Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

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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. 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" 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" , 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" One recalls the gospel according to Calvin Coolidge: "the business of America is business.

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" 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?

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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" How would the historian avoid overstating the case in ? 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" 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":. 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.

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 , deserves mention here, as does Neil Postman's well-known analysis of the paradigm shift from print to image in Amusing Ourselves to Death 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.

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. 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" 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 s, 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. The low status of schoolteachers and low opinion of teacher education programs the historian describes needs no additional comment 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" 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? 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.

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" Teacher education program personnel, Hofstadter suggests, are often anti-intellectual, their protestations notwithstanding.

In the years since "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 He argues that Dewey's single-minded belief that schools should focus "on the developing interests and needs of the child" 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.

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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" 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. Intellectuals in the twentieth century have thus found themselves engaged in incompatible efforts: They have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces. It is rare for an American intellectual to confront candidly the unresolvable conflict between the elite character of his own class and his democratic aspirations.

Because Hofstadter does confront the conflict candidly, he winds up in a very small category. That has the advantages of descriptive accuracy, and of realism. Intellectuals dwell in the realm of ideas and values, where almost nothing is ever right without qualification. So if anti-intellectualism is a natural aspect of a democratic society, humility ought to be a natural aspect of intellectual life. So, once again, equipoise, compromise, and nuance are required.

I f Hofstader could see America 50 years after Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was published, what would he think? Much of what American intellectuals these days seem to find shocking would not surprise Hofstadter in the slightest—for example, the Tea Party movement, or people who refuse to vaccinate their children against diseases, or the idea of paying schoolteachers on the basis of numerical measures of how well they confer skills to their students. Similar movements began appearing in the early 19th century and have never gone away.

History is an essential corrective to the impulse to see the controversies of the present as uniquely vexing. Hofstadter did not foresee everything, though. He almost entirely missed the importance of the civil rights movement and feminism, not just historically, but also intellectually. In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life , Hofstadter took pains to mention moments, like the Progressive era and the New Deal, when ideas from the intellectual world manifested themselves broadly in national culture and politics.

But he hardly mentioned the significant intellectual movements in support of rights for African-Americans and women, and he mostly ignored the rebirth of these movements at the time he was writing. If he had been writing 10 or even five years later, he could not have neglected civil rights and feminism as thoroughly as he did.

Even more important, Hofstadter, subtle as he was, was writing from the assumption that American life could be fully understood without reference to ethnic, racial, or gender categories. Another notable absence in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is intellectual conservatism.


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There were conservative intellectuals when Hofstadter was writing, whom he overlooked—think of Frank Meyer or Russell Kirk—and after he died a branch of the American right emerged that conceived of itself as being distinct from the left not just ideologically, but also for being more intellectually serious, less prone to easy bromides. These people, and their allies in government and in opinion journalism, helped turn intellectual conservatism into such highly consequential policies as supply-side economics, deregulation, originalism in constitutional law, and neoconservative foreign policy. The long Reagan-dominated period in American history would have been impossible without conservative intellectuals; an update of Hofstadter might argue with intellectual conservatism, but it could not treat American intellectualism as being entirely liberal.

Hofstadter saw business as the dominant element in American culture. He painted business culture in Babbitt hues—go-go, unreflective—and it might surprise him that today, much of the most visible section of American business prides itself on its braininess. But the celebration was more of their being forceful and commanding, or meticulously well-organized, or charismatic and persuasive, than of their intellectual gifts.

A present-day Hofstadter would have to confront the question of whether business is a locus of intellectual life, in a way that Hofstadter did not feel he had to. And in the last 50 years the presence of experts in and around government has also soared. The think-tank sector has grown, too, so have policy institutes in universities, and journalism has become generally more expert-friendly, both in whom it employs and whom it covers.

Conversely, intellectualism should be inherently uncomfortable, not triumphant. Experts, Hofstadter reminds us, have been important since early in the 20th century, but to point out that our complex society increasingly needs people who are intelligent and have formal technical education to staff government and business is not the same thing as saying that the United States has a rich intellectual life. Experts try to dwell in the realm of rigorously derived knowledge and facts.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Intellectuals dwell in the much more difficult realm of ideas and values, where almost nothing is ever right without qualification, and where contention, contradiction, and uncertainty are inescapable. If you ever begin to think of American life as a struggle between the superior, enlightened few and the mass of yobs, pick up Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

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