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Anti-Intellectualism Essay

[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963)

Richard Hofstadter


O. Alan Weltzien
English
UM-Western

Richard Hofstadter's famous Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, his tenth book, earned him the Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction (1964). This "personal book," called "a critical inquiry" in his first chapter (20), remains one of this esteemed American historian's most famous titles. As an active scholar, he had weathered the 1950s witch hunt against intellectuals and artists of many stripes, and this proved a pivotal event in his thinking, as reflected in several of his books. Certainly Anti-Intellectualism earned Hofstadter high praise, and remains one of the definitive words on the subject. I recall leafing through it somewhere along the path through high school or college. Though much of its historical content bypassed me, I remember feeling a sense of validation for the person I was endeavoring to become. Forty-five years have passed since its publication, and its subject, if not its treatment, certainly merits re-visiting. In this essay I shall review some of Hofstader's claims for comparative purposes: to assess what has changed in the intervening two generations. How have conditions for intellectuals improved or worsened? Have new social conditions or new technologies further marginalized their status, for example? If the 1950s represented an apex of the anti-intellectual cycle, as Hofstadter speculates, I harbor doubts that it has lessened much or any since then. Quite the contrary. Arguably, the social status of intellectuals has plunged steadily downward since 1963. If, according to Hofstadter, anti-intellectualism ebbs and flows in cycles, I cannot feel the ebb.

It is hard to dispute the lessening role of intellectuals given the release, in September 2007, of a well-respected national poll indicating that, in the preceding year, 27% of American adults had not read a single book. The age groups and gender lines are dismally predictable (older folks read more, younger, less; women read far more than men). Who's got time or interest to read when there are so many more "important" things to do?

Many critics have traced, over the past generation or more, the near or virtual disappearance of public intellectuals: few or no more Walter Lippmanns or Edmund Wilsons, for example, thrive in our society. Presumably most American intellectuals in the young 21st century make a living in think tanks or in the groves of academe (which phrase Mary McCarthy borrowed for her satiric novel). Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in an Age of Academe, arguably a descendent of Hofstadter's book, makes this case, claiming that ivory tower intellectuals have retreated into their specializations, including specialized languages that exclude the interested lay public, thus furthering Hofstadter's anti-intellectual thesis. Nothing like coterie language to anger outsiders who might want in.

It's hard to argue that professors play any vital role in the power structures of Montana. In my career, the case could be made that intellectuals, academic or otherwise, have been placed so far from centers of influence or leadership that they no longer even merit the role of scapegoats as they did, to some extent, half a century ago. Hofstadter's seminal study rehearses our marginal role by chronicling the long history of American anti-intellectualism. In this essay I shall touch upon particular areas of its abiding currency.

Hofstadter framed his big book with two introductory chapters and, eventually, a long epilogue that traces the place of intellectuals in terms of the alternating poles of alienation and conformity. I do not find the closing analysis a persuasive explanation for his subject in the later twentieth century. In his first chapter, he defines anti-intellectualism as "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). In the process, he distinguishes it from intelligence and professionalism. He argues that, by the mid-twentieth century, anti-intellectualism was pervasive but not dominant in American culture, claiming that "the greater part of the public...has an ingrained distrust of eggheads, but also a genuine yearning for enlightenment and culture" (19). Half a century later, I doubt the latter and believe there is generous evidence to confirm my doubts. "Egghead," a staple of cartoonists for a long time, became the flash word for anti-intellectuals in the unquiet 1950s. Hofstadter approaches the 1950s, the reign of McCarthyism above all, from a number of vantages throughout his study. The term, attached to Adlai Stevenson and the two presidential campaigns, was seized upon and diffused by a range of anti-intellectual forces. If anti-intellectualism runs in cycles, the 1950's constituting a high point, has that lingered through the present or is the notion of cycles no longer evident or valid?

If the intellectual habit centrally consists in a "play of the mind," some combination of "playfulness and piety" (27), then from whence derive the fierce resentments on the part of the majority population? Hofstadter anatomizes the cumulative, mid-twentieth-century resentment over "the constant insinuation of the intellectual as expert in public affairs" (37). When intellectuals position themselves as ideologues, common anger grows quickly (44-45). Hofstadter regarded the "the Grand Inquisition of the 1950s" as a means "to discharge resentments and frustrations, to punish, to satisfy enmities whose roots lay elsewhere than in the Communist issue itself" (41). Eggheads make good targets for myriad frustrations and hostilities. In the past couple of decades, chronic, strident criticism of the higher education enterprise--a home of intellectuals--has reached a new decibel level. Hofstadter, as shall be seen, would explain the anger and noise in terms of his premise and the cyclical nature of the beast.

