Anti-Intellectualism

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I'm finally getting around to John McWhorter's third feature of African American culture that he thinks is self-destructive (from Losing the Race). See my victimology and separatism posts for the other two and the links there for how it fits into my overall argument about racism in society today.

Anti-intellectualism, as McWhorter uses the term, is not undervaluing education. It's more subtle than that. It's a matter of seeing learning and school as "white" and therefore not for black people except as a means to achieve things (see my separatism post for some of the background here). McWhorter describes it as a tendency to see achievement for its own sake and learning for its own sake as wholly other. Learning is a place to visit but not a place to live. The origins of this problem go back to slavery, which enforced a lack of learning, which in turn led to education really being only for whites. Somehow this dissociation from learning turned the attitude of black America against the very thing that racist policies and attitudes had wrongly denied to black people, and this current gut reaction to it as wholly other prevents success in these areas, a glass ceiling initiated entirely from within.

Some of McWhorter's discussion relies on a whole background discussion about test scores, intelligence, genetic heritability, and environmental influence. This will require a bit of a diversion, but McWhorter's argument relies on this information.

Thomas Sowell's Race and Culture: A World View (in chapter 6) gives some data and the most balanced interpretation I've seen on that data. A slightly different presentation of roughly the same information, with a little less reluctance to drawing conclusions, is in his review of Murray and Hernstein's The Bell Curve.

The main argument here deals with the inadequacy of the two most prominent explanations of the significant gap between scores of African Americans and whites on IQ, SAT, and other tests. Murray and Hernstein tentatively suggest (but have been misinterpreted by both sides as thinking they've proved) that intelligence is enough from genetics that it's empirically correct to say that black people tend to be not as smart as white people. (That this isn't driven by white supremicism is shown by their acknowledgement of Asians' higher scores than whites', though Sowell says this isn't really true of Asians' IQ scores, just SAT scores, something often misrepresented). The alternative view is that racist policies and attitudes have kept African Americans' IQ and SAT scores down. One way this has supposedly happened is through biased tests. Another is through lowered self-esteem. These plus continued poverty make succeeding in intellectual endeavors next to impossible, according to the standard liberal view.

There are empirical results that show that Murray and Hernstein's conclusion is wrong. First, black students who immigrate to the U.S. from Africa or the Caribbean tend to do fine in school, often among the best students if they come to the U.S. for college. Yet the children of immigrants raised in the U.S. show the same problems as American blacks. Why is this, if it's genetic? It must be environmental in some way.

Second, the raw scores of the whole population are going up (though it's normed to 100, so the adjusted scores don't show this). If Murray and Hernstein are right, then the genetic predisposition toward lower intelligence and higher fertility among those who score lower (both of which they believe are true) should lead to lower scores on IQ tests in each successive generation. The opposite has happened. black students' scores have increased the same amount as the overall scores. What's likely is that whatever increased the scores for the whole population also increased the scores among black students. How can this be genetic?

Third, many groups who are entirely considered white but are on the outskirts of what we might call modern civilization have tested badly. If this is due to genetics, then we would expect that to continue once these groups are absorbed into society in a greater way. What in fact happens is that the scores end up getting much closer to normal.

So why haven't black students' scores gone up? Are black communities somehow not part of civilization? The main liberal narrative explaining this is that racism, economic hardship, and biased tests explain this. Both explanations turn out to be completely inadequate. Many groups face racism at least as bad as what the average black student in the United States faces. Most of the time that involves false assumptions, occasional suspicion of criminal activity (including following people around a store and such actions), and not being considered for things that one is eminently qualified for. Things on the same order would be true of a junior high girl who is significantly overweight. The criminal suspicions aren't there, but other ones that are at least as socially demeaning and diminishing in self-esteem take their place. Racism of the sort that still exists can't sufficiently explain a gap in intelligence tests as big as the one we find. Besides, it's insulting to black people to tell them that they're not courageous enough to overcome the kind of racism we have when earlier generations were able to overcome much, much worse racism to do far better than today's students are doing.

