Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

April 12th, 2009 at 3:28 pm David Frum | 1 Comment |

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Question: Could Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” possibly have been rendered obsolete?

Hofstadter argued that there existed a distinctively American tradition that distrusted intellect. This tradition drew its power from the three great shaping forces of American culture: religion, no rx commerce, treat and democracy. American-style Protestantism valued emotion over theology. American commerce disparaged abstract analysis in favor of practical experience. And American democracy demanded an education system that nurtured the less able rather than challenging the most brilliant.

As ever, generic Hofstadter pressed his case with learning, insight and astringent wit. And yet as one closes the final page, one is left wondering: Could it be that Hofstadter’s great masterwork is already obsolete?

When Richard Hofstadter published Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963, there existed no National Endowment for the Humanities, no National Endowment for the Arts, no Library of America, no National Public Radio, no Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Venture beyond New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, and cultural institutions all but vanished: Even wealthy Los Angeles still had no art museum.

Fewer than one in 10 adults had a university degree. Fewer than half had a high school diploma. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had only just begun their transition to meritocracy. Advanced Placement high school courses were still novelties.

The nightly news occupied only 15 minutes on the three big networks. For almost all Americans, those 15 minutes plus a local daily newspaper of radically varying quality provided the sum total of their information about public affairs. (An elite few might supplement that basic ration with a newsweekly.)

Even as Hofstadter published, however, a great change was occurring. One symbol of that change: in the same year that Hofstadter published Anti-Intellectualism, 1963, President Kennedy named the first Ph.D. to a cabinet-rank post: John A. Gronouski as Postmaster-General. (By contrast, only two members of Barack Obama’s cabinet lack advanced degrees: Ray LaHood and Arne Duncan, and Duncan graduated from Harvard magna cum laude.) In this respect, Obama’s cabinet is following a trend seen throughout the country: Graduate degrees today are almost as common as were undergraduate degrees in 1963.

If American business spurned math and science in 1963, it would never dare so in 2009. Abstract mathematical analysis built the fortunes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page.

The military likewise has been intellectualized. Today’s soldiers first fight the wars, then write their history. (Or in the case of John Nagl: first they write the history, then they fight the wars!)

Television, once famously described as a vast wasteland, now offers specialty channels on science, history, biography, the arts, and exploration. The information revolution has democratized knowledge in a way that can be compared only to the invention of the printing press. Nobody lives at the mercy of the local book store or the small town monopoly daily anymore. Very soon, the contents of every university library on earth will be instantly and freely available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Despite this grand cultural shift, one can of course find no shortage of examples of public disparagement of knowledge, expertise and intellect. That’s always true and will always be true. Hofstadter brilliantly succeeded in tracing the origins of the particular forms of disparagement most often seen in American culture. He did not however address what might seem the most important question in his subject area: compared to what?

Hofstadter took for granted without argument that anti-intellectualism represented both a powerful and a permanent force in American culture. He did not ask:  Is America more or less anti-intellectual than other human societies? Or: Is American anti-intellectualism waxing or waning over time?

Thus, Hofstadter devoted a large section of his book to an attack on educators who created simple-minded high-school curricula lest the duller students feel excluded. We continue to see such educators at work today.

Yet we also see that American school systems have developed work-arounds to offer cognitively gifted children the more demanding course work they need, without directly challenging the worldview of those educators who see it as their job to protect their students from difficult demands. 

A quick Google scan unearths this interesting development, for example. In the state of Illinois the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses jumped from 26,700 in 2001 to 43,700 in 2006. That growth might make you worry – as the courses expand, are they being dumbed down? The exam numbers tell a reassuring story. In 2001, 72% of Illinois AP exams got a passing grade; by 2006 that had slipped to 70%.

A breakdown by ethnicity tells the story in more detail. In 2001, only 1,942 AP exams were written by African-American students; in 2006, 5,061 exams were written by African-Americans. In 2001, 29% of exams received a passing grade; in 2006, 23% did. The failure rate is high and rising – and that’s good news.

The higher AP enrollment number tells us that school officials are working hard to encourage the most promising African-American students to take more challenging courses – and that’s good.

The higher failure rate tells us that standards are being maintained – good again.

And the combination of these two effects yields this happy final result: While only 563 of the AP exams written by Illinois blacks in 2001 earned a passing grade, 1164 of the exams earned a passing grade in 2006. This represents affirmative action as it is supposed to work: expanded outreach yielding higher overall African-American success.

