12/01/2011 01:22 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2012

The War on Education

Several years ago, a conservative fellow I was talking with got into a lather about a criticism he often heard. "Why is it," he asked, "that liberals always say that Republican politicians aren't smart?"

I politely avoided the quick answer. Besides, it wouldn't have explained things properly. The truth is that "Republican politicians" aren't remotely stupid. And there are plenty of Democratic politicians who are head-banging idiots.

That doesn't mean the ball field is equal. It's not. And conservatives only have themselves to blame for the rules they wrote and have been playing by for over half-a-century:

You Can't Trust Really Smart People, Education Gets in the Way of Common Sense, Science is the Enemy of Religious Faith, College is for Over-privileged Elitists, Facts Matter Less Than What You Believe.

Those are the familiar rules that Republicans created. But it's only the starting point. Because after making the rules, they played the game.

When Adlai Stevenson ran again Dwight Eisenhower for president in 1952, the big criticism that Republicans launched against Stevenson was that he was "an egghead." Meaning, he was much too smart to be trusted.

When John Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Republicans disparaged him for filling the White House with his "Harvard Mafia." Meaning, there were all these people so smart they were scary dangerous.

After Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, he put college students high on his Enemies List. Meaning...well, that one's pretty obvious. Especially considering that troops were later sent onto the campus of Kent State, and four students were shot dead.

In 1988, the first George Bush campaigned for president as "the education president" - yet in a speech to service workers in Los Angeles explained it wasn't necessary to go to college. This was an absolutely valid position, but spoke volumes from a leader supposedly promoting education.

When the second George Bush was president, he trumpeted his "No Child Left Behind" program - and then under-funded it, leaving those very schoolchildren far behind.

In 1996, the Republican Party platform stood for abolishing the Department of Education.

Last year, 111 Republican senators, congressman or national candidates were on record to abolish the Department of Education.

This only touches the surface of the ground-and-air war against education that conservatives have been playing. A relentless pounding against the importance of education, to reject facts, ignore history, dismiss science. To mistrust the news media. When information is diminished, it requires needing to rely on others. It demands having faith that others will lead you safely.

Indeed, it is no accident that conservative politicians court the religious right as their party's base. Religion is centered on belief, on unquestioning faith. And that is the path to unquestioning faith in everything.

It is no wonder that New Yorker author Ron Suskind reported a Bush White House official ridiculing those who live in "the reality-based community."

It is no wonder that the far right dismisses the science of global warming. And when science offers the breadth of cures from stem-cell research, we saw the far right fight the science.

And it is no wonder that conservatives cry to see Barack Obama's report card, hoping the mere suggestion will demean his impressive education that includes being elected president of the Harvard Law Review and graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law School.

If one doubts this, consider that you never heard Republicans demand to see George Bush's college report card. Or called for the report cards of John McCain - who graduated 894 out of 899 students at the Naval Academy. Or insisted that Ronald Reagan release his report cards from Eureka College, where he did theatricals.

Yet Republicans made Ronald Reagan a conservative god. And it had zero to do with his education. And y'know, it didn't even have as much to do with his conservative credentials, given how often he raised taxes, massively increased the national debt, signed a bill for amnesty to illegal immigrants and, as governor, signed an abortion rights bill. He might not be able to get past the primaries if he ran today.

Many conservatives don't realize all these things about Mr. Reagan's politics, but then...well, that's the whole point of education, which teaches you how to learn such quaint things.

But when you are told for half-a-century that you can't trust smart people and science, you end up with a party that lays itself open to a leadership vacuum.

And so, at one time or another, we get Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, a pizza guy and even Sarah Palin leading the pack for the Republican nomination. And now Newt Gingrich, who, as Paul Krugman put it, is a "stupid man's idea of what a smart person sounds like."

No doubt, some will be up in arms by how supposedly-elitist this all is. Of course, wanting everyone to be as educated as possible is the exact opposite of elitism.

But then, calling others "education elitists" is one of those standard, conservative rules to demean education. Which proves the point.

Which brings us back, finally, to my conservative acquaintance wondering why liberals always say that Republican politicians aren't smart. The problem is that he was looking at the wrong thing. This isn't a matter of who is smart. There will always be people much smarter than you, me and even the smart people. Reading about a Francis Bacon, Voltaire, Galileo, Denis Diderot or Benjamin Franklin can only make one feel breathtaking awe. Republicans and Democrats are both bright and foolish. What this is about is the intentional, driven campaign for 60 years of Republican Party leadership to intentionally downgrade the importance of education. And what results from that when a party does such a thing to itself.

In short, it's simple: if you don't want to be angered when your candidates are perceived as less than brilliant, then promote brilliance. Don't make it your platform to abolish the Department of Education. Don't claim that opinion supplants fact.

Ultimately, though, there is something far more important at issue than mere politics.

Will Durant, with his wife Ariel, wrote the legendary Story of Civilization. Eleven volumes, over 8,000 pages of discovery that remains today insightful, even-handed and remarkable. And after they finished, they put together The Lessons of History. Written over 40 years ago, in 1968, its perception is as fresh as any news headline you will read.

"Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign. Education has spread, but intelligence is perpetually retarded by the fertility of the simple. A cynic remarked that 'you mustn't enthrone ignorance just because there is so much of it.' However, ignorance is not long enthroned, for it lends itself to manipulation by the forces that mold public opinion. It may be true, as Lincoln supposed, that 'you can't fool all the people all the time,' but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country."