Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964)

Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964) is a work of impressive scholarship that remains extremely (and sometimes depressingly) relevant today. It traces periods of intellectual flourishing as well as the reactions against them, from the deeply intellectual Founding Fathers to the incoherent and incandescent anti-intellectual aggression of the McCarthy era. The overarching point of the book seems to be that since its inception, America has undergone cycles of anti-intellectual sentiment. These rise when expertise oversteps its bounds, and makes mistakes, or perhaps even when it is needed too badly. At other times, expertise and intellectuals can come to be valued, though a latent suspicion often remains. Overall the book is well worth reading for an understanding of how such a large proportion of America acquired anti-intellectual sentiments, as well as for providing insight into many cultural and social aspects of American life and history.

The book begins with an insightful investigation into what it means to be an intellectual in the first place. Intellectuals, argues Hofstadter, are not merely or necessarily highly educated, nor are they merely or necessarily experts. They are defined by two defining drives, which may appear in different measures in different disciples: piety and playfulness. These may seem strange attributes for intellectuals who might well be atheist scientists or equally might be engaged in work of the utmost solemnity. But these aspects do strike a chord. The pious aspect of intellectualism is the almost religious fervour with which the pursuits of the mind are followed, with an intensity verging on devotion, even worship. Hofstadter thinks this arises naturally, in part, from the fact that historically the intellectual class largely overlapped with the clergy. Moreover it leads to the creation of temples of intellectual devotion (e.g. universities or libraries) which often have a religious atmosphere. Piety represents the obsessive side of the intellectual, that fuels endless research and arcane exploration:

I have suggested that in some sense he lives for ideas—which means that he has a sense of dedication to the life of the mind which is very much like a religious commitment. This is not surprising, for in a very important way the role of the intellectual is inherited from the office of cleric: it implies a special sense of the ultimate value in existence of the act of comprehension.​

The playfulness aspect is a type of irreverence, a novelty-seeking attitude which is what “must prevent [an intellectual] from living for one idea, from becoming obsessive or grotesque.” It relates to the “sheer delight in intellectual activity”. I suspect it also relates to the sort of rule-breaking desire to make connections between disparate things, that is at the heart of analogy or allegory. The desire to create, to discover, to engage with, requires not only a sort of hubris but an element of playfulness as well. It is aligned with creativity; even the most serious poetry must have a strong element of this, as must wit, and quite probably most high-quality writing. I think Hofstadter is persuasive in arguing that these two characteristics define intellectual pursuits.

From here, he starts to explore what has put the intellectual at odds with the population at large in America since its inception. He points out the need, however reluctant, that the average person has for expertise, which had already grown to a great degree by the mid-20th century (a trend which has only intensified since his writing): “Once the intellectual was gently ridiculed because he was not needed; now he is fiercely resented because he is needed too much.” His description of the alienation of the average American resulting from cosmopolitanism and skepticism, globalisation, and the wars, led to:

the heartland of America, filled with people who are often fundamentalist in religion, nativist in prejudice, isolationist in foreign policy, and conservative in economics, has constantly rumbled with an underground revolt against all these tormenting manifestations of our modern predicament.​

After this introduction Hofstadter proceeds on his historical analysis, dividing the remainder of the book into five sections.

“The Religion on the Heart” is a detailed examination of the way in which evangelism and fundamentalism, as well as the Great Awakenings, came as a reaction against an intellectual clergy perceived to be withholding direct access to God. This belief, that religion should be a personal experience to which everyone should have unmediated access, was of course an outgrowth of Protestantism in many ways, and became strongly linked in the late 19th Century with the rise in populist democratic sentiment. This section also examines some preachers’ lives in quite some detail to explain their approach, their appeal, and their personalities, in an interesting history that I knew almost nothing about.

“The Politics of Democracy” looks at the decline of the idea of gentlemen, at the failure of reforms of the civil service, and at the rise of the expert. He also looks at the intellectual and non-intellectual tendencies of presidents from the Founding Fathers to the present day. I found that parts of this section dragged a bit, particularly the minutiae of the civil service, but it was a very good primer on each president’s attitudes.

“The Practical Culture” examines the cult of practicality in America, the relationship between intellectuals and business, at the role of self-help in America, and the labor movement. In short it’s about how America’s insistence that all endeavours must be practical can sometimes become a fault or even a barrier to progress.

“Education in a Democracy” is one of the most fascinating sections, looking at the vast changes that took place at the end of the 19th century with mandatory education and a huge increase in population. It examines in depth the influence of John Dewey on the educational system, and the conflicting drives of traditional education (to learn the classical subjects) as opposed to the modernising desire of the “New Education” whose goal was to prepare students to become good citizens in a democracy.

The conclusion paints an overall picture of the periodic waxing and waning of anti-intellectual sentiment throughout the decades. Overall the book is a fascinating look at how these waves of intellectualism and anti-intellectualism have affected the nation. It is penetratingly insightful at times, and while it does not afford much hope that the trends will stop, it does help put them into perspective.

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