James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Archive for August 9th, 2009

Thanks, Lance, and others who fight anti-intellectualism

Posted by James McPherson on August 9, 2009

It has long been fashionable among many to take pride in ignorance. Indeed, we elected and re-elected a president who disdained science in favor of emotion and greed, and then had a vice presidential candidate who was incapable of answering even a simplest of questions–and who suffered so little from her apparent ignorance that she is now considered a credible presidential candidate (after bailing on those who elected her to her highest position to date).

Usually the formal target is public schools, which supposedly cost too much (though not much, compared to what we spend on weapons, for example) to educate too few (though more than ever before in history) while “indoctrinating” students into some mythical liberal worldview.

Conservatives aren’t the only ones contributing to the “dumbing of America,” of course. More and more liberals also have become critics of reason, and of  the same public education system that they usually came from. Home schooling often is extolled as the answer for those who want to escape a factory education system that produces non-thinking workers.

Well, maybe, sometimes. But a lot of my students have been home schooled. Many of them are among my best students. And many are among the worst. It depends on their parents–wh0, unlike with many public schools, tend to be involved in their kids’ education. And still they turn out a lot of dull, self-centered, incurious morons.

I and many others (most notably Richard Hofstadter in his classic 1960s work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life) have written at length about the topic of anti-intellectualism, however. Today’s post is to remember one of the many people in my life who countered that instinct.

My morning paper carries an obituary for Lance LeLoup, who chaired the political science department at Washington State University. He also wrote more than a dozen books, lived and worked in five countries, and spent most of his life trying to improve the practice–not just the study–of public policy.

I never took a class from Lance. He hired me when I was still a Ph.D. student but already teaching in the communication department to teach a media and politics class for his department. At that time he also oversaw the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service, which granted me one of its first fellowships. My wife and I once had dinner at the home of Lance and his wife, Pam, but I can’t say I knew him more than slightly.

The point is, even though I didn’t know him well, his intellectual efforts helped shape me. Other professors–Tom Heuterman in journalism and Leroy Ashby in history–were even more influential. Those two men remain friends today, but even if they had disappeared from memory as Lance had, until today, I would still owe them a huge debt.

I’d encourage you to think about whom you owe for your own education, formal and informal, and maybe even send them a note of thanks.  From the perspective of a teacher, you’re never entirely sure which students you’re reaching. It’s sometimes easier to know which ones you’re not (for example, apparently I failed to “indoctrinate” the  student who wrote on a course evaluation that I opposed “everything America [and my institution] stands for”).

I also get a lot of “thank you” notes, and many of my Facebook friends are former students who have contacted me after they’ve spend some time in the “real world,” so I know what a thrill it is to hear from a former student who is doing well.

Even if the student thinks s/he is an anti-intellectual.

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