The Mis-education of the US Populace: The Danger of Disinformation and Anti-Intellectualism in the Age of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Columbus Schools superintendent Talisa Dixon talks to students at Trevitt Elementary in King-Lincoln. OLIVIA MILTNER / WOSU

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Issac Asimov

Introduction
Anti-Intellectualism is the cryptonite of a democracy. In other words, an uneducated, ignorant citizenry can greatly weaken or completely kill a democracy. Indeed a lack of respect for education can render a society unrecognizable as a democracy and actually usher in a totalitarian government. When we as a society begin to discredit knowledge and intelligence, and undermine the value of education we relegate ourselves to a great loss of freedom. The mistakes made at that point would have great economic consequences, which will ultimately cost lives. The citizenry are all left to their own whim. There is a biblical passage that states “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” This is our lot if we continue to castigate the learned, discredit educational institutions and even cut funding for public education and institutions of higher learning.

Misinformation
We have written about the deliberate effort of the Russian government to sow discord in the US political process by spreading false information on social media. You can view our previous article on the topic here.

These efforts have an even more sinister effect when false information is spread about how we should combat a deadly virus. Consider the article Hatred going viral in ‘dangerous epidemic of misinformation’ during COVID-19 pandemic that discusses all of the information available on how to combat COVID-19 that goes against medical science and common knowledge.  

Hitler and misinformation
The idea of operating from a political platform of deliberate lies and advancing mistruths to cover up one’s own failures and missteps is nothing new. Hitler was one of the first in modern times to intentionally mislead the public for his own political advantage. The New York Times sheds light on this little known topic in their article entitled “How Hitler Pioneered Fake News”. In the US we have to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes and allow leaders to shun education and scientific research.

Mao Zedong and Re-education
Mao Zedong in his cultural revolution and specifically his great leap forward shut all of the schools down in China in 1960’s and used his political platform to berate and discredit all of the educated in society (including young people) and had them do hard labor in the countryside as a sort of reeducation. He classified the educated elite (The so-called bourgeoisie) as enemies of the state. What can we learn from Mao Zedong and his attack on education that will help us fight against misinformation in the US today?  

Conclusion
Educators can help students study history to understand the present and not repeat the same mistakes we have made in the past. Studying the past is a great way to educate our youth and help them understand the value of knowledge. Teachers should prepare units and lessons that help students understand how to determine whether information is valid or not. Here are some resources and lessons exploring more historical examples and the dangers of misinformation:

Misinformation and Democracy
Misinformation is a Threat to Democracy in the Developing World
Impact of Misinformation on the Democratic Process
From the National History Center: Democracy and Misinformation

Education and Democracy
On Education & Democracy – 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession
Standing on the Frontlines for Democracy 25 Lessons Learnt on Education and Democracy
Lesson Plan #1: Introducing Democratic Education
Teaching Tolerance: A Call for Democratic Education

Resources and Lessons on Chinese Culture Revolution
Lesson Plan #1 – Cultural Revolution: “Reality vs. Government Claims”
Lesson plan for “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” poster set
China’s Cultural Revolution, Explained
Resources for Teaching about the Personality Cult of Chairman Mao
The Cultural Revolution: all you need to know about China’s political convulsion
China’s Cultural Revolution
Mao Zedong, Freedom of Speech and Re-education

19 Comments

  1. This is a very timely article with the presidential election happening roughly six months from now. It is frightening to envision an America descended into a totalitarian state. It seems easier in the present time to shout your opinion as fact on Facebook and twitter. Sources are rarely cited, and anti-intellectualism is cheered. An easy historical lesson championing knowledge is the fight against polio. Before a polio vaccine was developed thousands would die each year. Jonas Salk created a vaccine which has virtually eliminated polio today. It would be interesting to see how Dr Salk would have fared in today’s anti-intellectual environment.

  2. The “uneducated, ignorant, citizenry” is baffling indeed. I do have a couple question though. Are the people are call COVID-19 a “hoax” the same people of the“Anti-Vaxxers Movement”? Also, You mentioned that it’s the political leaders such as Hitler and Mao Zedong that discredit education in order to gain control in the political field. You concluded the article by saying we should study history in order to learn from our mistakes, but wouldn’t the misinformation brought by the “uneducated citizenry” be different than a leader denouncing education?

