When asked why he was doing away with free college in California, Reagan said that the role of state “should not be to subsidize intellectual curiosity”. The source for this comment is Thom Hartmann’s “Rebooting the American Dream”.
Here, like for decades after, the ideal of “intellectual curiosity” is talked about as if its an immoral sexual act that the kids are doing these days and it must be stopped. You can disagree with whether college education should be free or even if public universities should exist. I think you’re wrong, but it’s a legitimate dependable point of view. What is not legitimate is an assault against intellectual curiosity. Such curiosity is what gives birth to great ideas. It allows a political leader to integrate the lessons of history with the new challenges of today. I would even argue that the patience required for learning is the kind of patience that leads to genuine compassion.
Perhaps the reason a president can say something as absurd as the above quote is that most of the people in public life are not scientists. They are lawyers, businessmen, doctors, etc. And while members of all of those professions are certainly intelligent and curious about the way the world works, “intellectual curiosity” is not quite the staple for them that it is for scientists. Science progresses through a mechanism of rigorous skepticism, which requires one to constantly ask “Why?” and seek proof in whatever form possible. So, I think the fact that scientists are for the most part absent from public life in the United States contributes to the simplification of political discourse, and Reagan’s statement is just one of many examples of it.