This essay can be read in my 2020 book, Essays on Free Knowledge. Perhaps ironically, it is no longer free.
UPDATE: I’ve posted a very long set of replies.
UPDATE 2: I’ve decided to reply below as well–very belatedly…
You are confusing anti-intelectualism with truth. College is a waste of time and going there has no bearing on you being intelectual or not. I sense you are old and dont understand the new world as it is, or are young and dont understand the world as it is. either way… you are wrong.
@ sh0ck Misspelling “intellectual” belies your argument, if one could call it that.
Not only is the spelling a problem, but so is the thinking.
The anti-intellectualism in the remark you are responding to stems from a form of technological self-righteousness that has creeped into our culture, where if somehow you say something on the internet or over some sort of “smart” device that somehow more true or meaningful than if it is deduced or stated via some other more traditional mechanism.
Its not really so much anti-intellectual is it is simply having lower brain centers shunt off additional neuronal activity by the prosencephalon. Consequently, especially given our politics, which are reinforcing this, the art of the put down has come be more valued than actual thinking, logic, and reasoning. So many now think that if you are just dogmatic and forceful enough, this will somehow actually substitute for actual thinking. This is a quite common misconception among the anti-global warming and anti-evolution , whether they have gone to college or not.
However, when all is said and done, it comes down to a phrase often used by the late John Wooden “Its what you learn after you know it all that counts”.
Sure, as an artist, I didn’t have to go to college to learn art history, design theory or how to use 3D software to become an artist. I didn’t have to take world history, United States history, psychology, biology, or English to become an artist. But the knowledge I’ve accumulated through practice and self-teaching pales in comparison to what I have been taught by knowledgeable people in class, and my work has improved exponentially because of it. I’ve also made many friends in school who will continue to be lifelong friends as well as having learned to function in world outside of my mother’s basement.
If you’re referring to global warming as a man-caused phenomenon, then I think you have your analogy skewed.
What you’re talking about only really applies to anti-evolution, pro-global warming mindsets.
The point is to ignore knowledge and accept all appeals to authority to come to ones own, horribly misinformed, unqualified, heavily reinforced opinion.
College is a waste of time if you only go there to take some easy liberal art classes and spend the rest of the time drunk or high. College as an institution based around learning and intellectual exploration is not a waste at all; the waste is from students who go to college for the wrong reasons, and from schools whose educational standards are so pathetically lax as to make the experience meaningless.
People who argue that we don’t need to /know/ or /learn/ much of anything because we can simply access the facts via some external source (Google, Wikipedia, etc) are missing the point: if you go down that line, you lose your frame of reference and your ability to assimilate ideas and concepts. Take away learning, take away independent knowledge, and all those articles just become a collection of inaccessible and meaningless words.
As to anyone who thinking that the masses somehow know better than the experts, let us think back on all the things that have been “common knowledge” and yet were (and are) completely wrong–it’s a very, very long list.
I’m sure we could also write down a very long list of when “intellectuals” were proven wrong by the facts.
The problem with these discussions is that it’s based on a fundamental conceit: that intellectuals per se are necessarily intelligent, which is not true. Self-designated intellectuals are a hodge-podge of people, most with some form of certification from a place of higher education, whose only real claim to the title is that they hold what previously self-designated intellectuals consider to be the correct opinions, and hold them in a way that flatters the already extant group.
In a sense, this anxiety about “Intellectualism” is more about tribalism than anything else. Knowledge and truth are objective things to be found by any means necessary, not only by membership to the aforementioned group – to tie it in with my opening statement, “intellectualism” and intelligence don’t correlate very highly.
Agreed. The fact that higher education has become less rigorous has only accelerated the decline of credentialed authority.
I think one point that also needs to be made is that if we rely entirely on the knowledge currently accumulated and available on Wikipedia and the like we are no longer fostering the advancement of knowledge. I feel the real danger in some of the anti-intellectuals is complacency and an acceptance of the stance that we know now everything that we could possibly need to know, which is obviously preposterous. Treating Wikipedia as the final arbiter of all human knowledge or even assuming that you can find anything you could need on google is dangerous and just wrong. Seeing a mathematical equation without knowing the components or how they work together or even where they came from can very easily lead to fundamentally incorrect applications if they can be used at all.
This is exactly it. This is where the real problem lies. It is simply not possible to rely on the information being in a database, without someone having the knowledge to actually use it correctly. I can personally attest, that in the Engineering field, having a number of equations listed on the internet does not do anyone any good. A significant amount of time needs to be spent with these equations, to learn how to apply them to real life problems, and to know when to apply them. This kind of application is extremely difficult without the guidance of a good instructor, and peers (as you would find in a college or university). As an engineer, even with the assistance of peers and instructors, the subject matter is still thoroughly daunting.
