The Loss of American Enlightenment

Kant defines enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity”. This means using your own reason to make decisions and not being influenced by others.  People should practice autonomy, not paternalism.  To go about this, citizens should do research and make judgments for themselves.    People can discuss others’ opinions and think about them, but should ultimately use their own convictions to make every decision.  This idea of enlightenment is often encouraged in the American government, yet many do not practice their rights.  It is becoming increasingly important for people to use reason when making decisions, yet some groups of citizens are denied the resources to achieve this.  Whether by their own actions or those forced upon them, most Americans are far from enlightened.

American Presidential candidates begin campaigning months and months before the actual election. This is the perfect opportunity for citizens to act in an enlightened manner.  Candidates present all their positions on major topics and give their negative feedback on the others in the running.  All this information is easily found on the internet and television; it is essentially handed out on a silver platter.  The state is providing the populace with a way to be autonomous without the state being paternalistic itself.  With these resources, available, people still don’t use reason when stepping into the voting booth.  Numerous young voters mark the ballot with the candidate who best reflects what their parents hold as valuable or what they learned in church.  People who make decisions in this manner are essentially asking others to act paternalistically. Kant would be rolling in his grave if he heard of this happening.  Another hindrance to the populace becoming enlightened is the system of an Electoral College.  Many people do not find the significance of voting since their vote cannot directly elect the President and therefore, do not take the time to educate themselves about candidates and current issues.

There are many resources in society that make it easy to be enlightened on certain issues, yet there are groups of people who are left out. In the United States, Amendments to the Constitution eliminate the possibility of marginalization in voting.   However, impoverished children are not always given the same education as middle and above classes.  They often cannot buy books and other school materials and states frequently do not provide enough funding for adequate resources.  Outside of the United States, many people in third world countries are denied the right to participate in the education system at all because of their poverty or even because of their sex.   These factors contribute to a less enlightened society.

The way the internet has taken over the world allows for people to obtain information at a much faster rate than ever before. Yet, citizens still chose to allow others to make decisions for them.  On the other hand, many marginalized groups, such as the impoverished are denied the resources to enlighten themselves.  In one way, the government encourages citizens to form opinions and do research, and in another, it denies certain citizens from being educated.  At this point, America is nowhere near the smallest bit of enlightenment.

America is killing itself through its embrace and exaltation of ignorance, and the evidence is all around us. Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter who used race as a basis for hate and mass murder, is just the latest horrific example. Many will correctly blame Roof’s actions on America’s culture of racism and gun violence, but it’s time to realize that such phenomena are directly tied to the nation’s culture of ignorance.

In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” where the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president, it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. Our failure as a society to connect the dots, to see that such anti-intellectualism comes with a huge price, could eventually be our downfall.

In considering the senseless loss of nine lives in Charleston, of course racism jumps out as the main issue. But isn’t ignorance at the root of racism? And it’s true that the bloodshed is a reflection of America’s violent, gun-crazed culture, but it is only our aversion to reason as a society that has allowed violence to define the culture. Rational public policy, including policies that allow reasonable restraints on gun access, simply isn’t possible without an informed, engaged, and rationally thinking public.

Some will point out, correctly, that even educated people can still be racists, but this shouldn’t remove the spotlight from anti-intellectualism. Yes, even intelligent and educated individuals, often due to cultural and institutional influences, can sometimes carry racist biases. But critically thinking individuals recognize racism as wrong and undesirable, even if they aren’t yet able to eliminate every morsel of bias from their own psyches or from social institutions. An anti-intellectual society, however, will have large swaths of people who are motivated by fear, susceptible to tribalism and simplistic explanations, incapable of emotional maturity, and prone to violent solutions. Sound familiar?

And even though it may seem counter-intuitive, anti-intellectualism has little to do with intelligence. We know little about the raw intellectual abilities of Dylann Roof, but we do know that he is an ignorant racist who willfully allowed irrational hatred of an entire demographic to dictate his actions. Whatever his IQ, to some extent he is a product of a culture driven by fear and emotion, not rational thinking, and his actions reflect the paranoid mentality of one who fails to grasp basic notions of what it means to be human.

What Americans rarely acknowledge is that many of their social problems are rooted in the rejection of critical thinking or, conversely, the glorification of the emotional and irrational. What else could explain the hyper-patriotism that has many accepting an outlandish notion that America is far superior to the rest of the world? Love of one’s country is fine, but many Americans seem to honestly believe that their country both invented and perfected the idea of freedom, that the quality of life here far surpasses everywhere else in the world.

But it doesn’t. International quality of life rankings place America far from the top, at sixteenth. America’s rates of murder and other violent crime dwarf most of the rest of the developed world, as does its incarceration rate, while its rates of education and scientific literacy are embarrassingly low. American schools, claiming to uphold “traditional values,” avoid fact-based sex education, and thus we have the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world. And those rates are notably highest where so-called “biblical values” are prominent. Go outside the Bible belt, and the rates generally trend downward.

As this suggests, the impact of fundamentalist religion in driving American anti-intellectualism has been, and continues to be, immense. Old-fashioned notions of sex education may seem like a relatively minor issue to many, but taking old-time religion too seriously can be extremely dangerous in the modern era. High-ranking individuals, even in the military, see a confrontation between good and evil as biblically predicted and therefore inevitable. They relish the thought of being a righteous part of the final days.

Fundamentalist religion is also a major force in denying human-caused climate change, a phenomenon that the scientific community has accepted for years. Interestingly, anti-intellectual fundamentalists are joined in their climate change denial with unusual bedfellows: corporate interests that stand to gain from the rejection of sound science on climate.

Corporate influence on climate and environmental policy, meanwhile, is simply more evidence of anti-intellectualism in action, for corporate domination of American society is another result of a public that is not thinking critically. Americans have allowed their democracy to slip away, their culture overtaken by enormous corporations that effectively control both the governmental apparatus and the media, thus shaping life around materialism and consumption.

Indeed, these corporate interests encourage anti-intellectualism, conditioning Americans into conformity and passive acceptance of institutional dominance. They are the ones who stand to gain from the excessive fear and nationalism that result in militaristic foreign policy and absurdly high levels of military spending. They are the ones who stand to gain from consumers who spend money they don’t have on goods and services they don’t need. They are the ones who want a public that is largely uninformed and distracted, thus allowing government policy to be crafted by corporate lawyers and lobbyists. They are the ones who stand to gain from unregulated securities markets. And they are the ones who stand to gain from a prison-industrial complex that generates the highest rates of incarceration in the developed world.

Americans can and should denounce the racist and gun-crazed culture that shamefully results in almost weekly shootings, but they also need to dig deeper. At the core of all of this dysfunction is an abandonment of reason.

This is a complicated subject, but here are some possible causes:

  1. Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States alone. That’s a student every 26 seconds – or 7,000 a day.
  2. About 25% of high school freshmen fail to graduate from high school on time.
  3. The U.S., which had some of the highest graduation rates of any developed country, now ranks 22nd out of 27 developed countries.
  4. The dropout rate has fallen 3% from 1990 to 2010 (12.1% to 7.4%).
  5. The percentage of graduating Latino students has significantly increased. In 2010, 71.4% received their diploma vs. 61.4% in 2006. However, Asian-American and white students are still far more likely to graduate than Latino & African-American students.
  6. A high school dropout will earn $200,000 less than a high school graduate over his lifetime. And almost a million dollars less than a college graduate.
  7. In 2010, 38 states had higher graduation rates. Vermont had the highest rate, with 91.4% graduating. And Nevada had the lowest with 57.8% of students graduating.
  8. Almost 2,000 high schools across the U.S. graduate less than 60% of their students.
  9. These “dropout factories” account for over 50% of the students who leave school every year.
  10. 1 in 6 students attend a dropout factory. 1 in 3 minority students (32%) attend a dropout factory, compared to 8% of white students.
  11. In the U.S., high school dropouts commit about 75% of crimes.

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