Campus News

Sarah and James Bowdoin Day Address: David Kertzer

Story posted October 31, 2008

"The Perils of Anti-Intellectualism"

Bowdoin College's 2008 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony was held Friday, October 31, 2008, in Morrell Gymnasium. Following is the address by David Kertzer, Provost and Paul Dupee Jr. University Professor of Social Science at Brown University.

It is a great honor to be invited back to Bowdoin, where I spent 19 years of my life, to address you on this auspicious occasion. We are here to honor the value of scholarship, and it is hard to think of a time when the need to better understand our world was more pressing — from the economy to the causes of the violence that afflicts us, to the environmental changes that threaten our existence. Yet while we are here to pay homage to the world of scholarship, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that in American society scholars and scientists are often viewed ambivalently, at best.

David Kertzer

As an anthropologist I am especially sensitive to the need to have an informed citizenry that understands the rest of the world, the ability to see beyond the parochial, to recognize that we are among many peoples and cultures, each of which has its own systems of values and ways of viewing the world. For me, this brings to mind the circumstances of my own arrival at Bowdoin in 1973. Bowdoin had not previously thought it necessary to have an anthropologist on the faculty, but, or so I am told, students eager to have more courses taught about the rest of the world prepared a petition urging the College to add anthropology.

As a result, I was hired, a 25-year-old fledgling anthropologist fresh from graduate school. It would take another seven years until a second anthropologist would be hired at Bowdoin, but today, a glance at the catalogue reveals six anthropologists offering 17 courses focusing on virtually every part of the globe. And Bowdoin students' interest in the rest of the world is manifest in many other ways as well: Over half of all Bowdoin students study abroad at least one semester, an enviable figure (compare this to Harvard where the figure is closer to 10 percent; parochialism comes in many different forms!).

The proportion of Americans ignorant about the peoples of the rest of the world is truly alarming, and dangerous given the role that the U.S. plays in the world. A 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper finds that nearly half of Americans between 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made.1 But Americans' ignorance is also striking with respect to scientific understanding. Recent surveys have found that Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as they are to believe in evolution. A survey of 34 countries found that Americans were less likely to believe in evolution than people in any of the countries surveyed except for Turkey.3 One in five Americans believes that the sun orbits the earth.4 Jeffrey Sachs, professor of economics and director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, describes this as an "aggressively anti-scientific perspective, backed by disdain for those who adhere to science and evidence."5

Part of the problem here is a kind of mindless nationalist chauvinism that is all too commonly found in the U.S. Almost 30 years ago, here at Bowdoin, we were fortunate through the College's Tallman Visiting Professor endowment to host one of Italy's most prominent anthropologists, Bernardo Bernardi, for a year. One of the public lectures he gave was on the subject of ethnocentrism, and I still remember it as clearly now as the day he gave it in the Daggett Lounge. Somewhat surprisingly for those of us in the audience, Bernardo began by stating his thesis that it was healthy for people to be ethnocentric. This seemed to go against the cultural relativist grain that dominates anthropology. But as we heard his argument, it began to make sense. People everywhere, he said, tend to think that their own values are the best values, their own view of the world the correct view of the world, and their own ways of doing things the most natural. Any culture in which people felt that other people's values were superior to theirs, other understandings of the world were better than their own must, he argued, be a culture in crisis.

In light of this aspect of human nature it should not be surprising if Americans tend to view our own society, our own ways of doing things, our own values as superior to others, for this is exactly how other peoples view the world. But given the role that the U.S. plays in the world today, if we don't recognize the limitations of our own self-glorification, and don't understand how the rest of the world views us, we are going to continue to be in trouble and to create problems in other parts of the world. And here is where scholars have such an important role, for it's our job to help overcome the passions of group think and the strong siren call of social solidarity, to help puncture the chauvinisms that pass for God-given truths.

The presidential campaign that is mercifully about to end has led a number of observers to recall Richard Hofstadter's classic 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hofstadter traced what he saw as an anti-intellectual strain in America back to the Puritans. He illustrated this with the words of New England minister John Cotton, who wrote in 1642, "The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee." This opposition of reason to faith, scientific learning to unquestionable truths, continues to be a common theme in America. Applied to the political domain, it led, as Hofstadter noted, to the coining of the epithet, "egghead" during the 1952 presidential campaign as a term of disdain for those who showed an intellectual bent, applied to Adlai Stevenson.

In the U.S., almost alone among developed countries, politicians pretend to be less worldly and educated than they actually are (Bill Clinton was masterful at hiding his erudition behind folksy Arkansas sayings about pigs). This tradition continues today, with our presidential candidates seeming to outcompete one another in bandying about folksy sayings. Four years ago John Kerry had to hide the fact that he could speak French, as this was seen as a strike against him. Nothing new here, apparently, for as Hofstadter pointed out, during the Presidential campaign of 1800, attacks against Thomas Jefferson focused on his allegedly dangerous intellectual tendencies. Commentators back then argued that Jefferson's "showy talents" and dangerously French "theoretic learning" made him unfit for the presidency.

But let's get back to 2008. What do we make of the fact that the celebratory biopic of Barack Obama shown at the Democratic Convention in Denver excised the facts that Obama had graduated from Columbia and from Harvard Law School? The evident assumption was that rather than being seen as helpful credentials, they were liabilities. (By this, I should hasten to add, I do not mean to suggest that having a degree from a prestigious college necessarily inoculates a person against the narrow-mindedness and anti-intellectualism I have been railing against. This is not a matter of formal credentials but of holding certain basic values. Among these perhaps none are more important than having deep intellectual curiosity and an openness to change your views based on empirical evidence. A college degree is not required for either.)

What we celebrate on Sarah and James Bowdoin Day is the life of the mind and the value of lifelong curiosity, as well as the importance of recognizing the limits of our own knowledge. We live in a country where serious efforts are made to teach mythology alongside evolution in science classrooms, where national leaders can parade their ignorance of and contempt for basic genetic research. (Given the occasion, and the need to be nonpartisan, I will resist the temptation to offer a disquisition on the value of the fruit fly). There is much work to be done in strengthening our country, in working toward a more enlightened America and a better world. Those of you who have had the great privilege of a Bowdoin education have I think a special responsibility to play your part in making our country, and the world, a better place. We are all counting on you.

1Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008), p. 281.
2The Harris Poll, no. 119 (November 29, 2007). Quoted in Nicholas D. Kristof, “With a Few More Brains…” The New York Times (March 30, 2008).
3Jon D. Miller, Eugenie C. Scott, and Shinji Okamoto, Science, vol. 313, no. 5788 (August 11, 2006), pp. 765-6.
4National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (1985-2001).
5Jeffrey Sachs, “America’s Anti-Intellectual Threat,” Project Syndicate (September 23, 2008).

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