Hofstadter would have liked this story. In the realm of education, Hofstadter warmly championed equality of opportunity over equality of result.

In other realms, however, Hofstadter had different preferences. And those different preferences cause large and unconsidered (by him) difficulties. In Anti-Intellectualism and also in his most famous book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (to which I’ll turn in this space shortly), Hofstadter showed a bad tendency to blur his championing of intellectuality with his social democratic politics.

That led him to identify the New Deal as a vanished Golden Age of rationality and to depict the 1952 and 1956 elections as tragic upsurges of yahooism. Hofstadter quotes the quips of some Republican polemicists against Adlai Stevenson’s supposed (and by the way exaggerated) egghead proclivities.

But two points:

1) It really is a strange reading of the elections of the 1950s to attribute Stevenson’s defeat to anti-intellectualism. Stevenson lost in 1952 for three reasons: Korea, inflation, and the residual unpopularity of Harry S Truman. Stevenson lost again in 1956 for the converse reason: the incumbent Eisenhower administration had delivered peace and prosperity. See eg this ad.

2) The resentment many Americans had come to feel by the 1950s against the New Deal impulse to plan, regulate, and control should not be seen as an anti-intellectual one. Attempts to subordinate national economies to central control produce results that are anything but rational. The American voter’s instinctive appreciation of this truth confirms the validity of Friedrich Hayek’s distinction between rationalism and authentic reason.

Brains are an asset in American politics, but like any asset they have to be used skillfully. Compare and contrast the careers of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. My guess is that any standardized test would reveal a much higher IQ in Clinton than in Gore. Clinton was so smart that he could figure out something that always eluded Gore: nobody likes a show-off.

(Here for example is Gore quoted by Nicholas Lemann in a summer 2000 magazine profile:

I became interested in more complex metaphors and their explanatory power when I was writing ‘Earth in the Balance.’ In particular, in my effort to try to understand the origins of our modern world view, and its curious reliance on specialization and ever-narrower slices of the world around us into categories that are then themselves dissected, in an ongoing process of separation, into parts and subparts — a process that sometimes obliterates the connection to the whole and the appreciation for context and the deeper meanings that can’t really be found in the atomized parts of the whole — and in exploring the roots of that way of looking at the world, I found a lot of metaphors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that came directly from the scientific revolution into the world of politics and culture and sociology. And many of those metaphors are still with us.

The rule applies to every human excellence: beauty, business success, even military heroism. As Bob Dole reminded the boastful John Kerry: People always prefer a quiet hero.

If brains are a political asset to be deployed with skill, disregard for brains is even more dangerous. Bill O’Reilly could argue in defense of Sarah Palin that an ignorant vice presidential candidate can be “tutored, brought up to standard”: “Here’s the world map, here’s our interactions.”

That kind of talk probably did the Republican ticket more harm than even the Palin nomination itself.

Anti-intellectualism as a style and sensibility will always be exploited by would-be populists of the left and right. Most of the time, however, it proves to be fool’s gold. Voters in advanced democracies have a lot to lose, and politicians who appear unequal to the task of managing the government will not be entrusted with high responsibilities. Who knows? Voter aversion to gut-playing politicians may prove one of the more enduring legacies of the Bush years.

If so, Hofstadter’s magnum opus may deserve attention more as an epitaph for a bygone era than as an analysis of the culture in which contemporary Americans still live.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Steve D

    Humans in general are anti-intellectual. Just as most people enjoy a walk but few train for a marathon, most people enjoy a little intellectual stimulation but few are deeply committed to inquiry. As bad as it can be in America, look at the ossification of traditional societies where ignorant elders are deemed superior to informed youth. We have the tragedy that no civilization in history has supported learning like the West, but most people choose not to indulge in it, and even disdain it. “Nobody likes a show-off” because they resent being confronted with real excellence. Furthermore, they resent the fact that excellence confers rewards. Rhodes Scholar Clinton had to dumb himself down in public; what a degrading fact, not just for him but even more so for us. The last thing our society wants is a real meritocracy. Just look at the scorn, and sometimes even violence, heaped on people who are willing to work for lower wages or work longer hours.

    If people were as innately curious as many optimists like to believe, anti-intellectualism would be considered a form of mental illness, as undesirable and stigmatized as impotence. The alleged “inquisitiveness” of children is superficial. The tragedy of our society is not that most people outgrow their childlike sense of wonder, but that most do not.

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