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?



 

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