Intellectual Roots, Anti-Intellectual Pursuits

One of the things I’ve always loved about hip-hop is its connection with knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, and indeed one of the reasons I decided to pursue rapping as a craft is the same reason I’ve always been drawn to poems, books and stories; words and narrative are how we deliver and share raw knowledge. When I was growing up, I’d listen to rappers and think “damn, they’re smart.” It didn’t matter to me who was the most thug, who was the most pimpin’, or who was flashing the most money because a.) growing up, I was lucky enough that violence and hustling weren’t necessary to my survival, and b.) I recognized that anybody could rap about simple topics, but that it took a real MC to weave together a meaningful verse.

I get the sense that hip-hop as a genre has gotten caught up with much of the rest of popular culture in America, and is following a deeply anti-intellectual trend. The election of Donald Trump, the startling results of the Brexit votes months before that–these are the effects of a world that doesn’t only dislike, but actively avoids intellectual pursuits.

It’s funny too, because we know what’s happening. As a culture, we know that our President didn’t win the popular vote, but we listen to him lie about voter fraud, claiming he did. We heard Trump say he went to an Ivy League school, and that he “knows words” and “has the best words” in the same sentence, but evidence is coming to light that he can barely even read.

Unfortunately, what the American political system has proven is that money and connections will get you further than any type of intellectual pursuit will, effectively ousting intellectualism as a valuable trait.

Partisan Anti-Intellectualism

I’m sure plenty would agree that money and anti-intellectualism have both been problems in the world politics for a long time. This segment by PRI notes that Republican Presidents as far back as Dwight D. Eisenhower, leading up to Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush have adopted the strategy of masquerading as “Know Nothing”. This distance they put between themselves and the proposed elite is meant to create a sort of bond with and make them more relatable to the common man–but none of them have been quite so radically anti-intellectual as Donald Trump. To quote Max Boot, writing for the New York Times:

‘The trend has now culminated in the nomination of Donald J. Trump, a presidential candidate who truly is the know-nothing his Republican predecessors only pretended to be… Mr. Trump doesn’t know the difference between the Quds Force and the Kurds. He can’t identify the nuclear triad, the American strategic nuclear arsenal’s delivery system. He had never heard of Brexit until a few weeks before the vote. He thinks the Constitution has 12 Articles rather than seven. He uses the vocabulary of a fifth grader. Most damning of all, he traffics in off-the-wall conspiracy theories by insinuating that President Obama was born in Kenya and that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. It is hardly surprising to read Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter for Mr. Trump’s best seller “The Art of the Deal,” say, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.”’

While PRI and Max Boot both point out that anti-intellectualism, in their view, is a partisan issue, I think that it’s a bipartisan and socioeconomic issue that’s been affecting this nation for as long as I’ve been alive and probably longer. The only example in recent American history where I can think of intellectual prowess being pushed over all else would have been during the Cold War–when we realized that you could significantly weaponize scientific intelligence.

A System That Banks On Stupidity

Out of 40 countries ranked by Pearson, the U.S. is ranked 14th in terms of cognitive skills and attainment, and according to IPSOS Mori, the U.S. ranks 2nd out of 14 countries when it comes to general ignorance about social statistics such as teen pregnancy, unemployment rates, and voting patterns. This means that essentially half the world is academically smarter than us, and that our citizens are more ignorant than most others–but this isn’t something you hear about in the news.

Instead, what you hear is that Betsy DeVos, a billionaire GOP fundraiser from Grand Rapids Michigan, is now at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education, even though many believe that she’s woefully unprepared. She’s a proponent of the voucher system–a system where your tax dollars will be presented to parents who want to send their children to private schools instead of public (don’t want your kids to learn about evolution? Pull them out of public, and put them into a religious private school!), despite new evidence that the voucher system actually harms students intellectually.

You get these law-makers that think there are simple answers to complex issues, like the voucher system, or No Child Left Behind, which was a disaster because standardized tests aimed to create a standardized student–even though all students learn differently and exhibit different cognitive strengths. What you don’t get enough of in politics are people like Carl Hermanns, a clinical associate professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.

“Every day, my goal is to ensure that our students, future principals and teacher leaders, understand that there are inequities in the education system that can block students from reaching their full potential,” Hermanns said. “We need to understand and address those inequities so that every child, in every classroom, every day is being provided excellent and equitable educational opportunities to find success. It’s easy to be passionate about that because you see so many children who just aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.”

The problems surrounding school aren’t quite so simple. Extenuating circumstances need to be taken into account when dealing with a child’s education, such as what they’re getting for breakfast, who is showing them love, and what types of values are portrayed to them. If they come from a household where education is not valued–openly mocked, even–they likely will not value education themselves. So how do we think they’ll be affected by a country that shares a distaste for education, if not that they’ll emulate similar values?

What’s the Point of School Anyway?

One of the biggest problems that I see in education is that we’re not teaching kids to love education for the sake of education. We’re teaching them to love money, and indicating that education is a necessary evil by which wealth is attained. It’s funny, because the things that matter most in “the real world” like what credit score is needed to buy a house, or how to plan for retirement–these aren’t things we’re taught, but they’re things that will affect us as soon as we get out of school.

Yet, we’re told that we must go to school–especially if we ever want to get a job. The college degree is the you-must-be-this-tall-to-ride sign for the economy, and if you don’t have one, sorry buster, get to the back of the line. The disturbing thing to note is that even as college costs are rising higher than they’ve ever been, the quality of education has been stagnant, if not declining. I remember my freshman year of college essentially was a repeat of my senior year of high school–as well as the fact that the only reason I went was because I thought I had to. Now I’m in debt $30,000, but I’m making the most of it, and am actually glad I went; I was lucky enough to go to a Liberal Arts College where the goal is to create an intelligent and worldly human being. I’m happy with the outcome because I’ve learned that knowledge is more fulfilling (to me) than opulence.

Anthony Appiah, writing for the New York Times, mentioned that people seek education either for Utility or for Utopia. They are there to either to gain a set of skills that will make them more employable, or are there to gain knowledge that will better themselves as human beings, and, in effect, better the society around them.

We’ve lost the Utopian stride and will soon realize that automation is making human utility obsolete. Hopefully, we can reverse course before it’s too late, and get back to making great again the only thing that ever made America great in the first place: our intellectualism.


Andy O.

Andy O. is an independent hip-hop artist from Boise, ID and one of the co-founders of Earthlings Entertainment. Follow him on twitter @AndyO_TheHammer and facebook.