It’s hard to quarrel with that ancient justification of the free press: “America’s right to know.” It seems almost cruel to ask, ingenuously, ”America’s right to know what, please? Science? Mathematics? Economics? Foreign languages?”Newsweek: “A Cult of Ignorance” by Isaac Asimov, January 21, 1980, p. 19. PDF.
None of those things, of course. In fact, one might well suppose that the popular feeling is that Americans are a lot better off without any of that tripe.
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has 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.”
Isaac Asimov was a prolific author as well as a renowned scientist. He wrote many popular science books. I personally found out about him at a younger age through his highly regarded science-fiction novels. I grew up reading most of them.
The excerpt quoted above has been reproduced numerous time online. I thought I could produce a copy of the whole article which really is interesting in its entirety. The article is also listed in A Guide to Isaac Asimov’s Essays in the “Various Source” section. It appears with a mention signaling the fact that it was never republished in any collections.
Here’s another excerpt from the same article:
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 (provided you promise not to use their names and shame them before their neighbors), but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulations of half a million. It may be that only 1 per cent–or less―of American 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.
I contend that the slogan “America’s right to know” is a meaningless one when we have an ignorant population, and that the function of a free press is virtually zero when hardly anyone can read.