Hofstadter divided his analysis, over a dozen chapters, into four overlapping domains: religion, civic affairs and politics, business, and education. In these he documents American patterns of evangelism, primitivism, business activism, and egalitarianism, in each case tracing the story from the eighteenth century through the mid-twentieth century. He's certainly done his homework and summons vast amounts of evidence, though he does not allow his footnotes to overwhelm his text. In many sections of these chapters, the eyes of the non-specialist might glaze over, or at least begin skimming, yet the cumulative evidence concerning those patterns convinces the reader. The historian repeatedly, consistently makes a powerful case. I am surveying his survey, comparing his conclusions with conditions for intellectuals now insofar as I understand them. Yet I shall not spend equal time in Hofstadter's four domains, believing, for instance, that his commentary about public and higher education deserves greater attention.

To our ears, a number of Hofstadter's statements now sound remarkably naive. Towards the end of his analysis of evangelism in the U.S. and its fallout on the intellectual life, he states, "There seems to be such a thing as the generically prejudiced mind" (131). One might answer, when hasn't there been this, and when has it not thrived? Arguably, contemporary electronic media have greatly exacerbated this mind. Hofstadter deservedly analyzes the Scopes Trial (1925) as one climax for his chapters on evangelism, and states that, as of 1963, in many parts of the country "the [evolution] controversy is still alive" (131), and that "the language of most secondary-school biology texts is guarded, and evolution is taught in many places only by indirection" (132). As in so many areas, Hofstadter is accurate and little has changed. Colleagues teaching Montana Western's Environmental Sciences courses have reported, in recent years, increasingly vocal challenges by students to standard content about evolution. Some of them come from places like Darby, whose school district boasted a couple of creationist board members a few years ago. Or Choteau, where, midway through the 2007-08 school year, the new superintendent cancelled a planned speech by University of Montana climatologist (and Nobel Prize co-winner) Steve Running. Apparently some School Board or community members don't want kids hearing an expert discuss scientific evidence of global warming. Apparently the fear derived from some supposed "lack of balance," a smokescreen and irrelevancy. We don't want current environmental data, a series of wake-up calls, interfering with fundamental Christian conviction confirming a benign God and humans as his chosen over the earth. For fundamentalists, there is no room for microclimatic changes or ice ages. Running commented in the press that he has never before been cancelled by any organization. The Choteau decision made The New York Times.

Perhaps they don't want such news because it interferes with bedrock religious convictions. Hofstadter argues that, since the 1930s, fundamentalism has become a fixture of the extreme political right, and from there, infused itself in the American worldview (131). A society whose leaders preach "an empire of evil" or "an axis of evil" sees the world in black and white terms as do fundamentalist Muslims such as the Taliban: "The issues of the actual world are hence transformed into a spiritual Armageddon, an ultimate reality, in which any reference to day-to-day actualities has the character of an allegorical illustration." (135). This reductive dualism, universal and not exclusively American, profoundly damages the conduct of diplomacy and erodes the status of common scientific knowledge, among other things. Fundamentalism feeds xenophobia and denies globalism.

In Hofstadter's reading of American political history, intellectuals have been categorized as outsiders, servants, or scapegoats (146). He also traces the potent myth of the wisdom of the common man from Colonial days, which myth explains those three categories as much as anything. The myth can be a lens through which to interpret various administrations. With the exception of both Roosevelts and Woodrow Wilson, most of our history since the term of John Quincy Adams demonstrates the primacy of the common man over the intellectual. Intellectuals-as-reformers do not take center stage except during a few remarkable periods (e.g., the Progressive era). According to Hofstader's argument, FDR's "brain trust" of advisors constituted the closest engagement of intellectuals in the practical affairs of state since the days of the first presidents. Even as they drafted solutions to the Great Depression, opposition simmered and gathered force, erupting, in this scenario, in the 1952 presidential election. Yet Hofstadter takes pains to argue that Adlai Stevenson was not resoundingly defeated because of his intellect or even wit. Instead, he claims the nineteenth-century association of intellect with effeminacy commonplace before Teddy Roosevelt plagued Stevenson. Stevenson wasn't a real leader or man because he had served in the World Wars only as a civilian. Against the tradition of politics as a man's affair and the pre-eminence of the man of action, it would take a JFK to transcend the action vs. intellect schism and return intellectuals, at least in ceremonial dimensions, to the White House (227-28). Of course, like Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt before him, Kennedy as war hero enabled the intellectual advisors. First things first.

