Gates Chemistry Library at the California Institute of Technology in 1944, courtesy of WikiCommons

I want to talk broadly about anti-intellectualism. But first, allow me to state clearly something I wholeheartedly believe and think others should adopt:

Knowledge is the antidote to fear.

My wife didn’t like monster movies. Gave her nightmares. To help, we began to watch behind-the-scenes featurettes on makeup and creature effects. Then we got really into the SyFy show FaceOff. Now, when we watch monster movies she spends more time in appreciation of the craft behind the monsters than being afraid of them.

It’s a simple concept. The more we know about something, the less we need to be afraid of it. Spiders are scary, right? But what if I told you that most household spiders don’t even have fangs large enough to pierce human skin (in the Northeast, anyway)? And that spiders actually protect us from other, more dangerous insects that might get into our homes by eating them? For me, learning these things have made spiders less frightening and has helped me to distinguish between those insects I should be careful of versus those I can pay no mind.

While that’s just one example, it’s always been true across every area of our lives. Disease was terrifying and mysterious until we learned about viruses and developed vaccines. Things like drought were thought to be the acts of gods we had to appease until we learned about weather patterns and climate and adjusted our crop cycles accordingly. We no longer had to be afraid of starvation when we could time our yield for the rainy season or move to more fertile areas.

Although I find this fact–that knowledge is the antidote to fear–to be common sense, there is a strange strain of anti-intellectualism prevalent in our society. It started with forced ignorance, where only white men with property were afforded education. Today, though, I’d argue ignorance is more often than not a choice (recognizing, of course, the very real and very limiting disparities in access to quality education for minorities and poor people). We see this in children, where kids deemed smart are targeted for bullying. It’s instilled at a young age that to be perceived as intelligent is to be perceived as weak. Culturally, we reinforce this with geek vs. jock and beauty queen vs. bookworm narratives. Not only is it wrong–it’s dangerous.

Knowledge is strength in anything for which it’s applied. The reason we’re able to live safely, far past the lifespans of our ancestors, is because of advances in our collective knowledge earned over centuries. To be purposefully ignorant tells me you have no interest in basic survival.

We should celebrate curiosity and learning. Raise those with special interests and skills to the top of our culture so that we can all benefit. Most importantly, we should all strive to better ourselves. Not because of any internal (emotional, spiritual, or otherwise) motivation, but because it will make us safer and stronger as individuals and as communities.