Joe's Road Trip 2012

2012 Road Trip, Day 18: Among the Academics

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(Katy Steinmetz for TIME)

Tom Bird (R) speaks to Ashton Shortridge, Joe Messina and other professors at Peanut Barrel restaurant during Joe Klein's annual road trip in East Lansing, Mich., on Monday, June 18, 2012.

East Lansing, Michigan

I had a really interesting lunch today with a group of geography professors on the faculty of Michigan State University. These were very smart people and they had a lot of interesting things to say about life, geography and politics–but I’d like to focus on just one topic: why Americans don’t seem to respect the “intellectual elites” very much anymore.

“How can we solve our problems as a society when you have so many people who seem to disdain what we say because we’re academics?” said Alan Arbogast, who put together the group. He was an environmental specialist and he was talking about climate change. “The methods I use–that most of us use–are extremely conservative and strict. Our results are reviewed by our peers. We’re not proposing things that aren’t supported by the scientific method.”

“I’m more of an independent Republican, libertarian type,” said Joe Messina, who spends a lot of time traversing the equator, studying the effects of geography and environment on disease. “But my fellow Republicans think of me as a RINO [Republican In Name Only] when I start talking about the work I do. Their position on science is indefensible.”

Julia Miller, a student majoring in plant biology made a very interesting point: that science had changed so much since many of the people deriding scientists had been in school, and those people had a tendency not to believe things they weren’t taught. “My parents didn’t learn what DNA was until they were adults,” she said (although it was clear that Julia’s parents had taken the time to learn about that paradigm-shattering discovery).

But Tom Bird, a retired member of the MSU Education faculty made the best point of all: “A lot of my colleagues were deeply angry about the anti-intellectual attitude in the society at large. But there was a lack of reciprocity. There were a lot of very smart people in the College of Education who thought about things in a certain way–many of them were very left. They were dismayed by the sort of people we had as students. We got a lot of kids from the suburbs, and many of them have a Republican sensibility. Some of the teachers actually had contempt for the people they taught–and the students, of course, sensed it.

“The students would hear a pretty strident left-Democratic message from their professors and they’d cover up. They’d give the teachers what they wanted to hear in order to survive,” he said, instead of challenging them, starting a real conversation and actually learning something. And then the students grew up, went out and became citizens. “I think,” said Bird, who was, by the way, a strong Obama supporter, “that a lot of Americans are showing the intellectuals the same contempt that they were shown as students.”

There was a moment of silent reflection around the table. These academics were, clearly, rigorous rather than reflexive–and they had just heard an argument that rang a little bit too true for comfort.

Upon Reflection: That last sentence is imprecise. I didn’t mean to imply that these academics disdained their students. After spending several hours with them, I’m quite sure that they’re not the sort of people who would do that. They were, one and all, smart and decent folks. What I meant to imply was that they were not unfamiliar with professors of the sort Tom Bird described. (I’ve certainly met more than a few of those.)

On the larger point, the celebration of ignorance that marks certain precincts of the Republican Party is a national disgrace. The disdain for the “intellectual elite” is cheesy populism of a particularly noxious sort. There is a tendency on the part of some academics, of both the left and the right, to propound simplistic theories of human behavior. There is also the ivory tower effect: those who live in their minds are less likely to spend their evenings watching Dancing With the Stars, or other bulwarks of popular culture. But the pure pursuit of knowledge–the scientific method that Alan Arbogast describes–is one of the most essential human enterprises. I’m really grateful to the Michigan State geographers for raising this issue. It was a great lunch.