Review: Anti-intellectualism in American Life - The Objective Standard

Anti-intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter. New York: Vintage Books, 1963. 446 pp. $18 (paperback).

The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby. New York: Vintage Books, rev. ed., 2009. 357 pp. $15.95 (paperback).


Imagine you are touring America—not its landscapes or buildings, but its intellect and soul. You have two guides. Both are practiced speakers who walk quickly from site to site, dazzle you with their commentary on a variety of subjects, and mix their personal views with statistical profiles.

Such an experience awaits those who tour a dark facet of the history of American culture through two books: Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason. Each author focuses on the social and political phenomenon of “anti-intellectualism.” For our purposes, that phenomenon may be defined as social and political opposition to the practice of applying broad abstractions—usually learned from philosophers—to social issues. The two authors maintain that the application of such abstractions by intellectuals poses a threat to the social and political ambitions of some individuals (creationists and populists being classic examples), provoking their antipathy toward both the intellectuals’ ideas and the intellectuals themselves.

The elder guide in this case is Hofstadter, a history professor writing in the late 1950s. His purpose is “to shed a little light on our cultural problems.”

[W]hat I have done is merely to use the idea of anti-intellectualism as a device for looking at various aspects, hardly the most appealing, of American society and culture. Despite the fringes of documentation on many of its pages, this work is by no means a formal history but largely a personal book, whose factual details are organized and dominated by my views. (AAL, p. vii)

The heart of Hofstadter’s book is parts 2–5, which cover what Hofstadter considers to be the main homes of anti-intellectualism in America: religion, politics, business, and education. The order of the four core parts and of the discussions within each part is generally chronological. In the first of part 2’s three chapters, “The Evangelical Spirit,” Hofstadter focuses on what he holds was the anti-intellectualism lurking in the culture at the time of our nation’s founding:

The American mind was shaped in the mold of early modern Protestantism. Religion was the first arena for American intellectual life, and thus the first arena for an anti-intellectual impulse. Anything that seriously diminished the role of rationality and learning in early American religion would later diminish its role in secular culture. The feeling that ideas should above all be made to work, the disdain for doctrine and for refinement in ideas, the subordination of men of ideas to men of emotional power or manipulative skill are hardly innovations of the twentieth century; they are inheritances from American Protestantism. (AAL, p. 55)

This passage is typical of both the virtues and vices of our elder guide’s style. It flows well and offers interesting observations, but at the end of the passage the objective reader must stop and ask himself, “What exactly did Hofstadter just say?” For example, readers might not understand (until later in the book) that “made to work” is an oblique reference to the anti-intellectual notion that ideas are acceptable only where they apply immediately to everyday concerns, that is, “practical” in a way that excludes theories and other forms of integration.

From that nebulous opening, our tour guide proceeds to do what he does best, which is narrating a flow of events accompanied by specific dates as well as names of persons, places, and publications that conveyed the views of intellectuals and their foes, the anti-intellectuals. The core of the book is not a philosophical analysis of anti-intellectualism or a history of the idea of anti-intellectualism. It is a social history, specifically a history of the struggle between various social and political groups wherein one side attacks the other side’s intellectualism—as when Christian fundamentalists rejected Darwin’s scientific theory of evolution in favor of a direct reading of the Bible’s account in Genesis. Hofstadter elaborates:

It is important, finally, if we are to avoid hopeless confusion, to be clear that anti-intellectualism is not here identified with a type of philosophical doctrine which I prefer to call anti-rationalism. The ideas of thinkers like Nietzsche, . . . [Walt] Whitman, or William James, or of writers like William Blake . . . or Ernest Hemingway may be called anti-rationalist; but these men were not characteristically anti-intellectual in the sociological and political sense in which I use the term. . . . In these pages I am centrally concerned with wide-spread social attitudes, with political behavior, and with middle-brow and low-brow responses, only incidentally with articulate theories. (AAL, pp. 8–9)

