“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”
Opinions, opinions, opinions… Everyone has at least one, but simply having one doesn’t make it valid or wise. Ideas, unlike people, are not created equal!
I often think about opinions – my own and those of others. Why? Likely due to my belief that opinions are essentially ideas (or thoughts about them) and ideas govern and shape the entire world.
Ideas for me are not simply intangible thoughts that bounce around in our heads; They are living, breathing things.
Seemingly inanimate ideas or opinions, given the right energy and effort, become things that determine just about everything we do.
Think about it.
The coffee you’re drinking, your goals, the money used in your nation (and the economic system that accompanies it), your religion or lack thereof, monogomy/polygamy, law, democracy, socialism, anarchy, Black Nationalism, war, peace, education, healthcare….. ARE ALL IDEAS!
Therefore, I thoroughly respect the (potential) power of ideas and by no means take them lightly. I am, as a result, very suspicious of those that take ideas lightly, those that fail to reconsider their ideas/opinions based on strong evidence that invalidates their opinion, or those who promote poor ideas destined to produce negative outcomes.
It is this inclination of mine – along with brother Malcolm’s call to Wake up Clean up and Stand up – that compels me at times to be critical of certain self-defeating ideas and behaviors we Black folk absorb and promote.
That we are programmed to think certain things or in certain ways, should come as no surprise to Black people. The minds of the oppressed are the playgrounds of the oppressor. They must work feverishly to have us accept completely irrational ideas that keep us under their dominion – or to accept ideas that seem progressive without questioning them.
These ideas may take the form of wise sayings, philosophy, holidays, symbolism, heroic figures, religion/scripture, education, politics, culture or any number of forms.
Ultimately the form itself is not important; The intended outcome of an idea or opinion is what truly matters. All of these ideas are designed to make us compliant, cooperative, powerless and easy to exploit. They all work to insure we will stay in our designated place, enrich/empower our enemies, and never effectively resist and overcome our oppression.
White supremacists, racists, bigots – all hold negative ideas or opinions about Black folk, and they have worked hard to have us internalize and embody these ideas.
Chief among these counterproductive ideas, especially in the Conscious Community, is Anti Intellectualism. Wikipedia defines this as:
An attitude that minimizes the value of intelligence, knowledge, and curiosity. Anti-intellectuals believe that science, expertise and “book knowledge” are less valuable than “street smarts” and “common sense.” They also believe that they don’t have to read anything about a field of knowledge before dismissing it with their own “theories”.
On any street corner, place of worship, workforce, neighborhood or social media platform, you can witness the idea of Anti Intellectualism at work: Beliefs that one must have personally experienced something to understand or demonstrate expertise on the topic. Thinking that life experience alone automatically makes one’s grasp of a topic superior to a person that studied it thoroughly. Rejecting without justification, information or perspectives from a college-educated brother or sister. Suggesting that we don’t need to read, learn or think because such things are not relevant or important. Making it seem as though one cannot appreciate both or benefit from informal and formal education or that the two are in opposition.
I’d like to offer a different perspective on the issue because these pbeliefs threaten to retard our movement for social justice, community empowerment and liberation.
Points to Think About
It is astonishing how some of us have adopted Anti Intellectualism when you consider that many of these individuals are Afrocentric, and our African ancestors held knowledge and reading in high regard.
From the 12th-16th centuries, the University of Sankore in the City of Timbuktu (Mali Empire), was a center of education and scholarship and most notably, the world’s first university. It held a collection of 700,000 books covering subjects like mathematics, astronomy, geography and history.
In the Kemetic (Egyptian) Books of Wise Instruction, Pharaoh Kheti notes:
Follow in the footsteps of your ancestors, for the
mind is trained through knowledge.. Behold, their words
endure in books, Open and read them and follow their
The simple point is that disregard for learning, reading and scholarship have no precedent in Africa or in our experience as a Diaspora. Members of the Black conscious community need to know this. All those who follow brother Malcolm and praise his intelligence should remember the extensive reading he did while incarcerated.
Something to ponder: How did you become acquainted with ancient African history? You read books or viewed clips of people who did, right? If you had to rely only on people with experience, you would be out of luck. No one currently living “experienced” life in ancient Africa!
Are the only people qualified to speak with authority on drug addiction, drug addicts? Are formerly incarcerated brothers the only ones qualified to participate in the prison reform movement? Of course not….and thank God such things aren’t true!
The experience-is-everything argument mistakenly assumes that people with a particular experience have reflected on that experience, learned skills or an important perspective from that experience, or obtained enlightening meaning from that experience. This of course, is not neccessarily true.
Nor is it true that a person’s experience informs them on all aspects of that experience. A soldier can speak about the weapons used, names of personnel and locations visited. He or she might have experienced combat and can recall certain battles and other incidents. However this same soldier might be clueless about the military’s true agenda, the political and economic forces driving the war, agreements made between warring nations, etc.. In this case, the soldier has firsthand experience but his/her perspective might be narrow or limited. A researcher or professor might have more access to certain information than infantrymen.
And Last But Not Least
Reading the accounts of other people and experiences gives us an important benefit: we gain information and perspective without the need or benefit of personal experience. Why shouldn’t we benefit from the research or expertise of others? Why should we have to rely on our own life when reading and researching can increase our knowledge exponentially?
We must identify and eliminate poor and inaccurate ideas and opinions based on them. It is foolish and divisive to resent and ostracized our committed competent and conscious scholars due to unfounded and silly prejudices
It is equally foolish to think one can use the limited perspectives of their experiences to speak with authority on specific issues. The verdict is clear: We must kill and bury senseless Anti Intellectualism and like our ancestors, embrace and appreciate our intellectuals and scholars in addition to life experience and observation.
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.