American Anti-Intellectualism and Social Inequalities in the Age of Trump

We live in the age of Trump. What this means will vary from individual to individual, but for every person who thinks he represents straightforward business, there is another that believes he represents an affront to American intellectualism.

Perhaps it’s because of comments like this, spoken by Trump at a campaign rally in 2016:

“You know, I’ve always wanted to say this—I’ve never said this before with all the talking we all do, all of these experts, ‘Oh we need an expert’—the experts are terrible!”

Nicholas Baer, Harper-Schmidt Fellow in the University of Chicago’s Society of Fellows at the rank of Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Humanities, mentions as much in his article, “American Idiot: Rethinking Anti-Intellectualism in the Age of Trump.” He draws heavily upon the work of Tom Nichols, a book titled The Death of Expertise.

“For Nichols, the anti-intellectual strain in the U.S. has transmuted into an arrogant contempt for intellectual authority due to major shifts in education, journalism, and the media and political environments,” writes Baer. “Taken together, he claims, these shifts have driven American democracy to the brink of authoritarian populism.”

According to Nichols, we’re reaching a point in society where everybody’s opinion is treated equally, whether or not professional credentials or educational backgrounds exist to back those opinions up. Baer continues:

“In the absence of these crucial distinctions, Nichols asserts, public discourse has become degraded by unquestioned cognitive biases and a dearth of informed, evidence-based argumentation … (C)ollege has become what Nichols describes as ‘a consumer-oriented experience in which students learn, above all else, that the customer is always right.’”

Interestingly, statistics from the Pew Research Center seem to indicate that this is a partisan issue. The report reads that “a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58 percent) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45 percent last year. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72 percent) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years.”

Whatever you make of those statistics, Nichols and others who write about anti-intellectualism in the US, especially when writing critically of colleges and of Trump in kind, don’t sound like complacent Democrats — nor do they sound like critical Republicans. They sound like people who value education for its “utopian” value, and are critical of its current “utilitarian” value.

Utility vs. Utopia

When it comes to criticism of the modern systems of secondary education, there are but two questions you have to ask: how much will it cost, and what will graduates get out of it? To answer the first question: it costs a lot, and it’s getting more expensive every year. Many graduates find themselves laden with debt by the time they’re done with school, as the average median family income is dropping simultaneously.

So what do you get out of it? When you take on the debt of a mortgage, for example,  it’s pretty clear that what you’re getting in return is property and a structure that will (hopefully) retain its value. The thing about a college education, however, is that it’s more of an investment, and the return on that investment will vary depending the “version” of college that students attend. Writing for the NY TImes, Kenji Aoki explains the difference between them:

“… (T)wo distinct visions of higher education contend throughout our classrooms and campuses. One vision focuses on how college can be useful — to its graduates, to employers and to a globally competitive America … As college grows more expensive, plenty of people want to know whether they’re getting a good return on their investment.”

This, he explains, is “Utility U.” We see this utilitarian movement manifesting itself in schools frequently via heightened interest in STEM initiatives, which, Jennifer L.M. Gunn with Concordia-University Portland writes, teaches students to apply math, science, and engineering skills — quantifiable “hard skills,” that is — to diverse projects. Additionally, she notes that STEM jobs tend to pay double the median income of the average U.S. worker, but also that the most recent United States PISA rankings placed the U.S. 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science.

“In some schools … STEM education [has] led to a rapid expansion and segmentation of rigorous math and science courses, taught in largely the same way they’ve always been taught,” writes Gunn. “The result? Saturating students with STEM classes without accounting for engagement or interest has led to some stagnant gains in recent years.”

The other vision of college that Aoki presents is aimed simply at preparing students for life as free men and women in modern society. “Here, college is about building your soul as much as your skills,” writes Aoki. “Students want to think critically about the values that guide them, and they will inevitably want to test out their ideas and ideals in the campus community … College, in this view, is where you hone the tools for the foundational American project, the pursuit of happiness.”

This is “Utopia U,” where the purpose of an education isn’t to garner any one individual material wealth, but rather to enrich society as a whole by bestowing upon students immaterial wealth.

Unfortunately, immaterial wealth doesn’t pay the material bill, which is why that first question (how much does it cost?) is so important. So instead of opting for an in-depth education in humanities or knowledge of the classical arts, students are now finding themselves going to college for the sake of “degree validation” — not because they want to, but because they feel they have to as a prerequisite for job acquisition. What’s worse, many graduates are finding that these jobs aren’t guaranteed, leaving them with an expensive degree in a field they often have no interest in.