From an Engineer’s point of view, who has graduated with good grades from a reputable engineering school (who has lived through the hell I call an engineering curriculum), I can personally say that I do not want a high school student to assume that they know-how to build a bridge or design a circuit because they found a few equations on the internet.
Good and safe design requires a good background in theoretical knowledge, applied appropriately and practically to a problem. It also requires the knowledge of good practices, which only come from people who have been in the field for years and have experience, hence (most) professors. Granted, I’ve had some pretty bad professors, but the ones that are good can pass on knowledge that you won’t find a textbook or on the internet.
In the fields of science and engineering, we simply cannot rely on some Joe Schmoe with an internet connection to solve the world’s problems.
Shock, you are actually the one who is apparently confused. Even if one were to agree with you and disagree with Sanger, calling an opinion ‘truth’ is as anti-intellectual as you can get.
Also, even if you hate the idea of college and never bothered learning how to spell, you should investigate this fancy new tool called ‘spell-check’.
Now, to the point. The idea that college is a waste of time is the ultimate in unassailable stupidity. That anti-intellectual position misses the link between decrying the herd behavior of the often maligned ‘sheep’ of popular culture and being too blind to recognize that behavior in one’s self. You don’t want to be one of the drones that goes to college and learns about things. So you learn nothing more than what you must have to survive.
I would worry for the fate of society after all of the new anti-intellectual herd inadvertently erases any hope we have of redemption, but I honestly don’t think that any of you will have the common sense to ever recognize your loss.
The image of a fiddle being played while Rome burns occurs to me…but you probably won’t get the reference.
I never went to college, but I wouldn’t call it a waste of time. People who can’t learn to spell or use apostrophes correctly certainly need it.
For many college can be extremely important. In America our secondary schools very often do not try to or encourage students to “think outside the box.” At universities, especially in the American Liberal Arts schools, this is often the main point – to learn how to think analytically and critically. Many people, myself included, needed the classes and extra-curriculars in college to begin to really think critically about the world. Learning should not be about how much money one can make form it. We need citizens that think critically – it is an extremely important aspect to creating and sustaining a fair and just society.
What do you know grand-dad? Young people
You get the picture…I’m going to go one further and say that the car mechanics of yesterday are the ‘geeks’ of today.
Yeah, that’s right! I’m fighting fire with fire. I’m an elitist snob and I don’t care.
Supposedly, you wrote this article try to get your idea to the other side. But if you realize people on Internet don’t read long text, then putting your main point in the middle of your article will actually make those people you are trying talk to stop reading it.
smartest comment here.
This is less “geek” than “hipster”. Geeks have always and will always be about knowledge. Hipsters seem to like trying to steal the (un)coolness of geeks without putting forth any effort. I believe hipsters are a passing fad just like their horrible tastes in clothing. Hopefully when they are gone it won’t be cool to be uninformed any longer.
The critical issue is whether the women will think that. If they continue to be fooled by uneducated but highly opinionated “hipsters” then that behavior will flourish. Women make the choice that drives sexual selection.
What concerns me is just how few women there are who care about topological spaces. I feel as if I’m standing in the wrong place.
Interesting and appropriate application of sexism.
I’m a geek, an intellectual, and a mathematics educator who believes strongly in inquiry/project based learning. When properly applied, inquiry based learning DOES NOT move away from teaching facts, rather it moves away from the memorization of individual, disconnected fact and toward the construction and understanding of knowledge deeply rooted in conceptual context and intellectual rigor.
ps: I’m also a woman who wrote a dissertation on the S & L space problems (kinds of topological spaces)
America has always been more of a feeling culture than a thinking culture. I think most of the anti intellectual points you bring up are people rationalizing their own world view. Thinkers still read books, look for proof, and master knowledge, but they will always be a minority in an action-centric culture like America. It’s ironic because most of our contribution to history is intellectual, from our constitution to our innovations like the light bulb, car, and other technology. Anyways, nice article. Keep it up.
If rlg believes the car was invented in the US, this would be some anecdotal evidence that anti-intellectualism is on the rise.
…or the light bulb, really. I think the light bulb is a nice, simple example of why knowing things is important. The kind of person addressed in the article thinks that knowledge can be separated into discrete, simple facts, like “Thomas Edison invented the light bulb”. Certainly no American came up with the concept itself. To understand the history of its development requires you to first know many other things, and to do that, you have to read.