  3. Growing up in the digital age, information was surrounding me all the time. Since information was always available by just picking up my phone, I never understood how to sort through it all and even today I still get it mixed up. There are so many examples of misinformation being spread in mass media, especially on YouTube and Facebook. One partial solution is for these enormous platforms to engage in some policies of censorship (simply against misinformation,not against our rights to free speech). It is not right that certain organizations can spread misinformation for their benefit.

  4. This article is very fitting in the times we are in now. The idea that someone who is uneducated and misinformed can have such a huge impact on society and our democracy is astonishing to me. One place that I feel like I see a lot of uneducated and misinformed folks is on facebook. A lot of people have been brainwashed by the mistakes of our president and continue to support and promote him regardless of the tomfoolery he is putting our country throughout this pandemic. I wish there was a way to educate those who are uneducated, or who were denied the proper education to learn about politics and our democracy. My goal as a future educator I want to be that resource to educate them properly.

  5. The abundance of information at our fingertips makes it easy for everyone to think they are an expert. While it is hard sometimes to sift through the garbage to get to the facts that’s our responsibility as citizens, as consumers, as a culture. It’s our responsibility to get informed, to make sure we are using credible sources, and to spread the facts.

  6. I found this article to come at such a perfect time. we are in the age where technology almost controls everything, including the news. Anyone can say anything on a matter and act as though it is facts and true, however, it’s just their opinion. Because of this it is very difficult to navigate to finding the truth on a matter. With so many opinions and misleading information how are we truly to know the truth? Dr. Childs gives good tips and resources to help us not only equip ourselves but our future students in navigating information we see on the internet and from what we hear.

  7. This article, though geared toward educators, can be used by any profession in the light of disinformation and anti-intellectualism. In nursing (my profession) it is such a well-known topic that if one is to Google their illness symptoms, many times the results include cancer as well as impending death. The reality of the situation is that the symptoms a person is facing are explainable and for the most part-treatable, but misinformation and the lack of intellectualism result in people believing what they read, as well as subscribing to uninformed ideas. This sheep-like behavior creates an uninformed public that will believe anything and help to usher in totalitarianism as spoken about in the article.
    With information readily available in the palm of our hands, it is so easy to find what we need; much easier than it were 5, 10, or 15 years ago and this contributes to how easy it is to accept misinformation. Though it’s hard to “teach an old dog new tricks,” I find it very important for our teachers to educate current and future generations on the importance of deciphering information they are exposed to. It is important that we adults model this behavior, but mass acceptance and enacting of interpreting the validity of information is the issue at hand. I don’t think this will ever happen with the majority of society, so teaching this attribute to current and future young people will be of highest importance.

  8. False information has taken a toll on education in today’s society. It has hurt public and private educational institutions around the country; so many of these institutes have lost public funding to provide good quality education to the students who are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend. I would not want to waste money on school and receive an education from a sub pare professor. I think that our government today is overly worried about surrounding countries and what they are doing to sabotage the rights in America when our government sound only worry about what is occurring in present time in our nation. Because of false information being circuited around our country has lost respect for surrounding countries and can no longer really trust anyone with false informations being leaked to the public.

  9. This article could’t be more appropriate with the recent events happening in the world. COVID-19 and political election is two primary sources of false information circulating and polluting the minds of our citizens. I think the opening quote is eye opening. I may print this out to hang in my locker to remind myself to be aware of the information that I allow myself to process and to become aware of how I process information as true or false.

  10. I really enjoy the quote you used to begin this article, especially that phrase “the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”. I think it’s closely relevant to the ideas in chapter one of “Is Everyone Really Equal?” that we went over for class. Opinions should never be placed on the same level as scientifically-proven facts, especially when it comes at a clash between completely uninformed persons and experts in the field that’s under discussion. Anti-intellectualism creeps up in a lot of places throughout our culture. It seems like the fashionable thing to do is doubt experts and create your own knowledge, even when working expertise is already published and available to be studied. I see based on your examples of the governments associated with Hitler and Mao Zedong that anti-intellectual sentiment can actually be dangerous. You wrote, “When we as a society begin to discredit knowledge and intelligence, and undermine the value of education we relegate ourselves to a great loss of freedom.” I agree with this completely, I wish we could as a culture return to valuing genuine knowledge over rhetoric and suppressive movements. I think we should be very suspicious of any leadership that undermines or suppresses the findings of their country’s scholars.

  11. The content of this article is extremely important and relevant especially with the technological advancements of the past two decades. These days anyone can say or post anything anywhere. As a result, education, research, and fact-checking are essential to discussions. Let’s consider the lack of education and the spread of misinformation.

