An early version of this post appeared on the Mississippi Atheists blog in 2010. It has been updated and expanded.
Although I enjoyed Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason, I did find much of it to be depressing. The role of anti-intellectualism in undermining education is quite clear, both historically and in modern times. Moreover, it is clear that the presence and impact of anti-intellectualism varies considerably from region to region and over time. It has long been a problem here in the South, and I have not seen much evidence lately to make me think it is getting any better.
The state of Mississippi leads the U.S. on many indicators of religiosity, and those of us who live here know that it is not just some abstract form of religion that pervades the local culture but evangelical fundamentalist Christianity. Thus, it seems reasonable to speculate that our state would come out near the top on a per capita measure of biblical literalists. Is it any wonder that our system of public education is in shambles?
Jacoby's book is helpful in understanding the historical factors which led to widespread anti-intellectualism in the South, and it is worth noting that she does not consider fundamentalist Christianity to be the only cause. Regardless of the other causes, though, it is clear that public attitudes toward education play a role in shaping attitudes toward funding public education.
When I see Mississippi's Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature consistently advocating for cuts to the state's education budget, I am discouraged about the long-term impact this has. Part of this comes from my understanding of the utility of public education in lifting people out of poverty and in combating the many other social ills which plague our state. I'm also convinced that one does not improve the sort of problems we have by cutting the education budget. I find it appalling that our elected officials are permitted to place their own job security above the good of our state by refusing to adequately fund public education.
Undoubtedly, a strong and adequately funded system of public education is essential for Mississippi if we are to have any hope of improving our position on the many lists of social ills at which we rank at or near the top. But this need seems to be so intertwined with the pervasive anti-intellectualism here that I'm not sure they can be meaningfully separated. We need a cultural shift in how education is valued.