Let’s Talk About Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

What is Anti-Intellectualism? Who is she and how did she get here? It’s the basic belief that intellect, intellectuals, and any form of intellectualism is inherently politically motivated, against human pursuits, and somehow incorrect in all standings. It’s often exhibited in the form of hatred or malicious attack against established education systems or a dismissal of literature, art, and other forms of expression such a philosophy.

Why is the impact? It’s no secret that intellectuals were treated poorly by the previous administration of the United States and often discredited established intellectuals with many years of field and research experience. The ever-growing presence of anti-intellectualism in our modern society feels something out of a YA dystopian novel, but indeed our American history has led us exactly to this point.

What should you read next? Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter.

Why? This book illustrates the ugly history of American life. As it chronicles the breadth of ineptitude our country has created, Hofstadter identifies and discusses four segments of American society: Religion, Politics, Business, and Schools (the education system). I found myself getting frustrated in certain sections purely based on the stance I previously took. He shook some ground my personal philosophy stood upon and it upset and enlightened me.

Religion leaders used to be the center of spiritual, political, economic, and intellectual power. As Americans moved West, the educated clergy did not. Instead, those at the pulpit quickly transformed to be laymen that were often moved to speak. Hofstadter follows, Methodists and Baptists in their growth and past stances on education.

Political leaders often received favor of blue collar workers by condemning educational institutions. Hofstadter again chronicles the descent of intellectualism after George Washington left office, to the point where Andrew Jackson was awarded an honoree degree from Harvard. (The ceremonies were conducted entirely in Latin, which was the practice. Jackson stood at the end and boasted so proudly, “e pluribus unum; usque ad nauseam; Ursa Major; sic semper tyrannis; quid pro quo; requiescat in pace.”1 *insert eye roll*

Business professionals have historically capitalized on those less willing to receive an education. Although many of our early American entrepreneurs barely held a secondary degree, the growth of experience in lieu of a diploma had (and has) strong roots in American ideology. Just thinking about colonial days, how could a college degree help those survive when traversing foreign lands? Depending on your education, we’ll all have different answers, but Benjamin Franklin put it right in saying, “The first drudgery of settling new colonies which confines the attention of people to mere necessaries is now pretty well over; and there are many in every province in circumstances that set them at ease, and afford leisure to cultivate the finer arts and improve the common stock of knowledge.”2

I feel like most Americans know that our education systems needs work. Most of us have been through it to some capacity (and some things are really starting to change, which is great!), but the beginnings of our systems were faced with blatant white-washing and anti-intellectualism dating back to the beginning of our country. Hofstadter sets out to uncover the various educational leaders in our country, following John Dewey among others.

When pacing my own room after reading this book, I felt like our country has learned nothing from where we have been or the struggles and victories we had won in our past. This book was published in 1963 and won the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction the following year. Although when Hofstadter talks about current events being in the early 60s, I can’t help but place strikingly similar events in 2020 and 2021. At the end of this very enlightening book, I felt distressed that our system hasn’t made any strides, but then I remembered that nearly 60 years separates us from the birth of this text. Since the publication of this book our education system has seen countless reforms across the country with varying lengths of trust in the intellectual communities around the globe. As is true from the attack on January 6th, we clearly have more educating to do before we can consider ourselves free of anti-intellectualism.

Join the conversation with me by grabbing your copy of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life from your local bookstore or from my favorite bookstore right here!

As always, I am happy to talk more about any of these books so please leave comments below or reach out to me directly!

Peace, Love, and Coffee

Nicholas


1 Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York, 1963), pp. 160-1. Referencing recollections of Josiah Quincy: Figures of the Past (Boston, 1926), pp. 304-7.

2 Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, p. 244. Referencing Franklin’s Writings (New York, 1905-7), Vol. II, p. 228.

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