A Look at Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer prize in non-fiction for this book in 1964. It has likely never been more valuable reading than today.

His definition for anti-intellectualism is “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life” (7), as “intellect in America is resented as a kind of excellence, as a claim to distinction, as a challenge to egalitarianism” (51). Hofstadter reminds us that anti-intellectualism “is founded in the democratic institutions and in the egalitarian sentiments of this country” (407), and should be understandable, while lamentable.

Intellect is distinguished from intelligence–intelligence is universally prized, while intellect is another animal altogether.

Intelligence: –an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, and predictable range; it is a manipulative, adjustive, unfailingly practical quality

–works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals, and may be quick to shear away questions of thought that do not seem to help in reaching them

–seeks to grasp, re-order, adjust

–will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it

–tied to individuals as well as whole professions

Intellect: –critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind

–examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines

–evaluates evaluations, looks for the meaning of situations as a whole

–not tied to a vocation or profession, but individuals

–has a spontaneous character and inner determination

–has a peculiar poise, which is established by a balance between two basic qualities in the intellectual’s attitude toward ideas: playfulness and piety

(24-28)

An intellectual views the life of the mind (reading, writing, thinking, conversing) as work done in the service of discovering truth, as a kind of moral imperative. This is what leads Hofstadter to refer to the “piety” of an intellectual’s attitude toward ideas. Then too, he notes that intellectuals as a class “have shown the largest and most consistent concern for the well-being of the classes which lie below…[they have] a passion for justice and order” (29).

At the same time, an intellectual’s mind is marked by a playful curiosity that is “inordinately restless and active…which gives a distinctive cast to its view of truth and its discontent with dogmas” (30). This playfulness can mirror the happy, grave concentration of a child trying to shape modeling clay; “there is no contradiction between play and seriousness” (30). And yet, the intellectual does not ask whether the end product of her thinking is practical, just as the child does not ask whether the end product of her modeling clay session is useful–that is beside the point.

Here I pause for a moment to ask what BHS aims to nurture in students–what aligns most closely with my AP English Literature course, for example?

Students must bring their intelligence to the prompt before them: they must read it quickly, grasp its nature and implications, and begin to rapidly formulate a response. However, students will not score in the higher tiers of the rubric if they do not bring their intellect to bear at this point. Their response must indicate a lively curiosity and ease with ideas–they must say something interesting and insightful about the text, not merely show that they comprehend what the original writer is saying.

Somewhere around the mid-point in the year, almost all of my teaching centers on nurturing my students’ intellect–I tell them to trust themselves, to reach within and find their own response, to bring all of their knowledge and ideas and inklings out on the page and to present them persuasively. To make connections between things large and small, and to make a claim about the meaning of the work as a whole. In this way, the task of an AP timed write is a perfect marriage of intelligence and intellect.

Hofstadter comments on intellectuals often aligning with the left side of the political spectrum, and on the tendency for anti-intellectual sentiments to arise in conjunction with the right–he shows that the progressive point of view is the same mindset of the 16th-century revolutionary Americans: the belief that life can be made better, that poverty and oppression do not have to be endured, that the pursuit of happiness is everyone’s business (44). He also shows why a conservative point of view is likely to be deeply unsettled by this, using John Dewey’s words: “If we once start thinking, no one can guarantee what will be the outcome, except that many objects, ends and institutions will be surely doomed. Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril, and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place” (45).

When we look at some of the strands of settlers of the American colonies, we see that they brought a strong intellectual influence with them; for example, the Puritan settlers “laid the basis of an educational system and…a community morale in matters of study which made New England and the New England mind distinguished in the history of American culture for three centuries. The clergy spread enlightenment as well as religion, fostered science as well as theology, and provided models of personal devotion to things of the mind in tiny villages where such examples might otherwise not have been seen” (61).

And yet the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s created a movement away from intellectualism, a movement in which individual, direct spiritual knowledge was regarded as more true, more pure, and more desireable than study and learning (70). This egalitarian infusion profoundly changed the character of American Protestant strains of religion–I am reminded of Harold Frederic’s 1896 novel The Damnation of Theron Ware, which features a Methodist clergyman deeply disturbed by the anti-intellectual bent of his new town in upstate New York.

During the revolutionary ferment, the shapers of our nation also prized learning and the life of the mind; “when the United States began its national existence, the relationship between intellect and power was not a problem. The leaders were the intellectuals” (145).

By contemporary European standards of administration, Washington’s initial criteria for appointments to Federal offices was high. He demanded competence, and he also emphasized both the public repute and the personal integrity of his appointees, in the hope that to name “such men as I conceive would give dignity and lustre to our National Character” would strengthen the new government (169).

“The first truly powerful and widespread impulse to anti-intellectualism in American politics was…the Jacksonian movement. Its distrust of expertise, its dislike for centralization, its desire to uproot the entrenched classes, and its doctrine that important functions were simple enough to be performed by anyone” (156) directly pushed back on the value of educated persons leading civic life in the country–and yet, it is clear that many intellectuals of the day (including Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne) generally went along with the Jacksonian democracy.

