TAmerica has from its beginning thumbed its nose at authority. Especially authority that centered around knowledge. This was one of the contributions of the Great Awakening. Before the Great Awakening it was thought the educated elite would be able to lead the masses the right way. Therefore education and advanced theological training were for the rich and elite. But what happened way too often was the educated elite ruled the masses for their personal gain with little regard for the masses. But In America the concept of universal education and individuals having a voice in the things that concern them took strong hold. The Great Awakening theology challenged the Old School of religion. You were not elected but made a choice for salvation. The Holy Spirit was available not just to the elected elites and priest but also to the common man. This became ingrained in the revolutionary mind. Thomas Paine writes Common Sense meaning things that anyone who thinks could know. It was an age of everyone should have access to knowledge and everyone could be enlightened.
Flash forward approximately 232 years and this disrespect of the authority of knowledge is alive and well. Universities’ feet are held to the fire. The scientific community has lost some of their authority. All of this would be fine except we have not really given up authority of institutions or people. Many have merely changed their sources of authority. The new authority does not have to go through any academic rigor they merely have to sound good and not challenge the status quo. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glen Beck all are college dropouts. They all have higher ratings than PhD In political science Rachel Maddow or Ivy League graduates Chris Hayes and Lawrence O’Donnell. Fox News and talk radio are the only and trusted source for some people.
Many are no longer personal thinkers: they are followers (Limbaugh fans in fact tongue in cheek call themselves ‘ditto heads’). These new generation of pundits yearn to have the approval of academia. This is evidenced with the practice of ‘academic’ books ghost-written for them in an attempt to gain notoriety for their intellectual endeavors. They use terms such as Limbaugh Institute and Beck University as though wishing they had the credentials of a professor.
We need yet a new revolution in the way we think about authority. If we are to be our own authorities we have to do the work. Watching a television news show for a couple of hours doesn’t make you an expert. If you are exposed primarily to only one point of view that does not make you an expert. We also must learn to listen to those who have put the time in. We do not have to agree but it helps to have opinions to bounce off. We also must become life-long learners. Many college graduates after graduation rarely read another serious book again. So their knowledge ten years later is dated. For example if you received a history degree in the eighties but have not continue to read you would not have studied 911, Afghan War, Clinton Impeachment and so on. You would have opinions on the subjects formed by your dated education but you would not necessarily be an expert on the subjects.
Plus the authorities we choose must prove to be worthy. You should have a job description in your head of what your expert’s qualifications should be. Personally, I give less credence to experts who show no life experience to also draw on. I do give credence to those who have spent years of their life dedicated to the study of a subject (PhDs). We also must ask, are we an expert on what we talk? Are we an authority?
What the country desperately needs is for everyone to be their own thinkers but also return to a modicum of respect for the traditional intellectual institutions. Throwing the baby out with the bath water has never been the solution. When Mao did his Cultural Revolution he attacked the educated and artists. He was attempting to rid the Western influence on Chinese Culture. While it is debatable how successful he was at this, he was successful at gutting most of the creative class. Which may have put China a few decades behind.
We have people who follow authorities who want to take our country back to the mythical fifties when white, heterosexual, males were the authorities. But the country has changed in demographics and values. Which brings other cultures and people to have claims on authority too. Martin Luther King Jr. shared a new vision for America. Cesar Chavez also has grown our vision, and many others who would not have a voice in the white culture we once had. The trick for us in the current cultural place we find ourselves is not to throw the white way out with the bath water. We need a shared culture that includes all. But in the end I am afraid: if the white, heterosexual, male does not allow other voices of authority their proper place, they will engender the need for the white voice to be thrown away.