It is difficult to define anti-intellectualism with precision. In the simplest sense, the term expresses enmity against the life and works of the mind and adherence to allegedly unmediated practicality. Still, it is hasty to assume that this resentment of the intellect pertains to actions or practices devoid of intelligence. The name silences a basic contradiction. Anti-intellectualism refers to a certain tendency or mentality, therefore a specific state of mind, that paradoxically refuses to recognize the capacity and value of the mind.
It would be misguided to take anti-intellectualism at its word and determine that it consists of unexamined sentiment, pious faith, common sense, or unmitigated pragmatism. Anti-intellectual discourses deployed against ideas and values thereby pronounced dangerous are themselves propelled by a whole complex of ideas. However—and here lies the contradiction—these ideas must remain strictly unacknowledged; their presence and exercise must be denied. In this respect, there is something ideological about anti-intellectualism, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that anti-intellectualism is likely to adhere to the primacy of an ideological, rather than critical, relation to the world. This can be said despite the claim that in certain instances of modern history, under the banner of populist egalitarianism, anti-intellectualism was deployed in order to break down various ideologies of privilege.
Given anti-intellectualism’s paradoxical conditions—whether we examine it as an idea, an attitude, or a historical phenomenon—it is most productive to trace its multiple and fluctuating reference frames rather than to insist, in anti-intellectual fashion perhaps, on its self-evident nature. As a departure point, we may take anti-intellectualism to consist of whatever discourse subverts conditions that enable intellectual life to flourish: an open horizon of interrogation, a plurality of sources of knowledge, the right to dissent, the freedom to challenge certainties and authorities, the capacity to pursue independent research and investigation. The means of subversion is to foster instead a climate of dogmatism and conformity, often driven by narrow and politically expedient aims, that enforces a closed system of thoughts and beliefs exercised throughout the social sphere, though often concentrated in the realms of religion, education, and mass culture. Anti-intellectualism triumphs when such conditions strangle not only the terms of intellectual life but also the very essence of democratic existence.
Anti-intellectualism in the United States should be considered “older than national identity itself,” as Richard Hofstadter succinctly put it in his Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963), which remains the consummate treatment of the subject. Published a few months before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, at a time of tremendous intellectual optimism in U.S. politics and obviously unwitting of its imminent collapse, Hofstadter’s book sought to theorize the conditions that produced McCarthyism—one of the gravest instances of American anti-intellectualism—by thinking backward, in broad historical terms, in order to elucidate a phenomenon with deep roots in American society.
Certainly, the anti-intellectualism that brought Dwight Eisenhower to power in 1952 against Adlai Stevenson (in whose name the term egghead achieved popular usage) could be seen as a replay, in another historical register, of the same attitude that brought Andrew Jackson to power against the privileged and bookish easterner John Quincy Adams. What became known as the Jacksonian Era (1824–1840) is traditionally considered to be a period of emancipatory democratization in U.S. history, and yet this is when the down-home posturing of David (“Davy”) Crockett in the corridors of the U.S. Congress, his vulgar and contemptuous response to the American Enlightenment tradition, elevated him to what by today’s standards would be a mass-cultural icon.
The anti-intellectualism exemplified by Crockett and many Jacksonians, which led to the “decline of the gentleman” in the American social imagination (Hofstadter 1963), does not automatically dispel the genuine argument that the Jacksonian Era signified real democratic expansion. Conversely, however, any argument henceforth about the processes of social democratization in the United States cannot avoid being tainted by suspicion of anti-intellectualism, a tradition that has repeatedly marked U.S. history by, if nothing else, driving the country into periods of self-imposed denial of the surrounding world, with disastrous social, political, and cultural consequences.
This early historical instance is a good example of how the study of anti-intellectualism might produce an equivocal assessment. For the Jacksonians, anti-intellectualism was an explicit platform against established class privilege, represented by the rich, powerful, and highly educated old New England families. In this respect, it served as means for upward mobility, as a weapon in a classic case of class warfare, whereby the intrinsic intellect or “know-how” of less educated folk—one might say, the entrepreneurial capacity (or autodidact practical intelligence) of the unprivileged bourgeoisie—was celebrated as the only genuinely American way of being. This is to say that the proponents of anti-intellectualism in the Jacksonian Era were not uneducated farmers or workers; they were educated middle-class men who sought (and got) a piece of the pie of privilege in the name of expanding the range of opportunity for the uneducated and the unprivileged (farmers or workers). Jackson’s people were great populist propagandists. In this sense, they managed to portray the Jackson-Adams presidential race as a contest of the representative of vita activa versus the representative of vita contemplativa, considering the latter to be too weak for the task of the presidency. The outcome of this contest legitimized a social and political imagination that drew its authority precisely from defying the Union’s Enlightenment foundations, revering them as mere constitutional legacy while disregarding them in real life.