I believe it fair to say that we've not seen a conspicuous "brain trust" in any administration of the past half-century, nor have we seen a man of intellect in the White House (excepting Bill Clinton, his occasional conduct notwithstanding). If being an author didn't hurt Kennedy's election, it might well have hurt Al Gore's status. The common man, Joe and Jane Six-Pack, distrusts the bookish man, relegates him to a corner well away from the spotlight. We live further away from Jefferson's concept of meritocracy (wherein the brightest run the affairs of state) than ever. Why? Hofstadter concludes his chapter, "The Rise of the Expert," offering one explanation: "One of the difficulties in the relation of intellect to power is that certain primary functions of intellect are widely felt to be threatened almost as much by being associated with power as by being relegated to a position of impotence" (229). That "widely felt" is the giveaway, particularly at polling booths. According to this conviction, positions of power presumably corrupt the intellectual more than others--you know, those regular guys at the bar. It is hard to imagine a more cock-eyed conviction, absurd if not so tragic. On the contrary, the opposite argument, that intellectuals would seem more equipped than most to safely wield power, could be made. Yet that "widely felt" might explain why I've never felt myself a leader in my town of seventeen years because I work at "the college" and am an English professor at that, while my neighbor across the street, who never attended college, is a County Commissioner and wields considerable political influence and newspaper coverage.

If the myth of the common man's wisdom explains the marginalization of intellectuals in most of our federal history, the "mystique of practicality," which Hofstadter calls "spiritually crippling" (237), explains the traditional polarity between the realm of business and the realm of the intellect. He states "that business is the most powerful and pervasive interest in American life," and adds, "since the mid-nineteenth century, businessmen have brought to anti-intellectual movements more strength than any other force in society" (237). One recalls the gospel according to Calvin Coolidge: "the business of America is business." The nineteenth-century myth of the self-made man coupled with the cult of experience, with its hostility to formal education, solidified the anti-intellectual forces that continue to define much of American society. In his explanations, Hofstadter voices the old, familiar claim of American disinterest in our past--our consistently anti-historical, pro-utilitarian disposition--and traces the secularization of the American mind by way of the "curious cult of religious practicality" (264). This cult borrowed images and denominational practices particularly from American Protestantism and applied them to the world of business and the language of self-help. What had formerly belonged only to the church was removed and exported to the marketplace. Largely a twentieth-century phenomenon, the literature of inspiration, suffused with business terminology, matches the literature of advancement, of getting ahead. The prominence of figures such as Dale Carnegie explains the application of this cult.

What has been the impact of business American style upon higher education? Hofstader plots the increasingly vocational complexion of colleges and universities during the twentieth century, claiming that parents now "send [their sons--and daughters] for the gains measurable in cold cash which are supposedly attainable through vocational training" (262). How would the historian avoid overstating the case in 2008? Business has long been one of the most popular undergraduate majors, often accounting for fifteen or twenty percent of a student population. For many years, the Bachelor's degree, in fact, has become the ticket to a job rather than some sort of "vague" preparation for the rest of one's life. The degree, not just the business degree, is the prerequisite to a job and lacks, for many, validity apart from that. Otherwise why go to college, ask many in the Net Generation? The practical constitutes the only litmus test. In Montana the nomenclatural change, some years ago, from Vo-Techs to Colleges of Technology poses yet another example of the reduction of college education to job training. This change confirms the notion that one goes to "college" for a hands-on degree that leads directly to a hands-on job. It's all--or solely--about applied. I've no quarrel with job training but, as a liberal arts college graduate, have long believed undergraduate education should be much more than that, as it has been in some periods.

The tendency to define the Bachelor's degree as means to one practical end follows from the constriction of undergraduate education to vocational training. That in turn derives from another legacy of business's pre-eminence: "The preference for vocationalism is linked to a preference for character--or personality--over mind, and for conformity and manipulative facility over individuality and talent" (264). This is a tough one, and Hofstadter draws examples from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to anchor his point. You know how the supposed polarity runs, as least according to that ostensible wisdom of the common man: character is dependable, mind isn't necessarily; character leads to team playing, mind never guarantees that; character means solidity, reliability while mind means potential flakiness, independence, even criticism or subversion.

