Richard Hofstadter and America’s New Wave of Anti-Intellectualism
In the 1960s the great historian Richard Hofstadter first identified a virulent strain of anti-intellectualism in American life, but thanks to the Tea Party and the recession, its worst traits are still plaguing us.
Twenty-first century philistines, suffering from a lack of imagination and curiosity, have seized upon understandable economic anxieties since the financial crash of 2008, to shepherd an increasingly large flock of American sheep into the livestock freight carrier Pulitzer prize winning historian, Richard Hofstadter, called “anti-intellectualism.”
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life—one of Hofstadter’s best, among many great books – was a pile of dynamite in 1963, when it was first published and blew a sizable hole in the house of America’s self-comforting delusions of intellectual superiority. In 2014, one can only hope that some of its initial blast still reverberates, as media commentators, university administrators, and even the President, have exposed themselves as adherents to what Hofstadter indicted as the “lowest common denominator criterion” of thought and “technician conformity” of lifestyle. Suspicion, and often outright hatred, of ideas is making American culture as riveting as oatmeal. By reading Hofstadter, one learns that the resurgence of a new anti-intellectualism isn’t new, at all. In fact, Hofstadter identified the particularly poisonous strain of the virus that now infects the American mind and kills the imagination.
Hofstadter wrote Anti-Intellectualism in American Life after observing, with dismay and disgust, how the Republican Party, much of the media, and many Americans insulted and mocked Adlai Stevenson as an “egghead” throughout the 1950s when the former Governor of Illinois, ran for President. The result is a book of “personal passion”, to use its author’s words, that traces the ugliness of anti-intellectualism throughout American history. From the populist stupidity of glorifying the everyman, while denouncing the expert, to the superstition of religion, and the excessive egalitarianism of the left, the country founded by men of Enlightenment, is often dim.
Anti-intellectualism, according to Hofstadter, is a “resentment of the life of the mind, and those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition to constantly minimize the value of that life.” He was very clear in his insistence that Americans are not dumb. There is great intelligence in Americans, just as there is great professionalism. The problem is that professional intelligence is mechanical and functional – utilitarian. It is about the completion of an assignment, and the execution of a formula. Due to it having the operative mode of a machine, the preferred way of exercising the mind, for many Americans, takes on what Hofstadter labeled “mediocre sameness.” There are only so many ways to do a job, and since many Americans learn at a very young age, that their entire lives are about the job they will one day have, they begin to think with the variety of appliance assembly methods in an instructional manual.
“The mystique of practicality,” to use Hofstadter’s increasingly relevant words, stupefies people into voluntarily enlisting into the “curious cult of practicality.” Since the financial crash of 2008, the cult has grown into Jonestown numbers, and its members are pushing ahead in line to feed their intellects the ideological cyanide of utilitarianism.
In the past four years, the University of Minnesota, the University of Iowa, and the State University system of New York, have advanced the long running trend of slashing funding for the humanities, and cutting general education requirements for their undergraduate students. The students are probably unaware, indifferent, or too busy giving themselves their latest screen addiction fix to notice. Only eight percent of American college students now major in the humanities.
Obsessing over an area of study’s practicality knows no ideological boundary. On a recent episode of Stossel, the libertarian host and his guests discussed the “college con”, paying particularly close attention to universities’ mandating that students take courses in fields that are not career oriented, such as philosophy, literature, and cultural studies. A few days after Fox Business Network aired the anti-intellectual episode of Stossel, liberal website Salon ran an article, “Just Say to No to College”, in which the writer dismissed the concepts of “critical thinking” and “intellectual enrichment” as “dubious buzzwords.” One might expect such Neanderthal sentiments in the locker room of high school freshman, but the irony of John Stossel—an intelligent man and fine journalist with degrees from Princeton and the University of Chicago—encouraging young people to reject education is equal parts absurdity and hilarity.
Both liberals and libertarians argue that the torturous burden of student debt is sufficient justification for the youthful focus on practicality. The cost of college is a crime, but it is cause for evaluating ways to lower tuition, not reason to celebrate the young American’s instinct to intellectually crawl through life. The work of learning to walk and run suffers from lack of instructors.
