and career–though he questions whether he needed them later in life, and says that his schooling “didn’t make that much sense to me,” and questions the worth of various subjects and facts that a liberally educated person, such as he himself, might pick up.

No, pointing out that he is a distinguished academic won’t shield Wheeler from accusations of anti-intellectualism.  Only a frontal reply to my argument would do that.  Does his recent post contain such a reply?

Not exactly.  I am not going to do another line-by-line reply, as tempting as that might be.  He does deny that he wants to remove “all knowledge…from curricula.”  I didn’t think so, and my argument doesn’t attack such a straw man.

In place of the relatively clear attack on “declarative knowledge,” Wheeler’s more cautious restatement resorts to a vague, contentless call for reform:

In my post I suggested that a possible way forward would require a reappraisal of the current curricula, with more emphasis on competencies and literacies. I wish to make something clear: My remark that some knowledge was susceptible to obsolescence was not a call for all knowledge to be removed from curricula – that would indeed be ridiculous. I am not attacking knowledge, as Sanger asserts. Rather, I am calling for schools to re-examine the content of curricula and to find ways to situate this knowledge within more open, relevant and dynamic learning contexts. I am also calling for more of an emphasis on the development of skills that will prepare children to cope better in uncertain futures.

He doesn’t give many details here or later, nor does he really retract anything in particular from his earlier post.  He does regret using “poor illustrations and analogies to underpin this call,” but only because it created a rhetorical opening for me.  As I see it, he wants us to believe that he were merely calling for schools to add a little more discussion and reflection into an otherwise really hardcore “facts-only” curriculum.

But it would be frankly ridiculous to characterize the American educational system, at least, this way.  Many teachers here are already deeply committed to the project method and skills education.  Students can get through an entire 13 years without reading many classics at all.  Indeed, just re-read the first paragraph of this post.  That (at least the first part) describes a lot of students.  Such poor results are no doubt partly because students don’t study enough, and their parents aren’t committed to school enough to get their children committed.  But it’s also partly because schools simply don’t teach enough, period.  I had an “honors and AP” sort of public school education in an excellent district (Anchorage, Alaska in the 1980s) and I didn’t learn nearly as much as I could or should have.  This is why I’ll be homeschooling both of my sons (my first is in kindergarten at home)–because standards have declined even farther from where they were when I was a student.

Schools do, clearly, require a huge amount of work. I think we can agree there.  But let’s not confuse work with sound training in the basics and the liberal arts.  There’s altogether too much busywork, worksheets, low-priority but time-consuming projects, group reports, etc., and not nearly enough reading of good books and reflective discussion and writing about it.  We could be requiring less but using more high-impact activities (like reading the classics and letting students go at their own pace through math texts, self-selected from a list proven to raise test scores), and students would learn more.

When Wheeler cites Ken Robinson in criticism of “old industrialised models” of education, calls for “conversation” and “self discovery,” and approvingly quotes Richard Gerver in support of a “personal and unpredictive journey,” I can stand up and cheer too.  I think Wheeler might be surprised to learn this.  On some issues, we might not be so far apart.  I’m an advocate of home schooling, in which such things are actually possible.  (As I said in my analysis of a Robinson speech, effectively opposing the “industrialized” or “factory” model of education really requires something like homeschooling en masse, which does not seem possible as long as control of education is centralized.)  But we still study subjects. Our studies still have coherence and benefit from our studying conceptually related topics near to the same time.  We still cover the traditional subjects like history and science–in far more detail than I ever did at this age.  It’s just that we are able to take detours, choose the books we like, drop the ones we don’t, etc.  The point is that you don’t have to throw out the baby (knowledge) with the bathwater (regimented, unpersonalized school curricula).

So much for Wheeler’s defense.

