02
Jul
08

Anti-Intellectualism Half a Century Ago

History repeats itself – an oft-repeated proverb warning us that the the lessons of the past are once again the sins of today. Certainly, I found myself mentally saying a church-worthy Amen! to this proverb as I began reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, published in 1962, 1963.

anti-intellectualism in american life

Let me just say that if this weren’t a library book, I’d be highlighting the hell out of it. Instead, I’m reduced to tearing post-it after post-it to mark all the points of interest. And I haven’t started Chapter 2. My consumption of this work is a result of research I’m conducting for my own respective book, butrichard hofstadter phots Hofstadter’s observations have already shocked me into open-mouth disbelief as his descriptions of the anti-intellectualism of the 1950’s readily apply to today’s culture clash between the learned and the petrified. The author does assert that anti-intellectualism suffers cyclical fluctuations and will never fully abate to the netherworlds of silly history, with other theories such as “the sun revolves around the Earth” and “the 2008 election will be between Giuliani and Hillary” (yeah, that was my own Nostradamus endeavors into electoral predictions).

So, please forgive the length of this blog as I indulge myself by providing a few (a bunch?) unusually relevant excerpts from Chapter 1, with my intensely insightful commentary to follow.

…the launching of Sputnik by the Soviets precipitated one of those periodic surges of self-conscious national reappraisal to which the American public is prone. The Sputnik was more than a shock to American national vanity: it brought an immense amount of attention to bear on the consequences of anti-intellectualism in the school sysytem and in American life at large. Suddenly, the national distaste for intellect appeared to be not just a disgrace but a hazard to survival. Pg 4-5.

Perhaps I’m overreaching in my cocoon of progressive political theory, but I view global warming and the rise in fuel prices as the space race of our day. Before you emit a Moe-esqe, “Whaaaa?”, allow me to explain. While there are untold quantities of hydrocarbon beneath the surface of the Earth in not only the U.S., but also Iran, Russia, the South China Sea and other areas, global energy demands – especially of India and China – are helping fuel the rise petrol prices and will continue to do so.

The U.S. must focus on a transcendent energy policy today in the same manner we did with the space race in the ’60’s. Scientific ambitions aiming at a forward-thinking fuel-efficiency and alternative-energy development will help the U.S. maintain a technological and, thus, economic advantage in global markets. If we can me be a maverick in this area, we just might hold on to our hegemony a bit longer – though that need not be the main goal. We need to ride the wave of motivation high gas prices are providing toward cleaner energy and end our reign as Pollution Bastards of the World (especially as China will pick up the slack and more).

The labels of Intellectuals and Anti-Intellectuals were thrown around in the 1950’s in much the same way Liberal and Conservative are today. They were used as bad words by those who hurled them against their opponents and worn as badges of honor by those they described. Obviously, Hofstadter was an intellectual and the examples of anti-intellectual rhetoric he presents are laughable in this day and age – hopefully in the same manner Creationism and Intelligent Design will be laughable in another half century. If you haven’t chuckled today, allow me to send some historical fodder from Anti-Intellectualim your way that will surely entertain:

Novelist “of the right-wing persuasion,” Louis Broomfield, pg 9:

Egghead (euphemism for intellectual): A person of spurious intellectual pretensions…Fundamentally superficial. Over emotional and feminine in reactions to any problem. Supercilious and surfeited with conceit and contempt for the experience of more sound and able men. Essentially confused in thought and immersed in mixture of sentimentality and violent evangelism…

President Eisenhower’s definition of an intellectual, pg. 10:

…a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows.

The disdain for intellectualism opened education and the education system itself up for the attacks from the more conservative commentators of the day as well.

Billy Graham, pg 15:

billy grahamYou can stick a public school and a university in the middle of every block of every city in America and you will never keep America from rotting morally by mere intellectual education.

