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April 25, 2008

High-Tech in an Anti-Intellectual Culture

Michael Feldman

“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 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 theological questions?

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 Top Model.

In an op-ed piece this 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.

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As always, comments about HPCwire are welcomed and encouraged. Write to me, Michael Feldman, at editor@hpcwire.com.

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