WASHINGTON — If you’ve been paying any attention to the trial heats of the Republican presidential contest, you’ve noticed an alarming trend: the conflating of ignorance with authenticity. Herman Cain’s fans, for example, seem to believe that his profound lack of knowledge about most of the world is one reason to support him. It makes him a regular guy, more trustworthy than those hated “elites” and longtime Washington pols.
The trend isn’t new, of course. Sarah Palin’s admirers responded similarly to her woeful (and willful) lack of knowledge about many of the complex issues that would confront a presidential administration. Palin’s voters didn’t desert her when she showed her abysmal ineptitude about subjects that were routinely in the news. Instead, they blamed journalists who asked her questions she couldn’t answer.
Indeed, a suspicion of the well-educated is a long-standing strain in American politics. I remember the antics of the late George Wallace, who used to denounce “pointy-headed intellectuals.”
But this unfortunate proclivity seems to have reached its apex at just the wrong time: On a “flat” and interconnected planet, Americans need more knowledge, not less. We need to be better educated, not more ignorant. In other words, the nation needs all the pointy-headedness it can muster.
We certainly don’t need a president like Cain, who publicly disdained the president of “Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan” as someone he didn’t need to remember and who cannot recall why he disagrees with President Obama’s intervention in Libya. (Actually, Cain doesn’t know much about Libya, period.) Nor do we need a president like Rick Perry, who proposes to dismantle great swaths of the federal government, but doesn’t take his own plan seriously enough to recall its details.
At least Perry was contrite about his “oops” moment. More stunning is Cain’s attitude, which echoes Palin’s proud ignorance. Both behave as though their lack of knowledge is a selling point — and their supporters seem to agree.
While Republicans have been proudly showing off their anti-intellectualism of late, the strain is broadly bipartisan. I’ve known Democrats and Republicans, liberals, conservatives and independents who are dismissive of the benefits of expertise and suspicious about the well-educated.
During my Alabama childhood, for example, I knew lots of proud churchgoers who preferred a minister with little (if any) formal training in theology. Preachers weren’t expected to attend divinity school; it was more important that they claimed to be anointed by God. Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young tells a great story about learning to speak without notes when he was a young preacher assigned to a rural church; the elders were skeptical of any minister who had to read from a text.
While that story is charming, it also speaks to a bygone era. When Young was a newly ordained minister, communist China was still an economic backwater, the euro didn’t exist and the United States was a manufacturing powerhouse, providing good jobs to workers without high school diplomas. Those days are so over.
Many college graduates are struggling to find decent jobs these days, but the unemployment rate for those with post-secondary degrees is still much lower than that of high school graduates. Cain, a retired businessman, may be stunningly ignorant of foreign affairs, but he did get an undergraduate degree in math and a graduate degree in computer science. That laid the foundation for his professional accomplishments.
Even Cain must know that much of the world has embraced the knowledge economy as the ticket to a prosperous future. South Korean parents shamelessly push their children into tutorial sessions that last until the wee hours of the morning. But here in the United States, there is still a clear strain of resentment toward the learned, the intellectually ambitious,
the highly educated.
And it is stoked by demagogues who dismiss the conclusions of experts on such issues as climate change, evolution and even the obesity epidemic. Why trust those “pointy-headed” intellectuals who win Nobel prizes in biology and chemistry? That resentment is further fueled by dilettantes such as Cain, who revel in their ignorance of public policy.
Last week, after his disastrous performance before the editorial board of a Milwaukee newspaper, Cain declared at a campaign event in New Hampshire that the nation needs “a leader, not a reader,” according to reporters following his campaign.
That’s simply appalling. It would be difficult for the nation to adapt to a knowledge economy with a president who is contemptuous of knowledge.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)