Lashing Out Against the Wave of Anti-Intellectualism

There was a question that showed up in my Quora account that asked a question about anti-intellectualism.  I answered it  best I could but I was limited by the scope of the question. I’m answering it here in full. My intention is to hopefully show that anti-intellectualism isn’t as simple as most people think. It’s a nuanced issue and we have to appreciate its complexity in order to fully address it.

I think the countries that are most successful in promoting intellectualism are the ones that support quality education for all its citizens. And countries that socialize education also happen to be the ones who invest in it more, resulting in a more educated population: The 11 best school systems in the world

Anti-intellectualism is usually seen in countries where good education is seen more as a privilege than a right. Those who can afford it, those who ‘deserve’ it, get better education than what everyone else gets. So the wave of anti-intellectualism, in a sense, is more a reaction to the inequity of opportunity rather than a true hated or dislike for knowledge or education.

As human beings, our evolutionary advantage is that we are hard-wired for learning. Our love of knowledge is innate. It makes us human. If given the opportunity, most people would not only embrace education but also make an effort to improve education for all.

There’s also the issue of our very narrow definition of what qualifies as an education. If you’re educated in the ‘right way’, you’re an intellectual. Formal education makes you an intellectual. But practical education, indigenous knowledge and social intelligence, not so much.

So when a significant portion of the population is deprived of quality education and the benefits that come with it, one reaction is to lash out against those who did have these opportunities, which is epitomized by intellectuals. It’s the easiest, and sometimes, the only means they have to fight back against an oppressed system without having to resort to self victimization.

Anti-intellectualism is a problem because it discourages people from seeking the truth and engaging in intelligent discourse. Unfortunately, the response to this in some cases, is to demean those who are considered anti-intellectuals. We give back whatever they throw at us knowing we have the intellectual (and economic and social) advantage. People with the bigger vocabulary will always win in an insult war. But lashing out against anti-intellectualism won’t fix it because it doesn’t address the root of the problem, INEQUITY.

A popular way of lashing out (especially on social media) is to make assumptions that (1) anti-intellectuals are ‘stupid’,  (2) that they’re anti-education, or (3) they’re selfish. But making these assumptions are dangerous for a number of reasons.

  1. By labeling that anti-intellectuals are “dumb”  just deepens the divide because it highlights the lack of opportunities that these people experience. They’re ‘stupid’ because they don’t know enough. But how can they know more if their access to information and the tools to process that information is limited.
  2. Assuming that they’re against education in general is also a mistake. Nobody is against good education. Raging against an educational system unable to support all its citizens is justified. Limited education that limits access to information and opportunities. So why are we criticizing the ‘wrong’ choices of a group of people who didn’t have a lot of choices to begin with. How can we expect people to make an informed choice if we didn’t give them all of the resources they need to make that choice?
  3. Labeling anti-intellectuals as selfish creates a moral divide which closes the door for dialogue. What should be a social issue becomes a moral stance which can be used to justify continuing oppression. They deserve what they got because they’re ‘bad’ people.

So what do we do? What can we do?

One way to effectively respond to anti-intellectualism is to make good education a priority. Give people the opportunity to educate themselves. Make quality education deeply ingrained in our social and political structure.

If we want our country to respect and value intellectuals, we need to build a country of intellectuals. We need to make the opportunities that created intellectual (and by association, elite) class a basic right for all citizens.

Yes, I am implying the ‘s’ word. We need a socialized educational system. This means

  • free public education for all, on all levels.
  • Alloting more resources for education. More money. More manpower
  • creating support services for people who want to pursue an education (day care, research, alternative learning).
  • And finally, this would mean abolishing private school systems that creates an “elite intellectual class” that deems itself superior to those created by the public school system.

I know the last solution is almost impossible but imagine how awesome public schools would be if the Zobels, Ayalas and Coquancos have to send their kids to Davao City National High School instead of IS.

It’s a long list. It will take a long time. But there is something we can do to make our society more conducive to initiate and sustain these solutions. This means coming together to fight against inequity. To do that we have to offer these solutions from a position of empathy and unconditional hospitality, not from pride and condemnation.

Why? We’re already doing them a favor. It’s possible they’ll lash out even more if we do help them. So why do we have to make an effort if they’ll just throw it back to our faces.

Because you can’t expect a man to accept your help after he feels judged by his choices and his character disparaged.

Because we have no right to expect a thank you for giving people what should have been entitled to in the first place.

Because we have no right to deprive anyone of their pride when they don’t have much of everything else.

Rather than see anti-intellectualism as a character flaw of the “other”, we need to look at it a product of the injustice that plagues us all. We all are made poorer because of this.

Imagine what more we could have achieved as a society if quality education was a right and not a privilege some of us have to strive for. Depriving some people of quality equality deprives us all of the knowledge, skill and talent we all can share IF we had equal footing. It deprives us of opportunities, which is not a limited resource but an infinite well that feeds on itself.

Why is it our job? Why is it our obligation to help people that condemn us, mock us, and created this whole mess to begin with?

I would like to respond with the words my mother would say to me every time I became frustrated with something,

“Ang nakakaintindi ang dapat umintindi.”

Those who understand must understand.

Those who know better should do better.

Yes, it’s a roundabout way of saying, with great power comes great responsibility.

I’m not diminishing the hard work that intellectuals have done to get to where they are. I worked my ass off to get an education. I know a lot of people who did the same. But when we look to ourselves and each other, it can’t be denied that we’re lucky. Most of us were born at the right place, right time, and with the right set of people. Our circumstances gave us access to opportunities like higher education and access to information. Achievement was a reasonable expectation, not an impossible demand. Our obstacles, for the most part, were modest and can be overcome. We never had to live with the fact that some of the things we need were forever out of reach.

That is where the wave of anti-intellectualism comes from. It’s the anger, the frustration that you’ll never get what rightfully belongs to you.

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