Conversely, one may just as easily argue that the Enlightenment tradition is only one strain of American foundation, obviously linked to the revolutionary politics that brought to this society a national existence. The other strain, less directly political but nonetheless profoundly social, is the morality of Christian Protestantism, particularly the pietist and Puritan strains of the early colonists. This aspect animated a certain imaginary in which communities formed by subsequent waves of immigration, even when not necessarily Puritan or even Protestant in a general sense, found solace and identification. It is this imaginary of Christian moral authority and Puritan work ethic, and not the Enlightenment imaginary of the nation’s intellectual founders, that mobilized Western expansion and immigrant assimilation. This imaginary is constitutively anti-intellectual because it is essentially moralist and, more specifically, religious in its moralism. As one strain of a bifurcated social-imaginary foundation, anti-intellectualism is thus fundamental in American society, even if it is not consistently dominant in the public sphere.
Certainly, the contemporary emergence into political power by the Christian Right, with its explicit religious and moral fundamentalism, is but one more manifestation in a long history of evangelical participation in the American anti-intellectual tradition. The incessant drive to displace Darwinian theories of evolution from the high-school science curriculum in favor of creationism is an obvious such instance, signaling a profound reversal of a matter considered resolved in the 1925 Scopes trial. But equally obvious are the attempts to strong-arm court appointments at all levels of the justice system, where the actual stakes ultimately reside in a battle for an open framework of discussion and argument over interpretation of the law according to predetermined ideological principles that regard the institution of law not as a human enterprise and endeavor but an indication of the word of God written in stone. The current alliance between Christian evangelists and neoconservative ideologues at the highest levels of U.S. government elucidates the deceptive anti-intellectualism of the latter. Although the so-called neocons are all highly educated men, many of them with academic careers, they nonetheless espouse a vision of American society where plurality of views, open interpretation, interrogation of received knowledge, and, of course, dissent—the cornerstone of democracy—are rendered null and void.
Not surprisingly, the avowed enemies of contemporary anti-intellectualism reside in education and in media, two domains of enormous influence in matters of formation, cultivation, and refinement of democratic consciousness. But this current development has its roots in the Right’s reaction to the United States’ post-Vietnam conditions, particularly the fact that the student movement and an independent press played the most crucial role in the demise of the Nixon administration. Since the 1980s, U.S. social services and civil liberties have confronted the most orchestrated onslaught of government-based anti-intellectualism to such an extent that, for example, the “dumbing-down of American universities” turned from a slogan to a reality that is now statistically confirmed. With public primary and secondary schooling driven to bankruptcy due to fiscal restructuring that relegated education the lowest priority, the whole function of university education (anchored to its definitional demands for higher learning) is thus incapacitated. Although one surely finds anti-intellectual strains within academic ranks, of greatest concern regarding society’s future is the increasing anti-intellectualism of the student population. This is manifested on campuses in myriad ways, from objections to types of courses and course materials to demands for uncritical expressions of opinion in the classroom in the name of objectivity or so-called balanced accounts.
American youth, however, cannot be blamed for what is de facto the “dumbing-down” of an entire country, which is most visible in the extraordinary manipulation and spectacular vulgarity that characterize contemporary media. Although there was a time one could count on investigative reporting to expose social and political injustice, thus restoring the democratic capacity of ordinary citizens, in the early twenty-first century one sees journalists, embedded in the political status quo, who merely seek to outdo each other in showmanship, quick and empty sloganeering, and allegedly bottom-line pronouncements. It is this talent for catchy slogans and cheap bravado that marks the ideological reversal of certain once-upon-a-time scions of the intellectual Left, such as David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens, who now gloat on the front lines of neoconservative platforms. However we might judge whether and to what extent their politics (one way or another) were ever genuine, what accounts for their new conservative prominence is their blatant anti-intellectualism. In addition to narcissistic posturing in the media, the need to push the reporting of events through the news-item assembly line with the greatest possible speed, in the service of higher viewer ratings, feeds the anti-intellectualism that conceived of embedded journalism in the first place. It is certainly no surprise that American academics and intellectuals of great stature are nowhere to be seen in the mass media. They are effectively censored, not merely because of their independent views but also because of their refusal to speak in advertising slogans, because their language has been rendered incompatible with the media’s current production values.
It must be said, however, that responsibility for the charge that intellectuals are out of touch with the people because they speak a language that no one understands, a charge espoused so effectively by the agents of anti-intellectualism, rests on the shoulders of intellectuals themselves. Indeed, the best way to resist anti-intellectualism is by cultivating an intellectual life that: (1) does not let the attraction to concentrated and detailed knowledge become an endeavor of uncommunicative specialization; and (2) does not let the pleasure in concentrated and expert research get in the way of active participation in the public sphere of ideas and practices. In effect, anti-intellectualism will have no opposition from which to draw its menacing energy if the distinction between vita activa and vita contemplativa is rendered irrelevant.
SEE ALSO Ideology; Intellectuals, Public
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Claussen, Dane S. 2004. Anti-intellectualism in American Media. New York: Peter Lang.
Hofstadter, Richard. 1963. Anti-intellectualism in American Life. New York: Knopf.
Sacks, Peter. 1996. Generation X Goes to College. Chicago: Open Court.
Schlag, Pierre. 1995. Anti-intellectualism. Cardozo Law Review 16: 1111–1120.
Washburn, Katherine, and John F. Thornton, eds. 1996. Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip Mining of American Culture. New York: Norton.