For all of my love of the English Romantic poets and the values they espoused, I see these values turned to grotesque and giddy support of Jackson as U.S. president: “Jackson, it was said, had been lucky enough to have escaped the formal training that impaired the ‘vigor and originality of the understanding.’ Here was a man of action, ‘educated in Nature’s school,’ who was ‘artificial in nothing’, who had fortunately ‘escaped the training and dialectics of the schools’; who had a ‘judgement unclouded by the visionary speculations of the academician’–Behold then, the unlettered man of the West, the nursling of the wilds…little versed in books, unconnected by science to the tradition of the past, raised by the will of the people to the highest pinnacle of honour…What policy will he pursue? What wisdom will he bring with him from the forest? What rules of duty will he evolve from the oracles of his own mind?” (159).

We might as well say of Trump: He has been lucky enough to have escaped full literacy, to have been ignorant of biographies, histories, nuanced and reflective books which might have impaired his simplistic understanding of the world and his place in it. Here is a man of impulsive action, educated in business’s school to seize on every loophole and maximize profit without regard for human rights or suffering, a man who has a judgement unclouded by the complex realities revealed by academic knowledge–Behold then, the unlettered man of the people, the nursling of the xenophobic and the bigots…little versed in books, unconnected by science to the tradition of the past, raised by the will of the people to the highest pinnacle of honour…What previously announced policies will he pursue? What wisdom will he bring with him from Fox News and his circle of inexperienced advisors? What rules of duty will he evolve from the oracles of Bannon’s mind?

Let’s take a closer look at what Trump’s business background means for anti-intellectualism. Hofstadter says, “No doubt there is a certain measure of inherent dissonance between business enterprise and intellectual enterprise: being dedicated to different sets of values, they are bound to conflict” (233). I agree with Hofstadter’s summary of American novelists’ treatment of businessmen characters: they are “almost always depicted as crass, philistine, corrupt, predatory, domineering, reactionary, and amoral” (233). Of course, real life is complex, and by some, business is considered to be a way of life; by others, a way to life, a single side of a many-sided existence (244), as with Andrew Carnegie. Despite the simplification, even unfairness of many novelists’ portrayals, such characterizations serve to warn society of the potential for business dealings to corrupt character. How many of those descriptors fit Trump to a T? No wonder he rang the alarm bells early on for those who read widely.

Returning to history, not until the Progressive Era did the country feel more at ease with intellectuals–and it was the “moral and intellectual requirements of the period” (198) that created a reliance on experts and an acceptance of them.

Scholars like John Dewey were “animated by the heartening sense that the gulf between the world of theory and the world of practice had been finally bridged” (205). At the same time, President Teddy Roosevelt gave voice to a false dichotomy that has long plagued the popular view of intellect when he said “character is far more important than intellect” (208); he spoke as if it is possible to only have one or the other in abundance. Positioning character as an opposite trait to intellect falsely paints the thoughtful, knowledgeable person as someone lacking in conviction, ethical standards, and principles.

As the Progressive Era faded, “the evolution controversy and the Scopes trial greatly quickened the pulse of anti-intellectualism” (130).

“When Clarence Darrow said at Scopes’s trial that ‘every child ought to be more intelligent than his parents’, he was raising the specter that frightened the fundamentalists the most. This was precisely what they did not want, if being more intelligent meant that children were meant to abandon parental ideals and desert parental ways” (127). Not put to rest in 1925, this conflict has risen larger than ever with the appointment of Betsy De Vos as Education Secretary. At issue is the very nature and role of education in a democracy.

Hofstadter claims, “ours is the only educational system in the world vital segments of which have fallen into the hands of people who joyfully and militantly proclaim their hostility to intellect” (51).  I would wager that Hofstadter’s words here have never been more true at the national level. At the same time, there are hamlets where intellectualism is acknowledged as a desirable quality of educators, and I live in one.

Hofstadter notes that Americans have expected education to “be practical and pay dividends” (299, from Rush Welter’s 1962 study on Popular Education and Democratic Thought in America).

As the sage-on-the-stage model of education gave way to John Dewey’s student-centered philosophy of education, Hofstadter notes that “there was very little place in Dewey’s schoolroom for the contemplative or bookish child, for whom schooling as a social activity is not a thoroughly satisfactory procedure” (383). I would add that as 21st-century education philosophy has embraced even more group work and project-based learning, one of the unfortunate side-effects is a potential disaffection of intellectual students, who often need quiet thinking time during the process, not only before plunging in with peers who may or may not usefully augment their complex ideas.

Inasmuch as intellectual work is creative work, Hofstadter brings up another salient point worth considering: “The truly creative mind is hardly ever so much alone as when it is trying to be sociable” (426).

A final note on anti-intellectualism as described by Hofstadter:

During the 1930s Europe lost its political and moral authority, and fascism sent refugee artists and scholars fleeing to the United States. The tidal flow of whole schools of art historians, political scientists, and sociologists made the U.S. the intellectual capital of the Western world (414-415).

I feel a tremendous sense of loss as America loses her political and moral authority. I also feel a tremendous sense of hope that the pursuit of truth and enlightenment is worthwhile, and that more than ever, thoughtful people are roused to read and reason and respond.

Further reading: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/11/richard-hofstadters-tradition/377296/

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/06/books/review/06tanenhaus.html

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