On Anti-Intellectualism

Jordan Weissmann of Slate shares a mind numbing story that calls into question the President’s intelligence. Titled “A Small But Soul-Crushing Illustration of Donald Trump’s Economic Illiteracy,” he concludes:

“At some point, it appears Donald Trump heard somebody say that the United States cannot grow as fast as China or Malaysia because we have a ‘large’ economy. No doubt, what they meant is that the U.S. is a highly developed, rich nation and therefore can’t expand as quickly as developing countries that can still reap large gains from taking basic steps to improve their living standards. But Trump did not understand it that way. He apparently thought that when whoever he was listening to said “large,” they were talking about population. Therefore, in his mind, if China grows at nearly 7 percent per year with its 1.4 billion people, the U.S. should be able to do it too. This is the man who millions of voters are relying on to bring back jobs.”

Many anti-Trumpers will interpret this middle school-like error as disqualifying. A President has to have a modicum of economic literacy, doesn’t she? But there are lots of others whose school experience was so negative that they are suspicious of anyone or anything academic in nature. They trust people who work with their hands way more than they do people, like journalists, who work with words.

It’s easy to write off these people’s anti-intellectualism as simple-minded, but there’s more to it. Listen to their stories and inevitably they’ll talk about classmates’, teachers’, or employers’ negative preconceived notions of them. Their strongest memories of school are of a pervasive arrogance that often takes root early as a result of homogenous ability grouping or “tracking”. In the way they design curriculum and evaluate student work, educators routinely define “intelligence” far too narrowly, agreeing that those especially good at reading and writing have it, and those whose “smarts” take less academic forms, do not.

Formally educated professionals aren’t intentionally arrogant, but often, they convey a sense of superiority in subtle and nuanced ways. Not being in touch with one’s arrogance doesn’t negate its impact.

We talk about education’s importance all the time without acknowledging the underlying antipathy many have for formally educated know-it-alls who would never conflate the meaning of a “large economy”. One particular friend of mine, who is unconventionally smart and happened to vote for the reading-averse President, would conclude one thing from Weissmann’s story, he’s an arrogant prick.

Is that because my friend is just another irrational right wing nutter or are formally educated people like me to blame? At least in part.

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