Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Most scholarly books we read for the information or insight they contain. But some we return to simply for the pleasure of the author’s company. For instance, I pick up Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism from time to time, just to refresh myself with its elegance and clarity. Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography of novelist Georgette Heyer, another favorite, seems to me a model of delicacy, insight, and wit. I feel almost learned every time I dip into Marcia Colish’s Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition or the historical essays of Hugh Trevor-Roper.

In this elite company I place Richard Hofstadter’s wide-ranging cultural history, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, recipient of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for history. Its great theme — our nation’s longstanding “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it” — allows the late Columbia professor to range from the Puritans and the Founding Fathers to the McCarthy hearings, even touching briefly on the early days of the Kennedy administration. But given its publication date, the book doesn’t treat the later 1960s, the heyday of student activism and hippiedom, both of which were to appall Hofstadter, an old-time lefty, because of their irrationality, anarchical antics, and unfocused utopianism. Sadly, this productive, and sometimes polemical, historian — his other work includes The American Political Tradition (1948) and the famous title essay of The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964) — died at age fifty-four, from leukemia, in 1970.

Hofstadter’s urbane and occasionally ironic style, coupled with a lively, invigorating diction, makes Anti-Intellectualism in American Life a provocation and a delight: “I have no desire to encourage the self-pity to which intellectuals are sometimes prone by suggesting that they have been vessels of pure virtue set down in Babylon.” In fact, he merely hopes to “trace some of the social movements in our history in which intellect has been dissevered from its co-ordinate place among the human virtues and assigned the position of a special kind of vice.”

While he doesn’t seek to explain all of American history as the conflict between “eggheads and fatheads” or between populist democrats and cultural elites (though it can sometimes sound that way), he does stress the pervasive influence on our culture of politically conservative evangelicals and the harm done to our children by a system of education that regularly favors personal development over intellectual challenge. As it happens, some recent books have been highlighting character and grit, rather than intelligence and knowledge, as the keys to success in life. But that argument is hardly new. In examining the self-help literature of the nineteenth century, Hofstadter underscores their recurrent focus on the supreme importance of willpower and moral fortitude, as well as their suspicion of genius, which was regarded as “vain and frivolous.”

Throughout our history, it “was assumed that schooling existed not to cultivate certain distinctive qualities of mind but to make personal advancement possible.” Intellect is typically “pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the ‘purely’ theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism.”

All these, Hofstadter emphasizes, are false distinctions. But “once the validity of these antagonisms is accepted, then the case for intellect, and by extension for the intellectual, is lost. Who cares to risk sacrificing warmth of emotion, solidity of character, practical capacity, or democratic sentiment in order to pay deference to a type of man who at best is deemed to be merely clever and at worst may even be dangerous?”

While Americans value experts and professionals, that is, the smart people we can use for practical, political, and mercantile ends, we are nonetheless wary of “disinterested intelligence, generalizing power, free speculation, fresh observation, creative novelty, radical criticism.” An intellectual’s mind, Hofstadter believes, is naturally poised between “playfulness and piety.” It’s a fine balance. An excess of playfulness “may lead to triviality, to the dissipation of intellectual energies on mere technique, to dilettantism, to the failure of creative effort.” On the other hand, an excess of piety “leads to rigidity, to fanaticism, to messianism, to ways of life which may be morally mean or morally magnificent but which in either case are not the ways of intellect.”

When Hofstadter turns to politics, he raises the disturbing question: “Why, while most of the Founding Fathers were still alive, did a reputation for intellect become a political disadvantage?” Enemies of Thomas Jefferson formulated the notion — used again and again ever since — that “the curiosity of the active mind” is “too trivial and ridiculous for important affairs.” Military experience — the blunt, no-nonsense experience of command — was in fact the test of masculine character and demonstrated the right stolidity in those who aspired to lead the nation. A lively, if learned mind, whether that of a Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, or Adlai Stevenson, has typically been disparaged as unserious, quixotic, and effeminate. Already by the time of populist Andrew Jackson, high culture was widely regarded as “the prerogative of those who lived without work.”

As a result, there arose an ethos, a romantic conviction, that a popular democracy should favor “the superiority of inborn, intuitive, folkish wisdom over the cultivated, oversophisticated, and self-interested knowledge of the literati and the well-to-do.” Practical experience mattered more than imaginative thinking, and vital emotion trumped anemic rationality. “Just as the evangelicals repudiated a learned religion and formally constituted clergy in favor of the wisdom of the heart and direct access to God, so did advocates of egalitarian politics propose to dispense with trained leadership in favor of the native practical sense of the ordinary man with its direct access to truth. This preference for the wisdom of the common man flowered in the most extreme statements of the democratic creed, into a kind of militant popular anti-intellectualism.”

All too often, moreover, a “fundamentalism of the cross” united with a “fundamentalism of the flag.” While the true political mind accepts conflict and compromise, recognizing that there are no final victories but only temporary periods of balance and equipoise, the fundamentalist mind, says Hofstadter, “is essentially Manichean: it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and, accordingly, it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities.”

