There has been much discussion in the last few years of increasing income equality in the United States. The top 1% (or .01%) is garnering more and more of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50% or more is losing ground. There is another gap that is growing—one related to income inequality but not identical with it. I mean the knowledge gap between those who are highly educated and the rest of the populace. America’s top academic and research institutions continue to be among the very best in the world. America’s primary and secondary schools continue to produce mediocre results at best: grade school and high school students are consistently well down in the international rankings. The result is that we have a relatively small elite of specialists (scientists, social scientists, humanists) with deep understanding and competence in their own fields, while the ignorance of the American people as whole on subjects ranging from climate change to geography to history has become the subject of late night comedy. The knowledge gap cannot be wholly explained by the income gap. Many wealthy religious fundamentalists and their congressional representatives proudly assert their rejection of climate science or evolution. For example, multimillionaire Senator James Inhofe, the poster child for climate change denial, is now chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. American political culture finds this acceptable, because a large minority of the American electorate shares his ignorance.
There is a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in American life, but our current culture moment feels different. The breakdown of cultural hierarchy in the second half of the twentieth century applied not only to the arts, but also to the humanities and the sciences. As a result each intellectual community is now on its own, as it were. When challenged, it has to assert its legitimacy over and over. Evolutionary biologists cannot depend on our society’s acceptance of the legitimacy of the physical sciences (or higher learning) in general; they are expected to make the case for evolution again and again before an ill-informed court of public opinion. The same is true of climate science and will now be true of any scientific or academic community whose work is seen as threatening by any substantial American community of belief. Such questioning of authority would be healthy in a well-educated society. The problem is that, beyond the 1%, America is not well-educated. What we have is a highly elite system of education in a society that no longer believes in elites.