Perhaps he’s referring to Ford’s assembly line, which brought the cost of cars down enough to be affordable…
I agree that anti-intellectualism has always been an underlying trend in the United States. Richard Hofstadter wrote a book entitled appropriately enough, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” It was written in the 1960s and largely focuses on McCarthyism, but still, many of the passages could have been written about today’s society. Very frightening indeed!
(came here via twitter)
I was going to reference the same book, which I highly recommend — it’s one of my favorites.
The book itself brought me to understand a parallel that might interest Mr. Sanger — one of the roots of anti-intellectualism in America is the Protestant reformation and its idea of a priesthood of all believers. If everybody is allowed to be an expert, the experts are no longer untouchable. It isn’t about knowledge, exactly, so much as social power.
I think you are mistaking the awakening of a new type of intellectualism with the banishment of intellectualism in general. When you look at many of our most successful people, you find that they do not have a degree. I have come to believe that the greatest innovations are a result of people who are able to work outside of the establishment of modern academics. To much of the modern educational system teaches what cannot be done, rather than seeking to explore ways of going beyond the barriers which stand in our way.
I agree with the comment made by @AzSandRat below.
Similar arguments were made for hundreds of years over use of the vernacular. The new schools seemed to neglect much of the knowledge that had previously been assembled in Classical languages. It may appear to some observers that the rot has again set in. But actually, we are in the midst of progress of the one step back and two steps forward variety. Both sides should now try to show understanding and respect because ultimately it won’t be either/or but both. The new communication patterns will become overwhelmingly dominant, just as they have finished assimilating the best of what passed for knowledge under the old paradigm. Including those tldr classic books mentioned in this article.
Punks, it eventually turned out, were not so different from the hippies. Yet they had to first assert their anti-establishment credentials – the crasser the better.
Is the university degree a mandatory condition of being intellectual? Personally, I don’t think so. I would like to believe that this subject was brought through not by the geek anti-intellectualism, but deterioration of educational system that fail to teach critical thinking. BTW it is already proliferated into business as important decisions are made with support of dubious information generated by black-box models. We seem to confuse our beliefs with knowledge in business, politics and science.
How many of these successful drop-outs and never-wents came from privileged backgrounds? It’s easier to be “successful” without a college degree when one starts out with financial support and a strong social network.
They typically are from privileged backgrounds, so they most likely received a solid education at the K – 12 level and in the home. This simply isn’t true for the vast majority of high school graduates. College gives students a chance to learn many things that they never learned properly or at all in their K – 12 schooling.
“When you look at many of our most successful people, you find that they do not have a degree.”
This is simply not not the case. For one, “successful people” is not well defined. Are you simply referring to people whose net worth has a ‘B’ in it? Have a ‘C’ at the front of their title at some company? Even when using the vague definition of “known as successful”, it is false. It seems to be the case only because it is noteworthy when an exceptionally successful person does _not_ have a degree. This is called the spotlight fallacy. (Either that or blatant cherry-picking)
I am a geek, and I am anti-intellectual…
I respect and value deep knowledge of any topic, with extra respect for knowledge that things can be done with, whether that is craft a piece of prose that succinctly expresses a particular view point, builds a new engine, or proves NP=P.
I have no respect for intellectualism itself, as having knowledge without doing something is a colossal waste of time(of both the student and of the teacher).
Intellectuals seem to be misers of information, taking great pleasure in having something that the are unwilling to share or use.
TL:DR version: gas without a car isn’t as useful, car with no gas not very use either. Car full of gas in garage, wasteful. Go somewhere, do something.
We ought to force those miserly intellectuals to disseminate their knowledge — say, by teaching students at universities, publishing and reviewing books and articles, and starting web-based encyclopaedias that anyone can edit.
Who the hell are you to force anybody to do anything. The misers worked hard to acquire their knowledge, why do you get to decide what they do with it?
Your point may have some merit, but being so verbose and redundant makes it hard for any anti-intellectual to be won to the cause. The fact is that most people, not just geeks, are anti-intellectual. This is not a recent thing. So it seems difficult to understand the real crisis here. The distribution of knowledge through the internet, search and collaborative tools increases the scope of knowledge for intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike. This has been happening since Gutenberg. The more things change, the more they stay the same….
To many people think they are intelligent just because they have a degree. Half the professors I had in university couldn’t think their way out of a wet paper bag and some of them had doctorates. I was very discouraged by instructors that wouldn’t discuss new ideas on the subject because it wasn’t part of the curriculum or it challenged the status quo.
Learning is all about challenging existing knowledge and being creative. In grade 7 my science project was titled “can light be trapped?” I got to visit the local university and use gear from the optics lab which was cool for a kid. I latter was told that it was impossible only to find out many years later it had been accomplished. That experience put me off science for many years.