Unfortunately, Hofstadter does not provide readers with a concise definition of anti-intellectualism—the core subject of the book—that readers can carry with them through the deeper bogs of U.S. culture. Hofstadter explains:

>One reason anti-intellectualism has not even been clearly defined [in historians’ accounts of it] is that its very vagueness makes it more serviceable in controversy as an epithet. But, in any case, it does not yield very readily to definition. As an idea, it is not a single proposition but a complex of related propositions. . . . In these pages I have not held myself to a rigorous or narrow definition, which would here be rather misplaced. I can see little advantage in a logically defensible but historically arbitrary act of definition, which would demand singling out one trait among a complex of traits. It is the complex itself I am interested in—the complex of historical relations among a variety of attitudes and ideas that have many points of convergence. The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life. This admittedly general formulation is as close as I find it useful to venture toward a definition. (AAL, pp. 6–7)

Most of the dozen chapters that follow inundate the reader with stories of the rise and fall of individuals who attacked intellectuals and intellectualism in order to reach their political goals. An example is William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), a major figure in the Democratic party, an opponent of the theory of evolution, and a proponent of literal readings of the Bible.

In his mind faith and democracy converged in a common anti-intellectualist rationale. On one side were the voices of the people and the truths of the heart; on the other were the intellectuals, a small arrogant elite given over to false science and mechanical rationalism—variously described by him as a “scientific soviet” and a “little irresponsible oligarchy of self-styled ‘intellectuals’. . . . Mind, being mechanical, needs the heart to direct it.” (AAL, p. 127)

Bryan’s opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools is probably known to many readers; Bryan’s dual rationale may be less familiar: the will of God combines with the will of the people to block a tiny intellectual minority. Therein lies one of the virtues of Hofstadter’s (and later Jacoby’s) accounts of historical events: There are informative surprises in the details.

Another virtue is Hofstadter’s attempt to be objective. Most of his focus is on anti-intellectualism among conservatives; but he does examine the anti-intellectualism of some nihilists, communists, socialists, “progressives,” and populists. For instance, in his conclusion, Hofstadter shows the anti-intellectualism of beatniks in particular and Bohemianism in general.

What is the main point, the theme, of Hofstadter’s personal tour of anti-intellectualism in America? His initial statement does not inspire confidence in the reader: “The theme itself has been developed in a manner that is by choice rather impulsive and by necessity only fragmentary” (AAL, p. vii). Nevertheless, Hofstadter does offer generalizations about American history that, even if inaccurate, challenge readers to think and read more about the subject elsewhere, in more specialized studies. For instance, he says:

Our anti-intellectualism is, in fact, older than our national identity, and has a long historical background. An examination of this background suggests that regard for intellectuals in the United States . . . is subject to cyclical fluctuations; it suggests, too, that the resentment from which the intellectual has suffered in our time [the 1940s–1950s] is a manifestation not of a decline in his position but of his increasing prominence. (AAL, p. 6)

Such generalizations set the context for our second tour guide, Susan Jacoby. Extending and occasionally correcting Hofstadter’s earlier work, she describes and derides the American culture primarily of the decades following Hofstadter’s account, which ended around 1960. Like Hofstadter, she sees two major groups engaged in the conflict of intellectualism vs. anti-intellectualism. On one side are the religious fundamentalists who since colonial days have resisted trends toward secularization; on the other side are intellectuals who have generally supported secularization.

Jacoby’s main task is to identify cultural trends that she thinks have exacerbated anti-intellectualism. One trend has been the “democratization of education” (AAU, p. xv), which, she says, brought education to a wide population but at the price of shallowness that has increased disdain for specialized academic experts. Another trend, Jacoby says, has been the long-held but in her view erroneous American belief that each individual should be self-made, a belief that she claims undercuts respect for intellectuals’ long and intense academic training by others. In this popular American view, Jacoby says, common sense is sufficient for solving problems that individuals and nations face, whereas specialized expertise is unnecessary and suspected of being detached from reality (AAU, pp. xv–xvi). That view is one of Jacoby’s many targets.

