Review of "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life"

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter was the 1964 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction and illuminates American historical responses to issues of intellectualism. Rather than being a sustained examination of a particular period, Hofstadter instead writes on issues that have particular significance in a time after Joseph McCarthy has died but his legacy still had legs.

Intellectualism does not have a specific ideological composition but is determined by specific habits and attitudes, most typically defined as a mindset that takes joy in depth analysis. Genteel, ante-bellum southern intellectuals lamenting an advancing industrialism’s degenerative social effects on a once agrarian economy are thus as much intellectuals as the socialist writers at The Masses in the Lower East Side. Intellectualism (and intellectuals) are defined in contradistinction to intelligence which is viewed as inherited, traditional manners of analysis that only concerns itself with the practical. Hofstadter’s distinctions between those that are in the professional, white-collar classes and intellectuals is also noteworthy. He points out that an advanced education, say leading one to be a member of a legal profession, doesn’t necessarily make one an intellectual as this is just technical training. Intellectuals devote their free time to personal edification and wrestling with problems however they are not, according to Hofstadter, allowed to become devotees to any particular idea. I am somewhat ambivalent about this aspect of intellectualism as it seems to give the credence to the idea that – using Hofstader example – that anyone staking a solid position aren’t intellectuals but fanatics. I think that capriciousness is definitely an aspect of intellectualism, but I think to disregard those that stake out a position (that may be informed by contrasting views!) continues some of the anti-intellectualist McCarthite legacy that he seeks to throw in disrepute.

One of the first and most oft recurring themes Hofstadter identifies in American consideration of intellectualism is this conflict between conservative and religious groups to liberal political philosophy. For the former, intellectualism is dangerous as it’s quest, to paraphrase Marx, for a ruthless criticism of all things existing without fear as to where the conclusion will lead is disruptive to existing social fabrics. Their overriding antagonism stems from what they perceive as a lack of moral foundations in intellectualism. Such a sentiment does not, however, come ex nihilo and Hofstadter shows how this is closely tied to the early settler conditions, low levels of formative education, foreign immigration, revivalist preachers and resistance to foreign religious institutions like the Catholic diocese and Anglican church. One Georgia pastor states that there are only three books that should be read by people, the Bible, the hymn book and an almanac, as anything else will turn people “bad”.

For the politically conservative, intellectuals were weak-willed, effeminate intellectuals. They had book knowledge, but not knowledge of “how people are.” They were good at thinking, but not at doing. They were too quick to experiment with new solutions to social problems and not let the time honored traditional way of dealing with things work. As a force in electoral politics, Hofstadter shows how this first manifested in the Federalist and anti-Federalist debates with Jefferson playing the role of an intellectual devil inspired by too much French philosophy. Connected to the myriad slurs both sides produced about each other are concerns about the increasingly depersonalized nature of government that are still voiced today. The growth of a professional governmental bureaucracy and their role in establishing and perpetuating norms played on the anxieties of a recently “free” people that were afraid of a return to despotism. Most interesting in this period of anti-intellectualism is that as mass consumer culture increased, the native intellectuals – the “gentleman of good breeding” – soon left politics as they were yelled down by a new group who had no qualms about making barker-like appeals to emotions.

The political classes were not alone in their fear of intellectual, the small-holdings farmer often contributed his own perspective to the situation. At a time when America was largely agricultural, the small-farmers resisted the knowledge attempted to be brought to them by the universities. This was both as they resented the expert who had, at least in their mind, not put in the same sort of manual labour dues as to be called a farmer and as the large amount of cheap land made speculation on prices more profitable than working on it. This mistrust of the outside “intellectual” makes it’s way over into the labor unions as well. Samuel Gompers was notorious in his disdain for “idea men” and actively sought to emulate the values of the possessing classes. He actively fought against and decried the large number of socialists, communists and syndicalists which sought to turn the union into a larger instrument of social regeneration and instead propounded the bread and butter policies that would eventually become business unionism.

All of these social pressures could not, however, counter the power given to intellectuals during the period leading up to the New Deal. As the status quo become an untenable one, it had a tremendously revivifying effect for those intellectual specialists previously marginalized into small academic spheres. Now their proclamations were, at least in part, being seriously considering as being “the gospel” of how to proceed. The political and social institutions that were set up according to their outlines was not without nay-sayers, and often times the final result was a shell of the original plan, however once university professors and scientists came to play a role in the hall of power it was impossible to take them back. Hofstadter shows how one of the major driving sources of antagonism stemmed from businessmen combating the intellectualist attempts to insulate people form the vicissitudes of the market economy by supporting workers movements for greater on the job safety and general economic planning.

In the section on schooling, the anti-intellectualist animosity takes on the flavor of “life adjustment.” Here classes on how to master mundane tasks and how to develop one’s emotional intelligence are seen as preferable to classics and modern novels. While there is not the sort of depth into the reforms of Horace Mann and the conditions of teachers as I expect Dana Goldstein will be going into in when her book is published, the brief history of schools at the beginning of the 20th century shows the many deficiencies that would make today’s nay-sayer on the state of public education go into shock. For instance, it was an almost common practice for school masters to be Shang-Hai’d into the position and teachers to frequently leave without warning. This is understandable as their pay was so low and social regard for teachers differed drastically from the traditional Europeans recognition of them as having an important role. One of the aspects that I found to be somewhat surprising was Hofstadder’s silence in regards to the Modern School movement’s origin from libertarian, not liberal, traditions. The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States by Paul Avrich is clear in illustrating how much of the educational concept and theories which later came to form discourses on teacher-child relations and pedagogy in fact originated from Spain. The later philosophical contributions of John Dewey, while politically at odds with the Spanish anarchists, has several significant overlaps including their similar views that schools are society inchoate, that book learning isn’t as valuable as being well-rounded, that a spirit of social service ought to be instilled within the co-operative structure of the classroom. I would attribute these as stemming from Dewey’s debt to Hegel, especially as Hofstadter states that Dewey’s writing is so vague that it caused his supporters to form into different camps based upon their interpretation and that the high level of abstraction which he wrote often made it problematic to turn his pronouncements into policy.

The closing considerations on the then current place of the American intellectual is primarily on the relationship between intellectuals and political power. Using a series of articles published in The Parisian Review as a point from which to discuss the changes in alienation felt by those on the social-democratic left, intellectuals are here shown as splitting between those that are able to accommodate themselves to the needs of power and those that resist it. Hofstadter doesn’t claim that these are the only two roles possible, but sees them as existing on a continuum tending to the extremes. While not tarrying with it here, I think it would have been worthwhile to then analyze the claims of the Left intellectuals more. As a social democrat he seems to be sympathetic to them, and it makes me wonder what he would now think of human terrain teams, but like stakes a positions that is the very self-same definition of intellectualism he gave earlier – ambivalence.

While I don’t think that some of the trends which Hofstadter comments on, such as the business world’s ambivalence to math and science continue per se, it does take on a different form. Rather than supporting community schools, the current trend towards supporting privatization is anti-intellectual in that it is part of a broader movement to undo the welfare state. The increased availability to use foreign-born specialists in this post-industrial atmosphere allow for an intellectual environment that is increasingly without defender. Intelligence, yes, but even then only with limits.