Anti-Intellectualism: Harbinger of a Nation's Decline
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China)
March 10, 2014
Summary: Many academics who become cabinet members give up high-paying jobs. They contribute their professional insights. They could have criticized from the sidelines. But they chose to emerge from academia to practice their professions. They chose to contribute. To level such blanket condemnations of academics is unfair. If anything, we should be more concerned about anti-intellectual political commentary. It has already added fuel to the fire of an increasingly populist society. Anti-intellectualism is the harbinger of social and national decline.
Full text below:
The economy has remained in a long-term slump. Government policies have inspired little public confidence. People are depressed. The public questions the ability of officials to govern. Public fora echo with criticisms of politics and the government. The general impression is that the Ma administration consists mainly of Ph.Ds sequestered in ivory towers, and has little idea how the other half lives. The expressions "bu shi ren jian yan huo" and "tian long guo" have become rote criticisms.
Recently the local media has begun arguing that "Taiwan's worst mistake was allowing intellectuals to lead the nation to disaster." Some even argue that "If a government has too many Ph.Ds, it is not a blessing. It is a tragedy!" These are among the harshest criticisms of "rule by academia."
A number of charges have recently been leveled against academics within the cabinet. They include, "They are leading the nation to disaster," "When in office, they use their positions to engage in plunder," "They lack real dedication," "They are extremely arrogant," "They refuse to admit that they do not understand," and "They refuse to listen to ordinary people." Among the usual criticisms of "rule by academia," these are perhaps the most negative and most hostile. To refer to such criticisms as "anti-intellectual" is no exaggeration. The role of intellectuals has been vilified, even demonized. As a result, it did not require much of a stretch to blame the Ma government's crisis of governance on "Too many Ph.Ds."
But this is an unconvincing argument. Evaluating a nation's governance is not easy. At the macro level, there is the global business cycle and regional geopolitical competition. At the micro level, there are matters of government vs. opposition rivalry, policy orientation, and even leadership style. Any and all of these could be reasons. To offer "Too many Ph.Ds" as the sole reason is probably the most bizzarre reasoning of all.
If this reasoning is correct, then the Ph.Ds and professors in the administration should be herded back to the campus. They should be replaced with less educated candidates with high school diplomas at best. The current governance issues will then magically be solved. Clearly no one with any modicum of common sense would ever make such an argument.
Interestingly enough, former President Lee Teng-hui's cabinet was filled with university professors and Ph.Ds. The percentage was as high as it is in today's Ma cabinet. No one seemed to have any criticisms of them back then. Lee was followed by President Chen Shui-bian. Then Academia Sinica President Lee Yuantse mobilized a large group of academics. He even formed a "National Policy Advisory Group" in support of Chen's election campaign. Chen Shui-bian remained in power for eight years. During that time his cabinet had no shortage of professors and Ph.Ds. When the Chen government scandals erupted, no one argued that "academics led the nation towards disaster." The intellectuals who were made cabinet members were beatified as contributing to "clean government." They were praised for "upgrading the government." The intellectuals who are cabinet members today on the other hand, are vilified as a "leading the nation towards disaster." Their involvement is characterized as a "tragedy." To paraphrase President Ma's famed expression, "If this is not a double standard, what is a double standard?"
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently urged university professors to emerge from their ivory towers to actively debate and research public issues, and to have the courage to exert influence. In an article entitled "Professors, We Need You!" Kristoff wrote, "Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don't matter in today's great debates." He urged scholars not to isolate themselves from society. When a public issue arises, they must not be as disoriented as the public. He thinks university professors have more and more tools by which they can educate the public. Kristof concluded by saying, "So, professors, don't cloister yourselves like medieval monks -- we need you!"
Kristof may not realize it. But the vision expressed in "Professors, We Need You!" was long ago realized on Taiwan. But it has been demonized by some as the chief culprit in misgovernance.
Does the ability to govern have any relationship to the number of academics in the cabinet? That is a question that can be debated. Ph.Ds and professors may have their own prejudices on the matter, based on their own specialities. A cabinet consisting entirely of Ph.Ds could find itself mired in rational decision-making while ignoring the feelings of ordinary citizens. That does not mean one must reject "rule by academia" in toto, or make generalizations such as "leading the nation towards disaster," or even referring to their involvement as a "tragedy."
Many academics who become cabinet members give up high-paying jobs. They contribute their professional insights. They have no fear of slander or criticisms. To characterize them as "predatory" is grossly unfair. Many of them could have remained on campus, above it all. They could have criticized from the sidelines. But they chose to emerge from academia to practice their professions. They chose to contribute. To level such blanket condemnations of academics is unfair. If anything, we should be more concerned about anti-intellectual political commentary. It has already added fuel to the fire of an increasingly populist society. Anti-intellectualism is the harbinger of social and national decline.