Anti-Intellectualism Revisited: Why Are Americans So Stupid?

By Kenny Luck
Staff Writer

“Our anti-intellectualism”, wrote historian Richard Hofstadter, “is older than our national identity”. In 1964, Hofstadter’s book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, won the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction and became the seminal text on the subject. Hofstadter correctly identified three types of anti-intellectualism: evangelical religion (religious anti-rationalism); practical-minded business (unreflected instrumentalism); and a populist political style (populist anti-elitism).

As noted above, anti-intellectualism has been a force in American history. During the 1796 Presidential campaign, William Loughton Smith, a congressman from South Carolina, attacked the bookish Thomas Jefferson when it appeared that he might follow George Washington into the presidency, commenting that, “the great Washington was, thank God, no philosopher.” Smith went on to say that Washington’s military exploits and the prosperity under his administration would have never occurred had he been a great thinker. A few decades later, during Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous visit to the United States in the 1830’s, he observed how Americans had a tendency towards “novelty and sensation.” This was the era of the Jacksonian common-man – a time when “inborn, intuitive, folkish wisdom” was preferred over “the cultivated, sophisticated and self-interested knowledge of the literati and well-to-do”. In politics as well as in culture, little has changed.

Today, when two-thirds of Americans cannot name the three branches of government, one must ask: how long can a democracy endure if its population is unaware of the basic mechanisms that allow it to function?

One month following the 2000 Presidential Election, Todd Gitlin published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “The Renaissance of Anti-Intellectualism,” accurately predicting that George W. Bush had “resurrected” an anti-intellectual milieu in the United States. At that time no one knew for sure how the Bush presidency would be defined, but Gitlin’s assessment now seems hauntingly accurate. But anti-intellectualism in politics would not end with Bush.

During last year’s presidential election, Sarah Palin entered the national political scene. Palin’s brand of folksy populism epitomized anti-intellectualism to the fullest degree. As Election Day approached, the McCain campaign collapsed into a media sideshow. Palin gave a series of disastrous television interviews in which she failed to exhibit at least minimal knowledge of world affairs. She touted her lack of knowledge as a virtue while few objected. Ultimately, the McCain/Palin collaboration was defeated, but because she had come so close to the vice-presidency and because many took her seriously, it leads to an important question: Why is it acceptable (and sometimes popular) to denounce intellectual pursuits and discourse in the United States?

In The Age of American Unreason (2008), Susan Jacoby explores questions like this and traces the growth of America’s antagonisms towards the intellect since Hofstadter. She points to the rise of “junk thought” – which considers all opinions valid regardless of their logical merit – and the overwhelming power of youth and celebrity culture to influence the masses. With regard to the former, opinions are held with higher regard than facts. This is often seen in the Oprah-like testimonials which continue to propagate the idea that, as long as you offer an opinion, it should be taken seriously regardless of how nonsensical or baseless it may seem. This sort of thinking is rooted in an extreme form of tolerant relativism which fails to distinguish fact from fiction. Modern punditry is also illustrative. Media pundits offer a smorgasbord of ideas and opinions without ever having to qualify or explain these beliefs. In its veneer of objectivity, as Gitlin points out, the media merely “covers” or “reports,” but rarely ever evaluates or judges.

Celebrity culture, as mentioned, is also a problem. Let’s face it: being smart is just not cool. Popular cultural rarely portrays intellect with reverence. In his 2001 novel How I Became Stupid, French author Martin Page satirizes this idea. Antoine, a twenty-five-year-old Aramaic scholar, is the protagonist who declares: “My life would improve if I were stupid.” Alienated from his peers and the nihilistic world in which they inhabit, Antoine tries to renounce his intelligence by a series of humorous attempts which, in the end, ultimately fail. From alcoholism to stock-trading, Antoine tries to conform to patterns of mass behavior which leave him feeling less passionate about the things he truly cares about – namely, books and meaningful conversation – the two pillars of the intellectual life.

It is instructive to point out that schools do little to help cut back the encroaching influence of anti-intellectualism. Hofstadter calls this adopting a “de-intellectualized curricula” – one which places emphasis on the popularity of athletics and extracurricular activities at the expense of legitimate educational pursuits. In addition, teachers themselves rarely cultivate critical or conceptual thinking.  Often times, educators get swept up in trying to entertain rather than educate, with the aim of keeping their students “interested” in the subject matter. This leads to serious problems. In a 2002 survey, for example, eleven percent of Americans aged 18 -24 could not find the United States on a global map. Bear in mind that teachers are human beings too, and are often subjected to the same mass marketing ploys by the media and corporations as their students. It becomes problematic, however, when educators begin to adopt an anti-intellectual ethos, rather than question it.

If history is any guide, it seems quite clear that the hostility in the United States towards the intellect and intellectuals is here to stay. Hofstadter died in 1970 at an early age – had he lived, I doubt he would be astonished of the continuation of anti-intellectualism in this country. What possibly would surprise him would be the magnitude of this phenomenon. Hofstadter died before the era of infotainment, the internet, and youth culture and celebrity cults. Now, perhaps more than ever, Americans have resigned to “amusing ourselves to death” – to use the title of a book by Neil Postman – while failing to cultivate any type of intellectual curiosity. Apparently, as it now seems, anti-intellectualism is part of the deeper threads of American history and culture.