Maureen Dowd resurrects an old meme in her most recent NYT column:
The Republicans are now the “How great is it to be stupid?” party. In perpetrating the idea that there’s no intellectual requirement for the office of the presidency, the right wing of the party offers a Farrelly Brothers “Dumb and Dumber” primary in which evolution is avant-garde.
Having grown up with a crush on William F. Buckley Jr. for his sesquipedalian facility, it’s hard for me to watch the right wing of the G.O.P. revel in anti-intellectualism and anti-science cant.
Not surprisingly, her poster children are Rick Perry (he of the most pedestrian, not to say underwhelming, Texas A & M transcript), Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann. Now, I’m not about to make any claims regarding the hidden genius of those three figures, but we shouldn’t forget that Al Gore’s undergraduate transcript was spotty at best (while his performance in div school and law school displayed a certain uninterest—not disinterest (conservatives can be as pedantic as the best of them)—in academic matters. And John Kerry didn’t set Yale afire academically either, with average grades a tad lower than those of another widely reviled Texan. Finally, all we know about Barack Obama’s grades is speculative—since he didn’t graduate with honors from Columbia, his GPA must have been below 3.3 (at best a B+, at a time when grade inflation had taken off, unlike the Bush/Kerry/Gore era of somewhat more honest grades).
But I’m less interested in this “so’s your brother” response than in exploring a certain divide to which Dowd’s column points. On one side is the liberal intelligentsia, which keeps telling “us” how smart its members are and how dumb the rest of us are—especially those who fall for Republican campaign rhetoric. On the other side are those who are not averse to appearing anti-intellectual to their self-described intellectual betters. (Rick Perry is obviously a good example of the latter, though his aversion to intellectuality has its limits.)
One of the areas of contention is the contemporary university, home both to anti-religious hyperrationalism and to the shape-shifting contemporary progeny of Nietzschean relativism (usually in an apparently unthreatening soft democratic or egalitarian form). If I regard professors and universities as largely hostile or indifferent to traditional wisdom or religious truth, if I regard them as a force that tends to undermine all that I hold dear, if I believe that they tend to alienate my children from their roots, and if intellectualism is defined by the New York Times and the faculty lounges, then, to say the least, I will not be or appear to be a great friend of the contemporary university or of intellectualism. (And, needless to say, they will not be, or appear to be, a great friend to me.)
Perhaps if we took the trouble to develop a more capacious understanding of truth (and hence of intellectualism), the gap might be narrowed. Someone as smart as Maureen Dowd thinks she is can take a first baby step. She can attempt, for example, to understand this statement, which she says makes no sense to her: “God uses broken people to reach a broken world.” That the world is broken is something that her colleagues on the religious Left surely affirm. But any self-respecting evangelical would catch Perry’s drift right away. Dowd could become alive to the reality and centrality of sin in our lives (something that all too often is lost sight of in our universities, unless we’re talking about America’s misdeeds abroad, or perhaps about the profit-mongering of Big Oil and Big Pharma).
But I digress. We remain in the midst of a Kulturkampf (a fancy foreign word to convince people that I’m not anti-intellectual). While it might be satisfying and politically useful for both sides to continue to take shots at one another, anyone who wants to work for peace (which, by the way, St. Augustine says we all want) should encourage our learned brethren to cast about more widely for wisdom and truth. That means that they, first of all, have to affirm (or at least “have faith”) that it can be found. And second, they need to recognize the limitations of the modern scientific paradigm.
I’m not looking for immediate results. I don’t expect 2012 to be any less contentious. But if our universities remain essentially at war with our traditions and our moral common sense, if they seem irremediably hostile to religious faith, we will all, in the end, be losers.