Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
“Educated idiots” is how my old man described college-educated people who were completely devoid of common sense and moral intelligence, or what Aristotle called “practical wisdom.” But what made them especially annoying was their arrogance, their assumption that because they were professionally credentialed in one area, they were equally knowledgeable about everything else.
This perennial character flaw was recognized by the ancients. Socrates in his defense speech noted this presumptuous claim among the Athenians he questioned during his search for someone wiser than he. The poets and artisans, for example, because they had many useful skills and technical knowledge, “thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom.” Nor were the highly educated immune: “There is nothing so absurd,” the Roman orator Cicero wrote, “that hasn’t been said by some philosopher.” Humans by nature are vain and crave recognition for being superior to their fellows, which make us vulnerable to this willful error of thought and character.
But over the last 150 years, the broadening of formal education to include the masses, the increase and hyper-specialization in university disciplines, and the prestige of the natural sciences from the technologies that improved material existence, have made this bad habit ubiquitous. Worse yet, the aggressive promotion during the last fifty years of “college for everyone”–– which necessarily required lower standards and a decline in foundational skills––multiplied the numbers of people with this affliction, even as the quality of their degrees was degraded.
Those trained in the humanities and soft “sciences,” that is, disciplines that lack the rigor and real-world accountability of real sciences, are particularly prone to this intellectual disease. This phenomenon explains why we see so many preposterous, unsubstantiated, politically biased, and just plain whacky ideas like Critical Race Theory or “white fragility” promulgated by self-styled “brights” with such arrogant certainty, and passed off as “science.”
The result of these changes is manifested in several ways. Human nature and human experience, once the province of religion, philosophy, and traditional wisdom, became the objects of “scientism,” new disciplines like sociology and psychology that adopted the quantification and jargon of real science to disguise as “science” dubious philosophical claims about human and social reality. These disciplines proliferated in the universities, and their conclusions and “knowledge” trickled down into K-12 teacher-training and school curricula. The big leap in the numbers of those attending college distributed this false knowledge more widely throughout the culture, from movies and television shows, to newspapers, magazines, and web sites.
The story of “scientific racism” and eugenics during the first half of the 20th century is a notorious example. The theories of Charles Darwin, particularly the “survival of the fittest,” and the false analogy with the cross-breeding of farm animals, were crudely applied to humans.
Darwin himself legitimized this practice in The Descent of Man: “At some future period . . . the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” But misguided sentimentality, traditional religion, and short-sighted charitable impulses interfered with natural selection that culled out the unfit: “The weak members of civilized societies,” Darwin wrote, “propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.” The positive and negative “traits” that were the object of natural selection were linked to the reductive notion of “race” to establish ethnic and racial hierarchies defined by biological superiority and inferiority.
These ideas were taught and studied in America’s most prestigious universities. Research centers like Cold Spring Harbor gathered immense troves of data purportedly documenting the transmission of “traits” through family histories. Newspapers and magazines ran stories about the impending “race suicide,” as Theodore Roosevelt called the failure of retrograde people to acknowledge the “settled science.” And books like Lothrop Stoddard’s 1920 The Rising Tide of Color against White Supremacy, and Madison Grant’s 1916 The Passing of the Great Race –––Hitler called it his “Bible” in a fan letter––became bestsellers.
High-school biology courses and textbooks taught “scientific racism” and its application, eugenics. The famous 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” centered on a high-school biology textbook that featured a unit on Darwinian evolution. The next unit covered eugenics. The national publicity given the trial legitimized these dehumanizing ideas and established the dubious prestige that a knowledge of the latest “science” bestowed on people who thought themselves superior to uneducated rubes and superstitious people of faith.
The malign consequence of this pseudo-scientific fad was the practice of eugenics through the forced sterilization of thousands of women whose only crime was their race or poverty. But a more horrendous use of this fake knowledge had been foreshadowed in the late 19th century by Francis Galton, who coined the word “eugenics.” Galton warned that the “unfit” must be kept from procreating, for “if these continued,” he went on, “to procreate children, inferior in moral, intellectual and physical qualities, it is easy to believe the time may come when such persons would be considered as enemies to the State, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness.”
Within decades Nazi Germany would take these speculations to their gruesome logical conclusion of exterminating “life unworthy of life.” But before then, legal eugenics ruined the lives of thousands of women, and legal segregation had been given a “scientific” justification.
These days eugenics has been discredited, at least publicly. But just in the last few years another idea passed off as evidence-based “science” has swept like wildfire through our politics and culture. Critical Race Theory, once the province of university cranks and law-school activists, is roiling our politics, corporations, and schools. The idea that “systemic racism” and endemic white “racism” permeate our economic, educational, and political institutions is based on a crude interpretation of disparate impact statistics.
For example, the number of black males arrested, killed during an arrest, and incarcerated beyond their proportion of the population is produced as evidence of “systemic racism,” while sketchy behavioral “research” allegedly demonstrates the prevalence of occult “racism” among an overgeneralized “white people.” Left out is the fact that black males are involved in crimes at a rate far higher than their representation in the general population. Critical Race Theory, like “scientific racism” and eugenics, is a consequence of racialist ideology and scientism, not empirical science.
Yet now feckless political decisions, such as defunding police forces, are being legitimized by appealing to Critical Race Theory; billions of federal and state dollars are being proposed for sustaining and spreading it farther; school boards and teachers are including it in curricula; popular culture reflects and celebrates its tenets, and corporations and the government agencies subject their employees to “training” in this divisive and destructive vision based on old-fashioned racist categories. And of course, question-begging activist screeds like How to Be an Antiracist and White Fragility become bestsellers and provide training materials in government agencies, including the military.
How can this happen? How can incoherent ideas that in the past would be produced by badly educated cranks, take such a hold on our cultural and political institutions? Political leverage and lucre, of course, are the eternal motivators of human mischief. “Systemic racism” has become a gold-mine for “diversity” consultants and manufacturers of training videos and programs.
But the old bad habit of people thinking they are smarter than they are, the feckless subjection of millions to an educational establishment corrupted by bogus scientism, and the fetishizing of “science” and an uncritical deference to its authority have all created “educated idiots,” people devoid of common sense, moral intelligence, and traditional wisdom––a recipe for civilizational corruption and decline.