In either case, Utopia or Utility, our schools are failing. The relentless pursuit of Utility has left Utopia by the wayside, underfunded, and undervalued.

“It is … the very principle of ideas having value on their own merit, regardless of whether they can be assessed or turned into profits or draw fat grants into the neoliberal academy, that impels us to turn to the language of ‘crisis’ to evaluate our position,” writes Aaron S. Lecklider, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “Administrators rattle our cages, asking us to pursue ‘excellence’ and hawk our majors like used-car salespeople, even as politicians and pundits question whether taxpayer dollars should be apportioned to departments more concerned with dismantling gender categories than assisting students in their quest to develop the next killer app.”

This stranglehold on educational value isn’t partisan, it’s socio-economic. The fact is that modern school costs more and deliver less than they ever have — no matter what side of the aisle you’re on.

Anti-Intellectualism Is a Symptom, Not the Problem


Image: Michael Vadon/Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to say that America in the age of Trump is staunchly anti-intellectual because President Trump is so boldly anti-intellectual himself. As a presidential nominee and as president proper, Trump has told bold-faced lies, banking on the ignorance of uneducated voters to keep his core supporters enthralled.

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former foreign policy adviser to the presidential campaigns of John McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, argues that far-right populists within the Republican Party feed off of Trump’s anti-intellectualism. To them it’s the elite intellectuals who are to blame for their problems to begin with.

“That is the core constituency that Trump is appealing to,” he says. “He’s not just ignorant, he’s proudly ignorant — he brags about how he doesn’t read books. For him, this is a point of pride, and unfortunately it is for a lot of his followers as well.”

Still, even though President Trump seems to revel in the drama and misinformation surrounding “Fake News,” statistics show that parents consider it to be a substantial problem in regards to their children’s safety, rivalling, if not just as bad as, the risk of internet pornography. Panda Security’s exclusive analysis of U.S. parents revealed that:

  • More than twice as many parents consider right-wing website Breitbart more unsafe for children than CNN.
  • 20 percent of parents think CNN is not safe for their kids.
  • 9 percent of parents think Breitbart is unsafe for children.
  • 1 percent of parents consider both Breitbart and CNN unsafe.
  • 9 percent of parents think anonymous sharing is a danger to kids.

What this indicates is that people are concerned with truth, even if they aren’t sure where to turn to find it. With America’s foremost executive telling them one thing that aligns with their beliefs and experiences, and a slough of qualified, perhaps even stuffy, experts telling them another, is it really so hard to believe that uneducated voters tend to believe the former over the latter? Does belief in authority in conjunction with a lack of education truly constitute anti-intellectualism?

Aaron S. Lecklider, in his book, Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture, believes that the idea of America as an anti-intellectual is historically unfounded. “Inasmuch as America’s supposed anti-intellectualism makes good headlines today, it can hardly be taken as a true portrait of American history,” he writes. “Far from celebrating the ignorant, Americans have often been drawn to brainpower, genius, and have demonstrated fascination with the curious habits of ivy-educated elites.”

Lecklider believes that modern arguments about anti-intellectualism may actually reflect growing social inequalities — which is precisely what Trump latched on to with the working class white voter.

“Today, working-class frustrations over income inequality can, at times, be articulated as distaste for the use of scholarly language to diagnose everyday problems,” continues Lecklider. “And when ordinary women and men describe working-class perspectives as ‘common sense,’ they can be met with contempt from those who think this is a mask for various prejudices.”

This divide is what politicians like Trump have exploited to pit one class of voter against another. As Lecklider notes, “it seems quite unlikely that Americans have really become more anti-intellectual over the past half century – and more likely that we are seeing splits due to sharply rising inequalities of wealth, income, and access to affordable college opportunities.”

Lastly, Lecklider mentions that while attacks on intellectuals may be on the rise in the U.S. today, we need to be aware that this is a recent phenomenon, and likely the symptom of a problem, but not the cause itself.

The good news is that anti-intellectualism isn’t in America’s DNA, ruining our institutions inherently from the inside out. The bad news is that something is causing this recent spate of anti-intellectualism to flourish. Whether it’s income inequality, partisan politics, or something else, we likely won’t cure the symptoms of anti-intellectualism in society until we discover the real root of the problem.


Author Bio: Andy Heikkila is a health, tech, and futurism enthusiast from the outskirts of the lush, Pacific Northwest. When he’s not writing, you can find him working on his latest audio mix, going on a run, or rolling d20s with friends. Follow him on Twitter @AndyO_TheHammer.