Much the same could be said about American business, which has always tended to glorify “know-how,” while revealing “a contempt for the reflective mind, for culture, and for the past.” What matters to business is utility, the most obvious forms of “practical intelligence,” coupled with a passion for some “forward step in progress.” History is seen as little more than “a museum of confusion, corruption and exploitation.” As corporate America swelled in the twentieth century, its values also grew increasingly crass:

The more thoroughly business dominated American society, the less it felt the need to justify its existence by reference to values outside its own domain. In earlier days it had looked for sanction in the claim that the vigorous pursuit of trade served God, and later that it served character and culture. Although this argument did not disappear, it grew less conspicuous in the business rationale. As business became the dominant motif in American life and as a vast material empire rose in the New World, business increasingly looked for legitimation in a purely material and internal criterion — the wealth it produced. American business, once defended on the ground that it produced a high standard of culture, was now defended mainly on the ground that it produced a high standard of living.

When Hofstadter finally turns to education, his indignation occasionally merges into jeremiad. He outlines how regularly the United States has failed our children’s intellectual development:

Underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else — the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of academically gifted children.

Hofstadter’s disdain is unstinting:

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 whose worst failings were underlined by the bold president of the University of Oklahoma who hoped to develop a university of which the football team could be proud. Certainly some ultimate educational values seem forever to be eluding the Americans. At great effort and expense they send an extraordinary proportion of their young to colleges and universities, but their young, when they get there, do not seem to care even to read.

As Hofstadter stresses, mass public schooling wasn’t founded primarily upon “a passion for the development of mind, or upon pride in learning and culture for their own sakes, but rather upon the supposed political and economic benefit of education.” In fact, many American educators felt that developing the mind “for intellectual or imaginative achievement or even contemplative enjoyment” might be “suitable only to the leisured classes, to aristocracies, to the European past; that its usefulness was less evident than its possible dangers; that an undue concern with the development of mind was a form of arrogant narcissism which one would expect to find mainly in the morally corrupt.”

All too often, our educational gurus have deliberately steered attention away from the academic: “Far from conceiving the mediocre, reluctant, or incapable student as an obstacle or a special problem in a school system devoted to educating the interested, the capable, and the gifted, American educators entered upon a crusade to exalt the academically uninterested or ungifted child into a kind of culture-hero…. They militantly proclaimed…that the noblest end of a truly democratic system of education was to meet the child’s immediate interests by offering him a series of immediate utilities.” In short, personal growth and “life adjustment” matter more than intellectual seriousness. “Life-adjustment educators would do anything in the name of science except encourage children to study it.”

The source of much of this feel-good theory of schooling is John Dewey, whose fuzzy prose Hofstadter cruelly, but accurately, likens to “the cannonading of distant armies: one concludes that something portentous is going on at a remote and inaccessible distance, but one cannot determine just what it is.” For Dewey, each child is special, needing to develop freely on his or her own, rather than being compelled to submit to authority imposed from without. Guidance in self-growth, rather than “rote learning,” was what counted at school. In such a view, “the growth of the child stood for health, whereas traditions of society (including curricular traditions) stood for outworn, excessively authoritative demands.” As so often, the heart was preferred to the head, the natural again trumped the time-honored, and cooperation and good citizenship were exalted over individual creativity.

Little surprise, then, that Hofstadter scorns the resulting plethora of courses in subjects such as home economics, driving, chorus, band, consumer education, household management etc. Such lax schooling will never fit children “to become a disciplined part of the world of production and competition, ambition and vocation, creativity and analytical thought.” Rather, it merely helps them “learn the ways of the world of consumption and hobbies, of enjoyment and social complaisance,” and teaches them a “passive and hedonistic style” of life. One can just barely imagine Hofstadter’s contempt for much of our computer and cellphone culture, so fanatically devoted to the silly and trivial.

In his final chapter, Hofstadter looks at the modern intellectual. The artistic avant-garde, he notes, “has been institutionalized and deprived of its old stimulus of a stubborn and insensate opposition.” Serious thinking is “received as a kind of diversion and not as a challenge.” He worries – prophetically — about “what our literature would be like if it were written by academic teachers of ‘creative writing’ courses, whose main experience [of life] was to have been themselves trained in such courses.” All in all, he concludes, “the truth is that much of American education aims, simply and brazenly, to turn out experts who are not intellectuals or men of culture at all.”

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was published nearly fifty years ago, and some of it is clearly out of date. For instance, Hofstadter hardly addresses the racial inequities in our schools or the unequal opportunities for women. He does, however, link the disparagement of public-school teaching, widely regarded as a second-rate profession, to the fact that it is dominated by women. He also, to my mind, tends to radically separate the emotions and the brain, when they are actually each other’s servants. But the book, even when one disagrees with Hofstadter, possesses such intellectual radiance, such compulsive readability, that it seems to me a model of critical history.

Not least, to those who would shortchange education through undue emphasis on group projects, social skills, and easy course work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life may yet function as a corrective to the slacker philosophy of many classrooms. It is also, moreover, a heads-up for viciously ambitious “tiger moms” (and dads), who push their kids for straight A’s and perfect SATs. As Cardinal Newman, one of the greatest thinkers, and theologians, of the nineteenth century once said, “It is a rule of God’s providence that we succeed by failure.” Too often we compel our children to follow the most obvious paths, happy for them to become robotically focused doctors, scientists, lawyers, and similar “experts” or “technicians,” even as we tend to view the making of lots of money and the acquisition of a McMansion in a gated community as the measure of success and personal fulfillment. What we sometimes forget to foster, alas, is the desire for a life of mental adventure.