In 1980, scientist and writer Isaac Asimov argued in an essay that “there is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.” That year, the Republican Party stood at the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, which initiated a decades-long conservative groundswell that many pundits say may finally come to an end in November. GOP strategist Steve Schmidt (who has been regretful about choosing Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate in 2008) recently pointed to what he called “intellectual rot” as a primary culprit, and a cult-like devotion to irrationality among a certain segment of the electorate.
There are 200 million Americans who have inhabited schoolrooms at some time in their lives and who will admit that they know how to read… but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulation of half a million. It may be that only 1 per cent—or less—of Americans make a stab at exercising their right to know. And if they try to do anything on that basis they are quite likely to be accused of being elitists.
Nonetheless, the widespread (though hardly universal) availability of free resources on the Internet has made self-education a reality for many people, and certainly for most Americans. But perhaps not even Isaac Asimov could have foreseen the bitter polarization and disinformation campaigns that technology has also enabled. Needless to say, “A Cult of Ignorance” was not one of Asimov’s most popular pieces of writing. First published on January 21, 1980 in Newsweek, the short opinion piece has never been reprinted in any of Asimov’s collections. You can read the essay as a PDF here.
Isaac Asimov Laments the “Cult of Ignorance” in the United States: A Short, Scathing Essay from 1980
Painting of Asimov on his throne by Rowena Morill, via Wikimedia Commons In 1980, scientist and writer Isaac Asimov argued in an essay that “there is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.”