The American mind is swimming in icy waters, and the worst example of its shrinkage is not so nauseating and troubling because of what was said, but who said it. President Obama—a two-time ivy league graduate—told an audience in Milwaukee, “Folks”—the popular usage of this word is in itself evidence of America’s lowering standards of rhetoric and thinking, masquerading as populism—“Folks can make a lot more (money), with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might make with art history.” Obama delivered his remarks with a smirk and a chuckle, as the audience laughed with him, as if the amusement of someone studying the Renaissance goes without saying.
The President later wrote a letter of apology to a prominent art historian, saying “Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history. As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.”
The art historian accepted the President’s elegant and seemingly sincere apology, but the fact that a President— especially one as smart and cultured as Obama—feels the need to pander to the worst form closed minded, unimaginative thinking, demonstrates how much the cancer of anti-intellectualism has metastasized.
“Parents send their children (to college) for the gains measurable in cold cash which are supposedly attainable through vocational training,” Hofstadter wrote when describing the “spiritually crippling” cult of practicality. The leader of the country, at least publicly, is in agreement with many leaders of families who debilitate their children by demanding that they think only in fiscal terms.
The recession has empowered the new philistines by raising the stakes on their narrow reasoning. Lack of employment security, however, does not present American students with new questions. It merely emphasizes the old ones.
When has it ever been “practical” to study philosophy? Or art history? Or English literature? No one studies the humanities or fine arts for their practical value. They meticulously examine Van Gogh’s paintings, or closely analyze Hemingway’s novels, because it makes them feel more fully human. It enlarges the imagination, rattles the emotions, and offers the promise that through the intellectual mine work of artistic and philosophical discovery, they might emerge from the pit of the mountain with something more valuable than silver, gold, or coal—the truth.
The truth that is accessible only through the exploration of ideas is no longer in fashion. The results of self-imposed exile from the world’s libraries of awe and galleries of wonder are troubling for the future of America. They forecast an endless and ashen winter for the country that began as a brilliant idea.
According to a Pew Study, only 29 percent of the public claims to regularly read the newspaper, and the Jenkins Group reports that 42 percent of college graduates never read a book after graduation. Eighty percent of American families did not buy a book in the last year.
The results of such widespread lack of curiosity or interest in knowledge are as demoralizing as they are predictable. Only 58 percent of Americans can identify the Taliban, two-thirds cannot name a single Supreme Court Justice, and 29 percent do not know the name of the Vice President.
The Constitution has little or nothing to do with the tasks of most Americans’ jobs, and that might explain why, according to Newsweek, 70 percent of Americans have no idea what their country’s most important historical, political, and legal document even is.
Thanks to intellectually lazy parents, shortsighted and simpleminded college administrators, politicians who excuse ignorance by calling it “off the cuff”, and an increasingly brain dead pop culture, America’s future voters, parents, teachers, entrepreneurs, and political leaders are people entirely clueless and oblivious to their own country’s history, the standards of philosophical argument, the recent events of politics, and the beauty of the arts.
Certainly, it is more practical to study engineering than philosophy. The country has a high demand for engineers. America also needs doctors, computer programmers, chemists, mechanics, and janitors. Does America not also need art historians, artists, philosophers, novelists, journalists, and well-rounded, thoughtful, and intellectually independent adults?
Gore Vidal defined an intellectual as “someone who can deal with abstractions.” Does the mediocrity of the job market mean that America no longer needs people who deal with abstractions? Only someone already painfully unable to deal with abstraction would draw such a suicidal conclusion.
The liberal arts are in need of a new name. The intellectual agility and mobility, and the comfort with abstract thought that is attainable and improvable through vigorous engagement with the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences leads to creativity, individuality, and most of all, liberty. The liberty arts are, in significant ways, superior to the servile arts sold by dominant culture across college campuses, where the best outcome is the qualification to serve an employer with the perfect obedience.
Richard Hofstadter wrote that “The preference for vocationalism is linked to a preference for character—or personality—over mind, and for conformity and manipulative facility over individuality and talent.”
Young Americans, in staggering numbers and with widespread encouragement from teachers, parents, and politicians, are expressing the preference for conformity over individuality and talent. The America that they are preparing to create is one where poetry is rare, philosophy is suspect, and the infrastructure necessary for the creation and maintenance of greatness, crumbles.
David Masciotra (www.davidmasciotra.com) is a columnist with the Indianapolis Star, and the author of All That We Learned About Living: The Art and Legacy of John Mellencamp, forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky