Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Puzzle of Anti-Intellectualism

One of the odd surprises for my family coming to the United States (and here I mean my mother’s and my own very junior reactions—but later also shared by Brigitte when she put foot on these here shores) was the curiously exaggerated American dedication to education oddly paralleled by the relatively low status enjoyed by teachers over what we’d been accustomed to in Europe, and not merely in compensation but also in expressions of respect. (“If you can’t do it, teach it,” just to pick a flitsam off the floor.) It was obviously and tangibly evident to me in my earliest days in high school—where I couldn’t help but observe something I’d never seen in Europe—not in any Hungarian, German, or in one large French school: the important role of organized team athletics and the status assigned to those who managed to be varsity or to cheer it on in short little skirts. Mind you, in Europe we had gymnastics every other day—not least games, like basketball.

This came to mind this morning when I received a muddled sort of comment to a post on LaMarotte. The post was on the earnings of private and public employees. Here it was again, a kind of smoldering, simmering, and half-hidden hatred of teachers. And in Wisconsin, of course, public employees—of whom teachers as a category are by far the most numerous, even including soldiers, sailors, and marines—are now revolting against a governor whose vocabulary (was that also the teachers’ fault) can’t seem able to spell the word taxes.

I discovered this morning that Richard Hofstadter had written a book on this subject, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). His name I recognize, but I haven’t read any of his works. His definition (which everybody quotes) is here (p. 7 of his book):

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.
During my years in Europe, I also had plenty of contact with the European proletariat which, one presumes, should have the same resentments and suspicions, yet none of us in the family ever observed it—and this despite the fact that there, certainly in my generation, probably in the next one over too, the separation of the sheep (meant for intellectual training) and the goats (meant for trade training) took place routinely at age 11. In Germany the intellectual training continued in the Oberschule or the Gymnasium; the training in trades took place in what was called Real Schule—and it was heavy on the sciences, light on the humanities. Real Schule was training for Real-ity. Is it that democracy, American style, with heavy doses of individualism, etc., never fully developed in the Old World? That, instead, the class division, early on, into at least two layers, left a deep mark?

The ambiguity in America appears to arise because education has two effective meanings. In one of them the life of the mind is to the fore, in the other it isn’t present at all. In the other education is a kind of tooling aimed exclusively at achievement in the world—and it is this definition which gets the enthusiastic approval of the American public; I want my kid to advance in the world. Education is thus job- not mind-preparation. The second of these is barely noticed or, if pursued with vigor by some, those Some are dismissed as nerds.

The one exception to the prevalence of anti-intellectualism is the respect that doctors still enjoy—but their profession is caring for our bodies. And there we cut some slack. We’d just as soon be treated by minds developed as fully as possible before we let the rubber-clad finger go in or the sharp scalpel descend.


  1. American democracy has its heavy dose of individualism, yet it is suspicious of individualism when confronted with it in the guise of intellectualism.
    I believe it is also suspicious of it when confronted by racial individualism, religious individualism, etc. etc.

    What am I missing in this puzzle? Are we very much individualists as long as everyone is cut from the same individual cloth? I always thought it was due to never having had an aristocracy, whose very being depends upon their individual status vis-a-vis the crown.

  2. In a way you supply the missing ingredient, Montag. I'll render it more starkly. An intuited aspect of reality, social or other, is the presence in it of hierarchy. And individualism paraoxically both affirms and denies that. The denial manifests as anti-intellectualism, though that's only one of its symptoms.

  3. Most interesting.

    Getting to the cause of this very strange characteristic of American culture is a tough task. I've thought of it often when confronted by it's various outbursts and find it quite a conundrum.

    I'm on a sort of news diet right now--NO TV NEWS--so have read only the outlines of the debate raging in WI. However, I did watch John Stuart's Daily show recetnly and was struck by the outrage and vehemence with which a Fox news commentator (shown as part of a flurry of snippets to summarize the "news" coverage of the story) stated that the average salary of a WI teach was $51K! Horror of horrors.... Um, does anyone find this odd? I mean, the median family income in WI in 2009 was $62,638... so, is $51K such an outrage? Really? So strange...

    I appreciate your look at this topic from a more pro intellectual stance!


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