Rise of the Know Nothings

Americans frequently exhibit a dangerous bias toward experts. The more educated and informed one is, the less likely one is to be trusted in this country. We see evidence of this in schools, in business, and most particularly in politics. The newcomer, uncompromising and untainted by years of corruption or back room deal making, always carries much weight with the electorate despite demonstrating no competence for the job being sought. Ironically, this negative attitude toward knowledge runs counter to the dreams of many parents who want their children to have a good education and to benefit from learning opportunities denied to those who came before them.

The founders of this country were some of the most educated and enlightened individuals of their day, albeit from the privileged classes, but still they understood the value of knowledge, which is why so many of them opposed letting black slaves learn to read and write. The so-called Greatest Generation of Americans took advantage of educational opportunities afforded by the GI Bill after WW II to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to turn the United States into a global super power. One could argue that, despite the cost, more people attend college nowadays than at any time in the nation’s history and still, there’s a growing number of people who disregard knowledge and learning as a significant factor in a person’s development.

The media contributes quite a bit to this trend. Educated people are portrayed as nerds, awkward, socially inept, and the constant target of bullies, while shows which cater to the lowest common denominator of voyeurism regularly command high ratings. We’re bombarded day in and day out with messages that school is boring and those who take their studies seriously aren’t worth having around. Politicians on both sides of the aisle decry the decline in learning, all the while cutting funding for schools, vilifying teachers, and increasing the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy involved in getting the job done. Testing becomes the priority, as rote memorization of facts overrides a true appreciation of the material. Learning how to color within the lines and blindly follow instructions replaces critical thinking. Social conservatives insist on confusing scientific theory with religious dogma, while liberals insist on giving equal weight to every point of view regardless of how obscure or unrealistic some are or how much time is taken up by the pursuit.

Nihilism, defined as a systematic denial of the reality of experience, has become the guiding philosophy for many Americans. While it is possible to have knowledge without wisdom, or vice versa, when knowledge and wisdom are combined, the result is a more well-rounded individual and a more dynamic society. Concerted efforts to encourage students to pursue science and math in high school and college led the U. S. to the moon, and fueled the rapid technological growth seen in the latter half of the twentieth century. This should convince us that when education is given its proper place in society, everyone benefits.

Education is the greatest equalizer among people. When one is given access to a good formal education, one is free to chart his or her course in life. Strong public schools always coincide with growing and vibrant societies. Before the time public schools became the norm, motivated individuals went to great lengths to secure the means for a quality education as a guaranteed route to prosperity and success. Some of history’s greatest individuals arose from nothing by sheer determination, and education was the tool that facilitated their rise. We need to once again place learning into a position of prominence in this society, and begin to see education as a fundamental right for all and experience as a desirable trait that contributes to the health and happiness of the nation.

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