Jacoby applies her generalizations to particular recent events. For example, she places vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin—“a gun-toting, anti-abortion, anti-evolution, fundamentalist Bible-thumper”—on the fundamentalist side and presidential candidate Barack Obama on the secularist side. Palin and running mate John McCain accused Obama of supporting sex education for kindergarteners, even though the bill Obama had sponsored was, in Jacoby’s description, devoted to helping young children recognize and avoid sexual predators. This, says Jacoby, was an instance of fundamentalists “sneering at evidence and reason” (AAU, p. xvii).

Early in the book, Jacoby states her theme:

If, as I will argue in this book, America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism—as opposed to the recognizable cyclical strains of the past [documented by Hofstadter]—the virulence of the current outbreak is inseparable from an unmindfulness that is, paradoxically, both aggressive and passive. This condition is aggressively promoted by everyone, from politicians to media executives, whose livelihood depends on a public that derives its opinions from sound-bites and blogs, and it is passively accepted by a public in thrall to the serpent promising effortless enjoyment from the fruit of the tree of infotainment. (AAU, p. xx)

Jacoby holds that, in the four decades since Hofstadter’s book appeared, “a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic,” has worsened “America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies” (AAU, pp. xi–xii). She explains:

This new form of anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation’s heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics. (AAU, p. xii)

Jacoby builds her case with a brisk tour through American culture in the past fifty years. In chapter 1, “The Way We Live Now: Just Us Folks,” she races through such cultural items as: the use of the term “folks” in politics as “symptomatic of a debasement of public speech” (AAU, pp. 4–9); the impossibility of precisely defining “anti-intellectualism” (AAU, pp. 9–10); mass media filling our lives with “ear-shattering music and special effects that would obviate concentration and reflection even in the absence of visual images” that subordinate “both the spoken and written word” (AAU, p. 11); “the intrusion of video into the psyches of Americans at ever earlier ages,” thus “discouraging [children] from thinking” (AAU, p. 15); the inability of “liberal religion” today—“with its many shades of gray and [its] determination to make room for secular knowledge in the house of faith”—to compete with the conservative Christian fundamentalists and Biblical literalists in using video to spread their message (AAU, p. 18); and so on, with subject after subject for twelve more pages in this one chapter.

In the same racing style, Jacoby devotes the next four chapters to investigating the roots of today’s rising tide of irrationalism. In chapter 2, “The Way We Lived Then: Intellect and Ignorance in a Young Nation,” she contrasts the Enlightenment ideal of men of reason to the religious fundamentalists who emerged in the decades after the American Revolution.

In chapter 3, “Social Pseudoscience in the Morning of America’s Culture Wars,” Jacoby considers “the first mass-marketed wave of pseudoscience, or what would today be called junk science,” which was the Social Darwinism movement in the decades after the U.S. Civil War. Jacoby uses the occasion to jab at such individuals as William Graham Sumner (1840–1910) and his “gospel of laissez-faire economics” (AAU, p. 70). Sumner, she says, “must be ranked not only as one of the most influential academics of his day but as the philosophical forefather of the right-wing public intellectuals who have exercised similar influence in American society since the early 1980s” (AAU, p. 71).

At the end of chapter 3, in her look at the ideas of Ayn Rand, Jacoby reveals her own shallow analyses, hostility to liberty, and denial of the possibility of objectivity. Jacoby says:

Forgotten in their original form but not gone, the worst pseudoscientific ideas emanating from the late nineteenth century are constantly being marketed under new brand names in the United States. Social Darwinism has never died: it manifested itself as a bulwark of eugenics until the Second World War; in the tedious midcentury “objectivist” philosophy of Ayn Rand; and, most recently, in the form of market economy worship that presents itself not as political opinion but as a summa of objective facts. All of the theories included in the general category of Social Darwinism may be summed up in the immortal line uttered by the hero of Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943): “The only good which men can do to one another and the only statement of their proper relationship is—‘Hands off!’” (AAU, p. 80)

First, Jacoby misses the philosophical significance of the passage, which is an expression of the virtue of independence, by which Rand means the virtue of thinking for oneself, acting on one’s own judgment, and respecting the rights of others to do the same. The independent man does not force others to provide him with anything; rather, he trades both spiritual and material values with others, and he renounces aggression as evil. Jacoby’s branding of Rand’s philosophy as a product of Social Darwinism is thus wrong and absurdly so.