[In place of the Bible] we substituted reason, rationalism, mind culture, science worship, the working power of government, Freudianism, humanism, behaviorism, positivism, materialism, and idealism. [This work of ] so-called intellectuals. Thousands of these ‘intellectuals’ have publicly stated that morality is relative–that there is no norm or absolute standard…

Arthur Bestor, junior-high school principal in Illinois, pg. 17:

When we come to the realization that not every child has to read, figure, write and spell . . . that many of them either cannot or will not master these chores . . . then we shall be on the road to improving the junior high curriculum.

(This is the best part) Between this day and that a lot of selling must take place. But it’s coming. We shall some day accept the thought that it is just as illogical to assume that every boy must be able to read as it is that each one must be able to perform on a violin, that it is no more reasonable to require that each girl shall spell well than it is that each one shall bake a good cherry pie.

I’ve never made a cherry pie, but I can make a mean cherry cobbler. Does that count?

Jack Schwartzman, of the Freeman, pg. 13:

Our universities are the training grounds for the barbarians of the future, those who, in the guise of learning , shall come forth loaded with pitchforks of ignorance and cynicism, and stab and destroy the remnants of human civilization…

If you send your son to the college of today, you will create the Executioner of tomorrow. The rebirth of idealism must come from the scattered monasteries of non-collegiate thought.

Does it get any better than that?! This quotation thoroughly tickles my funny bone because I have a close family member, who recently turned 70, who continually blames my political viewpoints on the fact that I attended “one of those liberal universities.” I had no idea the University of Texas was a cesspool of left-wing larva ready infiltrate governmental policy-making (don’t tell the frat boys!). In fact, he repeats that these “liberal colleges” are why young people tack liberal and why this world is going to hell in a handbag. I continually try to remind him that I retained nothing from college classes. Especially French.

And perhaps to close, this final quotation from Hofstadter himself that proves yet another proverb: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Pg 12 – and keep in mind, he wrote this in 1962:

Far more acute and sweeping was the hostility to intellectuals expressed on the far-right wing, a categorical folkish dislike of the educated classes and of anything respectable, established, pedigreed, or cultivated. The right-wing crusade of the 1950’s was full of heated rhetoric about ‘Harvard professors, twisted-thinking intellectuals . . . in the State Department.’

Am I the only one who feels like they’re in the Twilight Zone? George Bush thinks the jury is still out on global warming AND evolution. Hillary Clinton somehow warped into the working man’s candidate (talk about shape-shifting) and decried “experts” who opposed her gas tax holiday. Schools across the country are peppered with teachers who want to assert Intelligent Design as a scientific principle when it’s the absolute antithesis to the definition of science itself.

When will these perverted objectors realize that science, math, literature – EDUCATION – is what provided them their military weaponry, their computers, their energy capabilities, every day conveniences, “free market” dreams, and overall U.S. success and domination. It is a shame that people have to suffer when factories close and the jobs that require less education go overseas. As it is natural for species to go extinct in biological evolution and so is the case with jobs during economic evolution. Would the laid-off factor worker rather keep his job, yet amputate the very tools with which the U.S. retains its global position and military domination? Well, that would be unpatriotic.

Anti-Intellectualism is an embarrassment that has enjoyed many a decade hindering the development of humanity. For some inexplicable reason, Americans tend to wallow in more than their fair share. I suppose fear of change and development is at the heart of the matter, though it is hard for me to reconcile the “Great American Dream” with this entrenched detestation of progress and reason.

I do, however, think we’ve come a long way since Hofstadter penned his academic opinions. College education is ever more the norm and I’m sure 50 years from now we’ll laugh at the crazy old people who didn’t want the gays to marry and thought someone having a college education was a clear indication of anbush bumpersticker like a rock only dumber elitist in their midst. And I appreciated a sentiment by James Carville (who has stoked some of my ire during the current primary season) who said on AC 360 the other evening, “Competence is patriotic.” Well, halle-freaking-lujah.

I can tell I’m really going to enjoy the rest of this book. In the meantime, let’s get-to on those alternative energy sources!!

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1 Response to “Anti-Intellectualism Half a Century Ago”


  1. 1 Marc
    July 7, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    amen sister.


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