The domains of religion, politics or civic affairs, and business obviously overlap with and impact public and higher education, as my comments already suggest. Here the evidence suggests that anti-intellectualism has risen steadily since Hofstadter's time. If that is true, then I wonder if the cycle will turn? Hofstadter closes his introduction with a naive footnote that glosses the supposedly "back-handed tribute democracy pays to the importance of intellect":

Athletic skill is recognized as being transient, special, and for most of us unimportant in the serious business of life...the athlete...entertains. Intellect...is neither entertaining (to most men) nor innocent; since everyone sees that it can be an important and permanent advantage in life, it creates against itself a kind of universal fraternity of commonplace minds. (50-51, n.3)

I say "naive" because, since this book's publication, so many Americans have confused athletics with "the serious business of life" in so many ways. The symptoms are frequent and obvious, even unavoidable. Indeed, by the time Hofstadter turns to his education chapters, he remarks, near the beginning, "At times the schools of the country seem to be dominated by athletics, commercialism, and the standards of the mass media, and these extend upwards to a system of higher education." He argues, "some ultimate educational values seem forever to be eluding the Americans" whose "young, when they get [to colleges and universities], do not seem to care even to read" (301).

No kidding, Richard. Again, I wonder how he would define the triumph of mass media and athletics as big business, a thriving marriage, were he writing today? Or how might he characterize our supposedly post-print culture suggested by the plummeting rates of reading highlighted by the survey mentioned in my beginning? Sven Birkerts's tragic recent history of reading, The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), deserves mention here, as does Neil Postman's well-known analysis of the paradigm shift from print to image in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). Both trace a story of rise and fall, over the past four centuries, in the centrality of the book and both, in the late twentieth century, ruefully concede a shifting definition of literacy. Years ago, Murray Sperber, in Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education (2000; reviewed in The Montana Professor 11.1, winter 2001), laid out the case for the sellout of undergraduate education and its replacement by sports-as-entertainment, particularly at the big land-grant universities such as his own (Indiana University). The obsession with sports at all levels and the decline of reading are closely related phenomena. Entertainment as defined by the former has swept away a far older, contrary notion of reading as entertainment (cf. the Greek etymology of scholia as intellectual leisure). Hofstadter's occasional comments about athletics point to the slippery slope we've followed, at faster rates, since his time.

Really smart students aren't a spectator sport. The signs are everywhere, and among the most painful of them for me are the consistently dismal scores of American secondary students in virtually every international test I've seen over the past decade and more. USA students usually rank below the top ten, and sometimes far below. These signs suggest we simply don't take public education seriously, don't require enough homework or high standards, at least compared to many First World countries. I have lived in Poland, Bulgaria, and Australia, and have some idea of what is required of college-bound fifteen-year-olds in those countries. Their workload expectations make ours look pitiful. Our last child, finishing middle school, rarely brings home any homework and when he does, it takes fifteen minutes. We're far behind and don't seem to care. Maybe we think, in our collective futures, we can buy our way out of academic inferiority.

I feel only marginally better studying Hofstadter's history of the big gap between our deep-rooted valuation of a common school system and the chronic calls for educational reform. He calls the latter "a literature of acid complaint and bitter criticism": "in a society so passionately intent on education, the yield of our educational system has been such a constant disappointment" (302-03). Explaining the gap between our credo and our results lies beyond my ability and this essay, but Hofstadter suggests a range of contributing factors. For example, he asserts that by the 1920s, high schools had become "quasi-custodial institutions," and the pupil was regarded "not as a mind to be developed but as a citizen to be trained." He regards the "life adjustment movement"--in a nutshell, K-12 schooling focused upon the development of life skills, not necessarily content knowledge--prevalent in the 1930s through the 1950s, as profoundly anti-academic. The low status of schoolteachers and low opinion of teacher education programs the historian describes needs no additional comment (310-11). He unflinchingly states the consequences for his overall subject: "In so far as the teacher stands before his pupils as a surrogate of the intellectual life and its rewards, he unwittingly makes this life appear altogether unattractive" (312).

What's changed? As a long-term employee of what was called, for nearly half a century, Montana State Normal College, I find Hofstadter's critique of public and higher education particularly painful. In recent years, my teasing question for students entering UMW's teacher education program, particularly those who want to remain in Montana, has been, "Oh, so you've taken your vow of poverty already?" For some of them, coaching looms more importantly than teaching. To the extent that Americans equate salary with status, itself a pitiful legacy of our business culture, I must add the vast majority of the MUS professoriate to the population of severely underpaid schoolteachers. In a society that takes its status cues from the major leagues, NFL, NBA, and Hollywood, we know where we rank. That lower ranking is not unrelated to Hofstadter's conclusion in one of his education chapters: "Professional education is still largely staffed, at the administrative levels and in its centers of training, by people who are far from enthusiastic about the new demand for academic excellence" (358). Teacher education program personnel, Hofstadter suggests, are often anti-intellectual, their protestations notwithstanding. In the years since 1963 "the new demand for academic excellence," a periodic hue and cry, has not made much difference in praxis, which fact fits Hofstadter's long view of educational reform: much noise, little yield, business as usual (pun intended).