The question in my mind is whether his explanation has made his commitment to (1)-(3) any less clear.  Should our schools be teaching even less declarative knowledge than they have been?  So it seems, though now he regrets listing individual subjects and facts.  (Maybe fear of being called out as I’ve done with Wheeler explains why education professors often write so vaguely.)  He didn’t mention–not to support or retract–all the business about declarative knowledge being trivial to access and going out of date anyway.  No retraction of the line that the availability of instant facts via Google make study of various academic subjects pointless.  Should we avoid teaching individual subjects, in favor of (much less efficient) projects that display how holistic and interrelated the world is?  He defended that in his latest.

Well then, my conclusion still stands: someone who believes (1)-(3) is, admit it or not, advocating for even more ignorance than we suffer from today.  It seems that Wheeler supports (1)-(3), and that looks pretty anti-intellectual to me.

Applying “anti-intellectual” to Wheeler’s views is not a mere rhetorical “tactic,” as he calls it.  Harsh and possibly impolite it might be, but it names an important feature of his views.  If I wanted to, I could politely agree to drop the epithet.  Then I would simply say that Wheeler’s recommendations would have us, deliberately, on purpose, make students more ignorant and less knowledgeable.  Would that really be less damning than the epithet “anti-intellectual”?

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 160 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

15 Responses to "On educational anti-intellectualism: a reply to Steve Wheeler"
  1. Reply Seth Finkelstein December 20, 2011 18:52 pm

    Quick note – I think what you in fact mean by “intellectualism” is more commonly known as “liberal arts”. Whereas in the vernacular, “intellectual” is used to mean someone who is logical, scientific, empirical as opposed to what might be called religious scriptural, political authority, gut-decisions. Stephen Colbert nailed this distinction “Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.”

    This is causing much trouble with people who believe in logical thought being upset for being called “anti-intellectual” because they’re not a fan of liberal-arts. If you want to go on that your definition is correct, well, fine – but realize what many people are hearing instead.

  2. Reply Larry Sanger December 20, 2011 20:12 pm

    First, some clarifications. I didn’t say that “intellectualism” means “liberal arts.” I did say, “to be intellectual is to be a devoted adherent of knowledge, and particularly of abstract or general knowledge.” I wouldn’t say that general knowledge extends no farther than the liberal arts. There is a lot of technical and professional knowledge that also counts as general knowledge, of course. “Intellectual” is a very vague term, as you know. So you can’t simply declare that “in the vernacular” it means “someone who is logical, scientific, empirical.” Sometimes it is used that way; sometimes it is used a different way. The core meaning, I think, is simply someone who is devoted to general knowledge; in this sense, it makes perfect sense to speak of religious intellectuals.

    But I do get your point. You’re probably right about why people get upset about being called anti-intellectuals. But I did explain my usage well, and I think that my usage is perfectly sensible.

    After all, consider what is included in the liberal arts: science, math, and history, as well as sometimes “fuzzier” subjects like literature, the arts, and philosophy. Someone who says that today’s already woefully ignorant students should be asked to learn less of science, math, and history obviously deserves to be called an educational anti-intellectual. When I call people like Wheeler anti-intellectual for their stance, perhaps indeed they are offended because I imply that they are irrational. (But Wheeler seemed to think it meant that he was somehow not a high-powered academic!) But then, I suspect they are irrational, at some level, if they so undervalue abstract knowledge!

  3. Reply Allan Quartly December 20, 2011 22:02 pm

    I’d be interested to see where educators are calling for students “to learn less of science, math and history.” I have not seen Steve Wheeler ask for this, neither have I heard any credible educator call for this.

    What I have heard is a call for a greater focus on the process of teaching these subjects which will/should lead to lifelong learners of these subjects. A very important distinction, I think.

    If anyone is calling for a lessening of these subjects it is those who are cramming the curriculum with more and more facts, thus crowding out the educational component of teaching. We only have the kids for a short time, it is important for them to be educated, not cloned.

    • Reply GPC December 23, 2011 10:58 am

      A 12th grader who graduates high school today has the same level of education that a 9th to 10th grader had in the 1950’s. That happened partly because many educators believed that knowledge should not be the main focus of education because students could simply look up what they need to know.