    First, let’s look at the lack of education in America. These days someone with a high school degree, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or a doctoral degree can discuss things and post their inputs on the same platforms. Not only that, but these people all think their opinions are at least as good if not better than the others. Unfortunately, this is not true. Someone with high level degrees is far more educated and has a much more valid input on issues they are educated on than someone with little to no education. They have developed informed knowledge and have created educated opinions that are more valid than opinions with no foundations in research and evidence. This all contributes to misinformation.

    Misinformation is especially critical in today’s society. Companies, politicians, and people post whatever they think will make you feel a certain and react positively to them, regardless of the validity and truthfulness of their post. Even foreign countries interfere. This is the same idea as the propaganda tactics of WWII of WWII. American citizens (and global citizens) without knowledge and informed, educated opinions don’t know what is right or wrong. In addition, they often listen to people based on power rather than earned degrees and titles. A prime example is the cult following of President Trump. People are more likely to listen to Trump on important issues simply because he is President rather than checking the facts and listening to proven experts.

    Lack of education and misinformation are very dangerous weapons in our society. It’s important to know where your facts come from and base your discussions and posts on research and evidence rather than misinformation.

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  13. With access to information available to us at all times, it is so important, now more than ever, for the ability for one to determine what is credible knowledge or opinions. We cannot rely on the platforms to censor misinformation. For one it is a slippery slope between free speech, the impossible amount of information posted to police, and the biggest issue is that misinformation sells. What gets the most clicks, likes, comments, etc.? The more clicks, the more revenue for the platform. I believe that it is up to educators to help students understand history and give them resources to develop critical thinking.

  14. Social media and the internet gives the opportunity to highly educated students (and adults) and give them every side of the story, but a lot of the time it is still used so that people only research/listen to what they want to hear. This article brought up great points about how in the past “fake news” was seen as legitimate and just because people knew nothing else. I also think that in history courses there needs to be more “realness” regarding the fact that the United States has not always been great, especially to minorities. I think the severity is not shown because people want young people to view this as incredible.

  15. This article is very important considering the situation we are in at the moment. The internet is used to gain access to a widespread of information, but we need to make sure we aren’t looking for the topics that are just going to secure our sense of entitlement. Also in education, the importance of teaching children the history of our country is critical. Especially during this time of discord and divide, we need to start teaching children the truth. No more sugarcoating, kids need to learn the real history behind the US’s most critical events.

  16. This article is so important and true. We are being fed false information from the media daily. People need to learn to decipher true from false information. During this pandemic, the media has taken advantage of their power and spread false information to everyone to strike worry and fear into their hearts and it is sad. It is sad that they have the power to do this. It is sad that we give them the power to do this. If anything, the coronavirus pandemic has taught me to pay attention. Pay attention to my surroundings, what I read, and what I see.

  17. I enjoyed reading this article in today’s context. With the upcoming election engrossed in a time of a worldwide pandemic, misinformation is spread rapidly. As a society we are so used to this quick information but lack the motivation to do further research, further spreading misinformation and claiming it as fact.

  18. As a student of Dr. Childs, when he first introduced the topic of anti-intellectualism something clicked within me. I had notices this phenomena going on recently whether it be flat-earthers, anti-vaxers, or COVID deniers. More and more in recent years people have been turning away from science. I know as a student this is a sign of something darker. Countries under the rule of dictators like Hitler and Mao Zedong showed the same rejection of science. As an academic and a future educator is disheartening to see. But I’m not devastated because as Dr. Childs said, I, as an educator, have the power to help students understand and digest history so that we do not repeat our mistakes and failings.

  19. Dr. Childs’ article on mis-education in the populace is very timely given the upcoming election. It HAS been timely for several years as well, as our education system has come under attack by politicians. During the administration of Governor Matt Bevin, there seemed to be an all-out assault on public education and institutions of higher learning in the state of Kentucky. What was the goal? Dr. Childs’ article underlines the importance of valuing our institutions of learning, whether they be Pre-K programs or doctorate programs.
    While it is of the utmost importance to protect education in the United States, we must also, as educators, find ways to teach our students to think critically. We must teach them how to do proper research with reliable resources and not deem something as “fake news” because it pains an unflattering picture of someone they may like or agree with. The dumbing down of our populace has seen an increase in recent years, with President Trump declaring the news media as the “enemy of the people” and sowing distrust among the less educated populace about the validity of any report that does not sing his praises. It is invaluable that we protect our educational institutions and teach our students to reach educated conclusions on topics based on proper research and not YouTube videos or Facebook posts.

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