Thursday, September 15, 2011

Did the War for American Independence begin with an intellectual snub?

I wish I had bookmarked the site where it was alleged that Benjamin Franklin's desire for American Independence began with his being told he was intellectually inferior to the British when he was sent to Britain in 1757. Benjamin Franklin stated that " to be an England-man was, of itself, a character of some respect" but he lamented that his non-colonial cousins did not regard them as fellow Britons as if they were "unworthy of the name of Englishmen, and fit only to be snubbed". Considering that Franklin was instrumental in creating The Academy and College of Philadelphia (later to become the University of Pennsylvania), The Library Company of Philadelphia, and American Philosophical Society, that was truly an insult. Franklin worked at promoting intellectual life in the North American Colonies, but those attempts were deemed inferior by the Europeans.

Thomas Jefferson also encountered this snobbery with the idealization of Americans as Rousseau's "noble savages" stirred European sympathies for the United States during the War for Independence, but the European emphasis upon savagery over nobility stirred resentment among Americans. One of Jefferson's more emotional moments in Europe was his encounter with the pejorative opinions of French intellectuals concerning the American character. His Notes on the State of Virginia was a response to those Europeans who shared the views of the naturalist Georges Buffon that animal life in America was inferior in size and strength to that of the Old World. Jefferson's response went beyond a literary effort; Buffon received skins and skeletons of American animals sent to France at Jefferson's behest to prove the equality, if not the superiority, of life in the New World.

Even more galling was the charge of the philosophe Abbé Guillaume Raynal that human life degenerated on the American continent. This observation contained aspersions on American virility as well as on American genius. Jefferson countered this assault with a spirited presentation of Indian virtues. He labored valiantly, but under obvious handicaps, in pointing out poets and artists, mathematicians and scientists, to match the products of Europe. Benjamin Franklin and David Rittenhouse were not the equals of Galileo and Newton.

The vigor of American ripostes to perceived insults to their nationality inspired more derision than respect among Europeans of this period. None was more devastating than the Reverend Sydney Smith, a Yorkshire wit who reacted to American claims to being "the greatest, the most enlightened, the most moral people upon earth" by asking rhetorically, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?" So much for the pretensions of American nationalism. A sense of inferiority in relation to older civilizations seemed to have given rise to a hyperbolic style of self-defense that invited ridicule.

America thrived on its newness and break from Europe, but the question remained regarding American culture how close are its ties to its origins? Was one of the legacies of the War for Independence this desire for total newness and a break from its roots?

The problem was there was a cultural elite in the early republic, the traces of which still exist, but anti-intellectualism is becoming the rule in the US. People in the United States have moved down a path that rejects logical, rational thought. In its wake, we can easily see the rise of a lot of negative things.

Susan Jacoby writes about the American brain drain in a article titled The Dumbing Of America. It has the subtitle “Call Me a Snob, but Really, We’re a Nation of Dunces”. I couldn’t agree more with this premise. From the article:

Americans are in serious intellectual trouble — in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.

This is the last subject that any candidate would dare raise on the long and winding road to the White House. It is almost impossible to talk about the manner in which public ignorance contributes to grave national problems without being labeled an “elitist,” one of the most powerful pejoratives that can be applied to anyone aspiring to high office. Instead, our politicians repeatedly assure Americans that they are just “folks,” a patronizing term that you will search for in vain in important presidential speeches before 1980.

And from the article’s conclusion:

The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism — a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.

There is no quick cure for this epidemic of arrogant anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism; rote efforts to raise standardized test scores by stuffing students with specific answers to specific questions on specific tests will not do the job. Moreover, the people who exemplify the problem are usually oblivious to it. (“Hardly anyone believes himself to be against thought and culture,” Hofstadter noted.) It is past time for a serious national discussion about whether, as a nation, we truly value intellect and rationality. If this indeed turns out to be a “change election,” the low level of discourse in a country with a mind taught to aim at low objects ought to be the first item on the change agenda.

As Susan at Liberality put it: "Two hundred years ago the founders of the republic would have been deliriously happy at the idea of Americans able to be informed by the sheer volume of available facts the digital information age would produce. The fatal assumption was that Americans would choose to think and learn, instead of reinforcing their particular choice of cultural ignorance."

The founders would be appalled at this.

Read more: Constructing an american identity - Nationalism

1 comment:

  1. Found the cite at

    Franklin’s situation in London now became uncomfortable; he was deprived of his office of deputy Postmaster-General of the Colonies, which he had held since 1753, was virtually discredited, and generally snubbed. His presentation of the petition afforded an opportunity for his being publicly insulted at the hearing appointed before the Committee for Plantation Affairs, while the press denounced him as a fomenter of sedition. His work in England was done, and although he remained there some time longer, on the chance of still being of possible use, he gladly availed himself of an opportunity, early in 1775, to return to America. Before his departure, however, Lord Chatham had come to his rescue when he was one day attacked with bitterness in the House of Lords, and pronounced upon him this splendid eulogium: “If,” said the great statesman, “I were prime minister and had the care of settling this momentous business, I should not be ashamed to call to my assistance a person so well acquainted with American affairs,—one whom all Europe ranks with our Boyles and Newtons, as an honor, not to the English nation only, but to human nature itself.”

    From this time, 1775, no one accused Franklin of partiality to England. He was wounded and disgusted, and he now clearly saw that there could be no reconciliation between the mother-country and the Colonies,—that differences could be settled only by the last appeal of nations. The English government took the same view, and resorted to coercion, little dreaming of the difficulties of the task. This is not the place to rehearse those coercive measures, or to describe the burst of patriotic enthusiasm which swept over the Colonies to meet the issue by the sword. We must occupy ourselves with Franklin.