      I don’t know Wheeler particular philosophy but a couple of quotes trouble me:

      “When I went to school I was required to attend classes in mathematics, English language and literature, science (physics, biology, chemistry), history, geography, music, art, Religious Education, craft and design, home economics, German and French – all just in case I might need them later in life. With the exception of a few subjects, my schooling didn’t make that much sense to me.”

      “when what they really need to be able to do is write a coherent and convincing job application or construct a relevant CV?”

      I’m a small employer now. I used to do interviews in the corporate world. There is no shortage of well-written resumes. I received plenty of well-written resumes only to be disappointed by the ignorance of the job candidate. I never cared about how nice the resume looked. I always cared about the capability of the applicant. Wheeler is really out of touch with reality if he thinks convincing job applications are enough to get someone a job. Chances are that applicant’s knowledge and ability will be tested during the interview process. If they don’t know what they claim to know, they won’t get the job no matter how convincing their original application was.

      • Reply Allan Quartly December 24, 2011 03:59 am

        GPC. Where did you get your stats from comparing 1950s student with today?

        Of Wheeler’s list of subjects I can see a few I would still use: maths, English and Science. I know a lot more about History than I did in high school but only because I became interested in it in my 20s. Didn’t need school to learn any of it, understanding English was enough. Geography never made sense to me until the last 10 years but I wish it had earlier. As for the other subjects, complete waste of time as far as I’m concerned. Which subjects would you say are of value to an employer?

        • Reply GPC December 24, 2011 19:25 pm


          This is based on comparisons of concepts that were covered in textbooks in certain grades in the 1950’s and what is covered now. US students are also about 2 to 3 years behind students in other countries based on similar studies.

          The usefulness of a particular subject depends on the job. Different employers have different needs. Knowing a foreign language may be necessary in one job and not another. The point of a K-12 education should be to expose kids to a lot of different subjects. What will be “useful” to one student may not be “useful” to another. But how can anyone know what will be “useful” or “a complete waste of time” to any particular 5, 8 or 12 year who has no idea what they want to do with their life?

          It’s interesting you consider art to be a waste of time. I worked as a web designer for many years. Maybe the art I did in school helped. Is learning music useless? Kids who learn a musical instrument are better at math. Defining usefulness is really difficult because you never know how the things you learned contributed to your later abilities. Maybe some things you think were a waste of time actually weren’t.

          • Allan Quartly December 24, 2011 22:11 pm

            I’d be interested in seeing the study, do you have a link or similar? Because I wonder if it is understanding a smaller number of concepts or not covering the same concepts. I’ll do a search anyway.

            I think this “just in case” idea of education was Wheeler’s point. All of the subjects mentioned above are usually quite interesting and fun in primary school but by 14 or 15 years old most of us have a fair idea what we are interested in or capable of. And besides, as long as I have the ability to learn and can read, why couldn’t I have taken up art after school? I don’t remember any of the art lessons but I have acquired an appreciation of art since leaving school. Same with History and Geography.

            I guess the idea that K-12 needs to be broad is what I really disagree with. K-9 maybe. K-6 most probably. We don’t all need a B.A.

          • Allan Quartly December 24, 2011 22:18 pm

            A very quick search came up with this Wikipedia page which shows that the number of high school graduates has increased significantly since the 1950s. Its kinda easy to see why maybe the average high school graduate doesn’t know as much now as back in the 1950s, the academically leaning student does not make up the majority of students any more. Why can’t there be concurrent streams? Teaching high level maths to a kid who is gonna be plumber may not be as important as teaching them financial maths.

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  5. Reply Sam January 4, 2012 11:27 am

    According to your arguments, if we were visited today by highly intelligent aliens from an advanced alien civilization, they’d all be ignorant, every last one of them.

