isaac asimov on american anti-intellectualism and ignorance

ISAAC ASIMOV was one of America’s greatest intellectuals, and a prolific writer: he authored or edited more than 500 books! His interests were all over the map, but he is generally known as one of science fiction’s most accomplished writers.

His Foundation Trilogy of novels is considered a classic of science fiction, must-reads for any serious fan or historian of the genre. His Nightfall is generally regarded as one of the finest short stories in the genre. He also wrote other forms of fiction in many other genres, notably mysteries.

He wrote many non-fiction books on countless subjects and contributed articles to magazines. One such is an opinion piece titled “A Cult of Ignorance” appeared in Newsweek magazine (January 21, 1980, page 19). Here are a few excerpts from that piece:

“It’s hard to quarrel with that ancient justification of the free press: ‘America’s right to know.’ It seems almost cruel to ask, ingenuously, ‘America’s right to know what, please?

Science?

Mathematics?

Economics?

Foreign languages?’

None of those things, of course.

In fact, one might well suppose that the popular feeling is that Americans are a lot better off without any of that tripe.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’


There is a cult of ignorance in the United States nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.


Politicians have routinely striven to speak the language of Shakespeare and Milton as ungrammatically as possible in order to avoid offending their audiences by appearing to have gone to school.

There are 200 million Americans who have inhabited schoolrooms at some time in their lives and who will admit that they know how to read (provided you promise not to use their names and shame them before their neighbors), but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulations of half a million.

It may be that only 1 per cent—or less—of American make a stab at exercising their right to know. And if they try to do anything on that basis they are quite likely to be accused of being elitists.

I contend that the slogan ‘America’s right to know’ is a meaningless one when we have an ignorant population, and that the function of a free press is virtually zero when hardly anyone can read.”


Photo of Isaac Asimov at the Mysterious Bookshop in New York.

This photo of Isac was taken at the Mysterious Bookshop, the oldest mystery specialist book store in America. Asimov died in 1992 at the age of 72. Grommet only knows what he would have thought and said about the continued decline of the literacy and intelligence level of the American citizenry.

His opinion of the explosion of the cellphone as requisite gear for every American over the age of 10 would be essential reading (for those of us who read, of course).

And I would enjoy his take on the BIG question regarding the cellphone’s attendant texting culture: is it saving the “written” word in the US or destroying what’s left of it?