[FoRK] FW: High-Tech in an Anti-Intellectual Culture
Stephen D. Williams
<sdw at lig.net> on
Fri Apr 25 13:35:31 PDT 2008
Via a friend and coworker:
From: HPCwire [mailto:hpcmore at news.hpcwire.com]
Sent: Friday, April 25, 2008 8:20 AM
To: Powell, Chris
Subject: High-Tech in an Anti-Intellectual Culture
FROM THE EDITOR
[ ] M2306529 ) High-Tech in an Anti-Intellectual
"Over 75 percent of Americans don't know they're alive." I half expect
to see such a headline someday as yet another example of how poorly
educated the U.S. citizenry has become. It's not quite that bad yet,
but research has consistently shown us how uneducated students and
working adults are in this country. The data reflects not just a lack
of education, but a lack of commitment to intellectual pursuits.
Therein lies a problem for the U.S. high-tech industry. Although the
nation remains the leader in information technology, it has become
increasingly dependent upon the scientists and engineers in other
countries to feed its high-tech habit. Recent studies released by the
Council on Competitiveness (which I cover in this issue) concludes one
of the three major barriers to greater use of high performance
computing is lack of human talent and expertise in the U.S. A number
of other reports, including the landmark Educational Testing Service
study, "America's Perfect Storm," also point to the disconnect between
our tech-dependent economy and the lack of math and science education.
Why should this be so? The hard truth is that, in the U.S., there's a
cultural contempt for education that underlies our seemingly modern
society. Its origins can be traced back to the birth of the nation
when we broke away from our "elite" European forbearers. The modern
version of this contempt is apparent in our political and religious
institutions, many of which have become not just anti-science, but
also, more generally, anti-intellectual.
Exhibit number one is the Bush regime, with its antipathy towards
science and its embrace of religious fundamentalism. The federal "No
Child Left Behind" educational policy is based on rote learning, not
critical thinking. This approach has been promoted on the right side
of the political spectrum for a while. Intellectuals are derided as
"liberals" or "elitists" -- which are synonymous in
conservative-speak. Essentially, it's the sin of knowledge, where a
certain level of education or even a progressive attitude towards
learning is disdained.
In a Wall Street Journal blog post
<http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120873309012529689.html> this week,
Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter with Kansas," explains:
"It is a stereotype you have heard many times before: Besotted with
latte-fueled arrogance, the liberal looks down on average people,
confident that he is a superior being. He scoffs at religion because
he finds it to be a form of false consciousness. He believes in
regulation because he thinks he knows better than the
market...."Elitism" is thus a crime not of society's actual elite, but
of its intellectuals."
Fifty-plus years ago, Adlai Stevenson was the prototypical Democratic
"egghead" who was relentlessly punished for his intellect by his
political adversaries. During one of his presidential campaigns, a
supporter assured Stevenson that he was certain to "get the vote of
every thinking man." Stevenson allegedly replied: "Thank you, but I
need a majority to win." He lost both his presidential bids, the first
in 1952, and then in 1956.
Ironically, it is often Ivy League-educated conservatives who promote
this elitism meme. More disconcerting though, is that the left is
beginning to play into this intellectual bigotry. The recent
Democratic battle for the President is turning into a kind of reality
show popularity contest for relating to the common folk, where
drinking whiskey and bowling have become essential campaign
activities. The conventional wisdom for pols: hide your intellect from
the citizenry, lest you make them feel inferior.
That might help explain why the 2008 Science Debate was replaced with
the Compassion Forum right before the Pennsylvania Democratic primary.
The Forum was basically a discussion about the religious views of the
candidates. While I'm up for a good conversation about morals and
spiritual beliefs as much as the next guy, it was unfortunate that one
of the moderators felt compelled to ask Senator Obama if he "believed
the Earth was created in six days." What good is that little nugget of
information for qualifying the next leader of the Free World? It's
depressing enough that we aren't allowed to have a presidential
candidate who doesn't profess his or her belief in a supernatural
being, but why do we feel the need to embarrass them with unanswerable
It would be great if the aforementioned Science Debate was
rescheduled. (There is talk of it being moved to Oregon for its
upcoming primary in May.) I'd be interested to hear the candidates'
views on where science and technology fit into their world view. I'd
love for some candidate to make a case for putting science and
education at the front of the discretionary federal budget rather than
at the rear. It also might be a good venue to suggest to the
electorate that the pursuit of knowledge is more patriotic than
wearing a flag pin and more fulfilling than watching America's Next
In an op-ed piece
week, Bob Herbert of the New York Times wonders why there is not an
education discussion in the presidential campaign. At a time when
globalization is bringing increased competition and U.S. educational
performance is nose-diving, Herbert laments that "no one seems to have
the will to engage any of the most serious challenges facing the U.S."
Summing up, he concludes:
"While we're effectively standing in place, other nations are catching
up and passing us when it comes to educational achievement. You have
to be pretty dopey not to see the implications of that."
So far, we've managed to delay the worst effects on our economy by
importing technological talent at a record clip. If you look at the
personnel roster of any U.S.-based technology firm, you'll quickly
grasp how thoroughly internationalized these companies have become.
But if the majority of the natives fail to keep up educationally and
economically, the whole model will likely collapse.
Without a fundamental change in the culture, the U.S. science and
technology community will be relegated to pursuing its agenda as a
special-interest lobbyist, against the backdrop of a disinterested
citizenry. This is pretty much the case today. Broad support for a
technology society, as is the case in much of Eastern Asia, India and
Europe, will require us to change our attitudes. Political leaders can
help, but we can't rely on them alone to reshape values. If we expect
to have our plasma TVs, iPods and cancer drugs, but are not willing to
participate in their development, we'll end living in the second-class
nation we deserve.
As always, comments about HPCwire are welcomed and encouraged. Write
to me, Michael Feldman, at <mailto:editor at hpcwire.com>.
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