Second, Jacoby’s comments ignore Rand’s actual published views of Social Darwinism, which Rand characterized as a collectivist doctrine antithetical to her own individualist ethics and politics. Jacoby also ignores Rand’s view of William Graham Sumner, who advocated laissez-faire economics but for reasons of expediency—an approach radically opposed to Rand’s careful philosophical arguments in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and other works.* By associating Rand with Sumner, Jacoby shows herself to be, at best, confused , and, at worst, dishonestly attacking Rand and her ideas—an injustice given Rand’s advocacy of the very reason and intellectualism that Jacoby claims to hold dear.

In chapter 4, “Reds, Pinkos, Fellow Travelers,” Jacoby mentions the “social pseudoscience of communism” (AAU, p. 82) and then launches into a history of American opposition to communism, including what she regards as the conservatives’ failure (AAU, p. 83) to distinguish communism from other “left-of-center” movements.

Chapter 5, “Middlebrow Culture from Noon to Twilight,” traces the rise and decline of the “highbrow” culture that “middlebrow” nonintellectuals had spread through organizing lectures and conferences, publishing books and articles, and widely offering intellectual and artistic materials at low prices. Jacoby then chronicles middlebrow culture’s replacement by degraded mass (“lowbrow”) culture.

In chapter 6, Jacoby shines brightly. She uncovers the previously hidden story of the 1960s: not merely the obvious emergence of the counterculture, usually associated with the political left, but the largely unnoticed, indeed ignored, revolution that was brewing among the “religious right,” the fundamentalist Christian conservatives who had ambitious long-term plans to dominate American culture. In this chapter most of all, but in others too, readers dissatisfied with America today can see that the way to change the culture is to disseminate ideas—to speak out, write letters to editors, write books, organize “think tanks,” and build generation-spanning institutions.

Chapter 7, “Legacies: Youth Culture and Celebrity Culture,” traces what Jacoby views as the increasingly rapid decline of American culture from the youthful emotionalism of the 1960s to the “misogynist, violent, often racist, and always vulgar lyrics of most rap and hip-hop” (AAU, p. 164).

The remaining chapters proceed in similar fashion: Jacoby shows a purported decline in culture, attempts to identify its cause, and briefly offers an alternative. For example, in chapter 8, “The New Old-Time Religion,” she decries the rise of “anti-rational forms of faith” in the 1960s; attributes it to the initiative of the religious right and the failure of others to take heed; and encourages religionists to adopt a “more moderate, science-friendly form of faith” (AAU, p. 202). In chapter 9, “Junk Thought,” Jacoby attacks “junk” in “the humanities and social sciences as well as the physical sciences” (AAU, p. 211). She says, “It cannot be stressed enough that junk thought emanates from both the left and the right, even though each group . . . thrives on accusing the other of being the sole source of irrationality” (AAU, p. 211). In chapter 10, “The Culture of Distraction,” Jacoby lambastes the explosion of text messages, Internet images, and ever-changing videos as undermining thoughtful consideration of any subject. In chapter 11, “Public Life: Defining Dumbness Downward,” she takes the position that “[p]oliticians, like members of the media, are both the creators and the creatures of a public distrustful of complexity, nuance, and sophisticated knowledge” (AAU, pp. 280–81).

These wide-ranging works by Hofstadter and Jacoby are unsuitable for casual readers. Clarifying, analyzing, and evaluating the authors’ claims requires an inordinate amount of time and effort. But for committed students of American history and for intellectual activists eager to fight for reason against unreason, these two texts provide discussions that may inspire a deeper look at history in more specialized studies.

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