American Anti-Intellectualism Is Nothing New

1964 Pulitzer Prize Winner

We are all shocked, shocked I say, at the rising wave of anti-intellectualism threatening our plans and institutions. The airwaves are packed with blustering regressives, the polls are stacked with Trumpsters. Books like American Idiot and The Dumbest Generation grace our bookshelves. We huddle in cafes lamenting the fall of the American empire, afraid we’ll be first against the wall.

Except anti-intellectualism has always been part of society. Ask Galileo or Socrates. Here’s a snippet via Wikipedia:

“Anti-intellectualism in American Life is a book by Richard Hofstadter published in 1963 that won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. In this book, Hofstadter set out to trace the social movements that altered the role of intellect in American society. In so doing, he explored questions regarding the purpose of education and whether the democratization of education altered that purpose and reshaped its form. In considering the historic tension between access to education and excellence in education, Hofstadter argued that both anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism were consequences, in part, of the democratization of knowledge. Moreover, he saw these themes as historically embedded in America’s national fabric, an outcome of its colonial European and evangelical Protestant heritage. Anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism were functions of American cultural heritage, not necessarily of democracy.”If anti-intellectualism is inescapable, how should that affect our theories of governance?

On a personal level, a certain idealism should be shed. Facts and logical conclusions are useful in the workplace, but in political discourse it’s apparent what sounds best trumps what makes the most objective sense. You’re never going to convince your uncle over Thanksgiving dessert that the poor aren’t lazy, that Muslims aren’t terrorist, that Wall Street serves a real purpose, that their favorite populist candidate’s platform doesn’t really add up.

Successful politicians accept this. Like pastors who’ve lost faith in the Almighty but still love their congregation, they go through the motions of supporting popular causes, but at the end of the day govern with the full breadth of their experience. We call this disjoint “slimy” but it’s apparently necessary.

As much as we hate the idea of an insular monolithic meritocracy, the country couldn’t survive being run by wild-eyed idealists either. Sometimes we need our leaders to say one thing and do something slightly different; support world peace on the platform but take necessary actions as Commander In Chief that we can’t stomach ourselves, assuming we were even paying attention to that region of the world. Lower taxes on citizens and raise them on corporations, but don’t break the economy. Give China a stern talking-to and crank up American wages, but don’t raise prices on the shelf at Walmart.

In a utopian logical world, campaign bait and switch wouldn’t be as necessary. Citizens would weigh in on the issues they have expertise in, and trust the judgment of others in areas they don’t. Representatives could become simply implementors of the public will, with electronic direct democracy cranking out the policy.

But history tells us we need a buffer layer between the citizenry and policy making, especially in foreign affairs. Nations that listen to their misinformed, reactionary majorities too closely wind up going to war too soon, too early, or against the wrong enemy. Giving the people control of the purse strings results in the treasury being voted into their hands. And we certainly wouldn’t want a random year’s popular vote shredding our Constitutional protections. In many ways, the government and its bureaucracy protects us from ourselves.

This isn’t to say politicians needn’t be honest. Just that certain of their promises and subsequent lack of results can be excused. Most voters don’t really understand the issues, and the ones they do, they usually only have half the story, unaware of their own filter bubbles and confirmation bias. The world is much more complicated than clickbait web sites ever acknowledge.

Rarely do we go back to the facts to reconsider our own positions on immigration, welfare queens, guns, trade, or other important issues. Anti-intellectualism and an unquestioning loyalty to our own preconceptions still weave their way through all corners of the political spectrum, from immigrant haters to GMO haters to Federal Reserve haters.

Don’t believe everything you think.

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Jay is Editor In Chief of The Agonist, veteran and technologist.

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  •   In my calf country, education was taken seriously. The order-of-business for the pioneers was a saloon, a general store, a church and a school – and sometimes the school was #3.

      At the ripe old age of 17, my aunt took over a one-room school house in the remote reaches of the Upper Rio Grande Valley:

    The two families living there felt it was important.

      Her own early education was in my grandmother’s living room:

    Three families hired a live-in teacher because they felt it mattered.

      I got a better education than my kids and my parents got a better education than I did (at least via the school system – most of what I’ve learned has been post-academic). I’ve seen an 8th-grade exam from 1880 that most college grads couldn’t pass today. The history major might get the history question and flunk the rest; the math major get the math questions and flunk the rest; etc. My own education is unusually broad and I only scored about 70%. The post-WWII baby boom ran into a teacher shortage and expanded class sizes from 12-15 to 30-40. At the time, it was considered a temporary problem and we soon had larger schools and more teachers – but school boards and tax payers discovered that the larger class sizes didn’t make the world come to an end and rather than go back to smaller [better] teaching, too-large classes became the norm. They didn’t see the downside because it wouldn’t manifest itself until decades later. We now suffer the consequences of an uneducated – and deliberately mis-educated – citizenry.

      My own school system consistently ranked best-in-state. I encountered some anti-intellectualism growing up, but it was mostly a town-and-gown sort of thing, town kids against ranch kids. (Although the ranchers themselves were pro-education, the kids didn’t appreciate the discipline required, and since they dared not confront The System (dad was on the school board), they took it out on those of us who took school seriously. The Great Depression also torpedoed a lot of dreams and I saw folks who resented their inability to achieve more, and – being all too human – hid their disappointment by ridiculing the educated (who made it worse by responding with disdain instead of understanding).

      What I discovered later was a whole different sort of anti-intellectualism – a directed, agressive push not so much against learning per se  as against the results of learning. The Elite did not like their status, motives and methods being attacked or even questioned. They soon had their own ‘experts’ to push their preferred agenda – the equivalent of the ‘house nigger’. Merchants of Doubt is a typical result. Since then, the plutocrats have warped the media view and are well on their way to corrupting the entire education system. It’s a damn shame that home-schooling seems to be almost exclusively the domain of religious fundamentalists.

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