In one of his final chapters, Hofstadter takes on John Dewey's philosophy of education, anatomizing his progressivism to expose its inconsistencies and subsequent distortions. Hofstadter makes the case, for example, that Dewey's definition of education as growth (of the child) without end or qualification is fraught with problems, and that his conception of curriculum remained, of necessity, vague. For the historian, Dewey's attitude towards the child is "more romantic and primitivist...than post-Darwinian" (363). He argues that Dewey's single-minded belief that schools should focus "on the developing interests and needs of the child" (369) has resulted in a range of distortions and perversions, all of which reinforce the anti-intellectual stance of the education establishment. Hofstadter's detailed analysis of Dewey's work solidifies the indictment. In balance, he contends that Deweyan progressivism, coupled with the "life-adjustment movement," reinforced anti-intellectualism, and I'm persuaded by his indictment.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is not opposed to the broad American base of egalitarianism, and certainly Hofstadter has no quarrel with equal opportunity. He would applaud as much as any Article X of our State Constitution, which guarantees to all Montana citizens the right of access to education. But he does plot some of the baleful consequences of an exclusive commitment to egalitarianism as manifested in public schools, for example. As a result of misapplied Deweyan progressivism, itself fundamentally inconsistent, public education has pushed the smart kids aside: "In the name of utility, democracy, and science, many educators had come to embrace the supposedly uneducable or less educable child as the center of the secondary-school universe, relegating the talented child to the sidelines" (353). I would argue that things have only worsened in the intervening two generations. Smart kids, whether called geeks or some other label, command little prestige within the classroom or curriculum, or from administrators or parents. They know they can't entertain compared to halfbacks or point guards. Really smart kids don't "fit in."

In teacher education curricula, "exceptionality" has been, for some while, a subfield and subject of one or more courses. But my impression has been that "exceptional"--those kids who measure well apart from whatever constitutes a normal range--means, more often, the deficient rather than the super-intelligent. That tendency in itself represents a curious semantic shift, one with tragic consequences for the academically talented or "exceptional," as we used to say. In our commitment to equal opportunity, the special dollars and programs flow to the newly "exceptional" target populations. More often than not, that means less financial or instructional support for the gifted. That has been the case, more or less, in our local school district. Administrators don't care or plead insufficient monies. In following democratic impulses, school districts resist, with infrequent exceptions, separately tracking core classes according to ability level. They shy away from any taint of elitism, one result of which has been, in the past generation, a significant shift to private schools or home schooling. I don't know what it takes to rid ourselves, in public education, of the "lowest common denominator" criterion.

More often than not, Hofstadter's analysis of anti-intellectualism retains its currency and relevance after forty-five years. Sometimes, from the vantage of 2008, he understates the case. But his indictment of trends in public education strikes me as "spot on," as the Aussies are wont to say. As an historian, he no doubt took solace from what he claims to be the cyclical nature of anti-intellectualism. My final comment goes to the Internet and all its ramifications. We define our virtual landscape according to text messaging, blogs (what a word!), Wikipedia, instant feedback, and the like, all of which dispense with any sort of rigorous peer review and vitiate the kind of sustained reflection and revision endemic to intellectual discourse. Anything goes, anybody can post a website, it's easy, let's pass our days "surfing": life in front of the computer screen, "garbage in, garbage out," as they say. Intellectuals have found new venues of expression, of course, but they will not be able to raise any bar. One could argue that the technologies themselves are anti-intellectual. How can the radical democratizing of "information" result in anything other than the lowest common denominator?

I close by stating that rereading Hofstadter affords a perverse solace, one I felt when I finally read Malone, Roeder, and Lang's Montana: A History of Two Centuries (1976; 1991), particularly its final two chapters. Those review the haphazard history of the Montana University System, above all its history of chronic underfunding. It was a eureka moment: now I finally understood Montana priorities. That underfunding reminds those of us in the MUS professoriate of our place. So does Hofstadter, whose long view instructs us that, at least for professors-as-intellectuals, we've always been a minority game, though once in a while--the first six Presidential administrations, the tenure of both Roosevelts, Wilson, and possibly Kennedy--the life of the mind has been cherished, not scorned, by the masses.

[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]


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