Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Richard Hofstadter.

Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Vintage, New York. 1962. NF; 1/17.

I’m sure I read too little nonfiction. Still I’ve tried in my way to keep up with the polarity particularly in the United States between The Left and The Right. Part of doing that has meant subscribing to The New Criterion, a serious distinctly right-wing periodical, to balance reading The New Yorker and watching pretty well anything on TV.

It was in the Criterion that I read about left-right controversy raging in the 1950s and 60s, history that I, attending university after 1965, was personally aware of. But although I had heard of Herbert Marcuse, Abbie Hoffman, senator Joseph McCarthy, and other polarizing figures of the era, I first saw the name Richard Hofstadter as he was given a drubbing in a piece in the Criterion this past month. Better find out about this guy, I thought.

Hofstadter was an influential history professor eventually at Columbia, whose intellectual career migrated from the extreme left (he joined the Communist Party in the 1930s) toward the centre (he opposed student radicalism in the late 1960s). His views on politics emphasized the role of economics.

In this book he describes the at-times intertwined currents of interest-driven thinking about intellectuals, clearly (and properly) placing himself among them. He works through the influences of religion, politics, business, and education that have led to modern (around 1960) attitudes in American society toward… academics, theorists, “eggheads”, experts, and other popular caricatures of people driven primarily by thinking, as distinct from those driven primarily by doing. This I would say would be one characterization of the left-right polarity. But it can be misleading to identify specific demographic groups as left or right as there is a tendency for those groups to gradually over time switch “sides”. The social elite (traditionally right) of the 17th century including Thomas Jefferson were a sort of educated intellectual left, opposed to a group of pragmatists (advocating change and so perhaps left) including John Adams, a sort of anti-intellectual right. Workers, most often allied with anti-intellectual sentiment, were during most of the 20th century considered left, allied with socialism.

The early Puritans served in the 17th century in New England the purpose taken on later by academics. In the subsequent couple of centuries, evangelism with its populist message of experience- and conversion-centred religious faith drew masses of people away from the “old” churches. In the 20th century, the modernist influences of Darwin, Marx, and Freud came into conflict with evangelism which had become synonymous with a traditional family-oriented approach to belief.

Politically, the earliest elite were gentlemen with European education and attitudes. Reformers preoccupied with public service rather than social and intellectual thinking and behaviour succeeded to power after the Civil War. But by the late 19th century with an economic boom associated with “The Gilded Age” these reformers began to be popularly characterized as impractical, and pragmatic men with business experience were more often successfully elected. The corruption of Tammany Hall in New York occurred around this time.

Theodore Roosevelt although he came from a highly-educated reformer-style (and intellectual) background recognized the need for a hard-headed masculine public image rather than an aristocratic effete one. He was “…a Harvard man from the well-to-do classes who nevertheless knew how to get along with the cowboys and Rough Riders”. He and other “Progressive Era” politicians of the early 20th century saw intellect as a means of improving government efficiency: intellectuals began to be construed as experts.

This understanding of thoughtful people’s highly-skilled abilities as useful in making things work applied in business as well. Early self-help literature, like books by reverend Norman Vincent Peale, flourished not as an appeal to spirituality but as one to productivity. Farming is cited to illustrate the difference between the “dirt” farmer, uneducated and hand-to-mouth, and the emergence of more modern science-based agricultural productivity.

Hofstadter spends a lot of time on philosophy of education in the early 20th century, associated with philosopher John Dewey. Our author believes that the mass education system that developed in that era was founded on expected political and economic benefits rather than on “… a passion for the development of mind, or upon pride in learning and culture for their own sakes…” Children according to the philosophy of Dewey would make their most effective contribution if they were “well-adjusted”, rather than merely capable at the 3 Rs.

The tone of this very broad-ranging book is erudite, ironic, reasoned, and not a little embattled. America seems always to have reverted to its populist streak of getting things done, regarding highly educated people as bookish, uncomfortable with getting their hands dirty, frankly effeminate; even bohemian and potentially criminal, but eventually inimical or at least superfluous to the main national purpose.

Hofstadter has awakened me to a history of left-versus-right that has existed for a much longer time than I’ve imagined, at least since the early days of the US, and I suspect much further back than that. That polarity has a variety of senses. We feel educated-versus-uneducated in the suspicion hard-working highschool graduates feel toward professionals and academics, and the sense that people with graduate degrees especially in the humanities have that wonderful aesthetic and thought-based experience are, sadly but inevitably, denied to the majority.

But I’ve always ended up as I struggle to avoid the extremes of either end of the political spectrum defaulting to characterizing the left as favouring the primacy of the group, and the right as favouring the primacy of the individual. But I want to say to enthusiasts on both sides: Come on! Neither inclination could ever completely obliterate the other. As soon as there are more than a very few people around, every one of those people is forced to struggle with the two often opposing exigencies. It seems to me to be the very special and worrisome reality in America that the strongest and brightest, whether effectively sometimes brutally pragmatic businessmen or brilliant sometimes theory-preoccupied intellectuals, are pulled to the fringes and lose sight of the destructiveness of failing to compromise.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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One Response to Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Richard Hofstadter.

  1. John, all extremisms polarize us into the enervating entropy of hubris and scapegoating strife…. we so easily prematurely ejaculate ourselves into enervating sterility…. never fecund and ecstasy ever elusive because we have succumbed to the quick and easy pottage of ideology and its dogma-collaring servitude…. the real terrorism is always extremism…to quote one of high school English class mainstays, good old Lin Yutang…”When small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is bout to set.”

    Your old but ever young friend…. Ron

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