As for poverty and biased tests, those have similar problems. Poverty does play some role, but the biggest problem with using it as an all-encompassing explanation is that most black students taking college entrance exams are middle class. Most black students who end up in college are middle class. The test scores, however, don't differ significantly between middle class black students and poor black students. The gap remains. So whatever the main problem is still affects students who have more resources available to them.

Biased tests were a problem in the past (say, before the 1970s). The reality is that the Princeton Review has gone way out of their way to remove questions that assume middle class vocabulary or background knowledge, and if most black students taking the test are middle class anyway, that sort of thing won't affect the results. Also, the tests as they are predict success in college pretty well. Changing the tests to get black students to do better would cease to have that function. The goal isn't equal test results but accurate measurement of who will do well in college. Once you examine which questions black students have more trouble with, this whole argument goes out the window anyway. The trouble is with questions involving precision in thinking (e.g. making fine distinctions) or with logical reasoning outside a context of background information (e.g. what follows from what rather than what we can already assume).

This matches up with what McWhorter and I have both observed among black students who aren't native Americans. For whatever reason (and he offers some possible ones), there's not a strong tendency among black students to see precise thinking or independent thinking as worthwhile. If we already "know" something, why question it? This makes philosophy classes incredibly difficult. Why go to all the trouble to distinguish between two things that look pretty similar? Do we need that for ordinary life? Things viewed as outside the realm of blackness (see again the separatism post) are unimportant, and only those things require such precision. I've had many students in my classes who have both of these problems, but it's a minority problem among most students. It's a common problem among black students (though certainly not all, not even all born in the U.S.).

So the two skills most important for a lot of these tests, the same skills most philosophy classes require, turn out to be the same kinds of skills black students test lowest on. McWhorter gives story after story of black students finding it incredible that he would expect them to do that sort of thinking to get a decent grade. I've seen the extremes of this with some of my worst students. It's harder to identify with better students, since it's unconscious and therefore less observable, but I've seen it in students who seem to me to be interested in doing well in school in general, just not in classes that require that sort of precision or that sort of reasoning involving relationships between things whose truth or falsity they do not know.

This seems to me to be a pretty good explanation of the test score gaps without relying on the demeaning attitude of attributing it to an ability to succeed in the face of racism and without going the other direction and saying that black people really are unintelligent. It may not be the whole explanation, but it's probably an important enough factor to explain a good portion of the problems.

A couple other factors, also cultural and not either genetic or from white racism, bolster this explanation. Black children commonly tease those who are interested in learning for its own sake, since that's viewed as a white thing (again, see my separatism post). Parental expectations affect student performance. A recent study asked parents what grade is low enough to have serious disciplinary consequences for their children. For white parents, the threshold for avoiding consequences averaged around a B-. For Asian students, it was more like A-. Black parents? C-. It also happens that many college placement advisors aren't facing as much motivation to encourage students to work harder to get into college unless they need to. With affirmative action, black students can get in with lower standards and thus don't need to do as well in school.

So the argument that anti-intellectualism is a problem is not just anecdotal evidence but that no other explanation of the 200-point SAT gap has been offered and that something that does have good anecdotal evidence explains that gap far better than anything else offered. The difference between black students today who have participated in this self-destructive cultural inheritance and other groups who have scored badly is not genetics or racism. It's that the other groups were genuinely not involved in modern civilization, whereas new generations participating in perpetuating this harmful view of what counts as black have unintentially continued the effects of what external exlcusion had previously begun. In the end, it's self-destructive.

1 Comments

Great post, Jeremy.

Examples of this concept: I have a friend, an engineer, who never reads books unless there's some obvious profit in it. He had no idea "The Lord of the Rings" series had originally been novels!

Another example: My own sister was puzzled as to why I wanted to learn Japanese (I already speak German and Russian). "To speak it with Japanese people," I said. "But aren't you going to use it for something?" As if learning it for its own sake weren't a good enough reason.

Maybe I'm the weird one.

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