    Coming back to reality, I’ve been shocked recently at how little some Japanese friends of mine know about what happened in Western Europe during World War II. On the other hand, they know a lot more about what happened in Asia during World War II, for obvious reasons.

    As for Shakespeare, that’s completely arbitrary. What makes Shakespeare more sacred or profound than Harry Potter? Why should knowledge of the former be some kind of golden standard of education? Based on what you’ve said, I’d assume you’d call the latter anti-intellectual: after all, if people enjoy it, how intellectual can it be?

  6. Reply Larry Sanger January 4, 2012 11:45 am

    Sam, I’ll try to be nice and limit my expressions of contempt for your views to saying simply that you have a lot to learn.

    You can seriously ask what makes Shakespeare “more sacred or profound” than Harry Potter? Knowledge of Shakespeare happens to be an important part of a Western liberal education because he is the finest dramatist in any Western language. Whether he really is, and what makes him so, is a matter of debate, but if you were better educated you would understand the issues in the debate.

    No, the fact that someone enjoys something does not make it somehow an unintellectual pursuit (people, not books, are anti-intellectual). Indeed, if and when you get more of an education yourself, you will no doubt learn that a liberal education tends to make you fit to appreciate–and therefore really enjoy–some of the classics. Not all well-educated people enjoy all the classics; I still don’t have much patience for Steinbeck, to mention a modern classic. But I have recently greatly enjoyed, and read for pleasure, Jane Austin, Sir Walter Scott, and Tolstoy. I’ve also read all seven Harry Potter novels!

    Your aliens would no doubt be highly knowledgeable about physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, mathematics, logic, and probably parts of philosophy. But they would, of course, be ignorant of the Earth and of the cultures of its denizens until they had studied us. Do you have some point in making your observations about aliens and the Japanese? I doubt it. I think you have vaguely in mind that standards of education are culturally relative. Well, of course they are. Does this mean that educational standards are unimportant or driven by whim, and does it make all standards of education culturally relative? Of course not.

  7. Reply Sam January 4, 2012 14:30 pm

    “…Shakespeare…the finest dramatist in any Western language. Whether he really is, and what makes him so, is a matter of debate, but if you were better educated you would understand the issues in the debate.”

    The reasoning you gave there has nothing to do with Shakespeare. Shakespeare could be replaced by any other Western language drama in the above sentence and the logic would not change. So you haven’t really answered the question in the sense that you haven’t really pointed out anything unique that makes Shakespeare itself worth study. An example of something substantial would be “Shakespeare is worth studying because he was a close friend of a dozen European monarchs and they based national borders directly on what he wrote” (of course I just made that up, feel free to replace it with something more truthful).

    “if and when you get more of an education yourself, you will no doubt learn that a liberal education tends to make you fit to appreciate–and therefore really enjoy–some of the classics”

    Here I’m pleased to report we’re in complete agreement. I could never have appreciated the French Revolution before watching the Egyptian and Libyan protests live and then taking part in Occupy Columbus events in person. Before I’d had experiences with dating and relationships on my own, I was far less equipped to understand relationships in Shakespeare. Before being a PhD student myself, I could never have appreciated some of the subtle remarks about students in “Crime and Punishment”, much less effectively used the book to get a glimpse into the lives of students in a previous era. However, we’re in disagreement in that you seem to think this “education”, needed to appreciate classics, must necessarily come … circularly … from reading classics, whereas I think it comes better from real life experiences!

    • Reply Larry Sanger January 4, 2012 16:14 pm

      I’m not going to explain to you why Shakespeare is worth studying. If you don’t know, I’m not your teacher; take a Shakespeare course. If you do, the burden of proof is on you to explain why the routinely given reasons don’t matter.

      Re getting an “education” from “real life experiences,” suffice it to say that you’re only establishing yourself as an anti-intellectual; this is exactly the sort of thing that anti-intellectuals say. I’m not actually interested in arguing the merits of reading the classics with an anti-intellectual–at least not right now.

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