a genealogy of american anti-intellectualism

I’m enjoying sitting in on Sara’s Writing 323 class this summer, and I’m looking forward to covering it next week. The students today had an interesting discussion about anti-intellectualism. Sara asked why US Americans have such a distaste for public intellectuals (example: one student noted that some believe Gore lost in 2000 because he was perceived as too smart and Bush was the type of guy you’d have a drink with). Students came up with a variety of ideas that I’d like to return to sometime and ponder:

  • Post World War II ego and a disregard for criticism. Intellectualism, as practiced in the West, is largely a practice of critique, and the US ego might not be amenable to such critique.
  • A preference for the simple over the complicated
  • Stronger capitalistic heritage, which rewards luck and business over intellectualism
  • A value of results over ideas
  • American individualism

I also thought about the tradition of anti-European sentiment in the States going back to the early 1800s. If intellectualism is seen as a European pursuit, perhaps it is something to be eschewed by Americans. This seems particularly true of “French” theory. Additionally, I thought of Max Weber’s project arguing that Calvinism was integral for the advancement of America’s industrial revolution. If our grace is rewarded on earth, then material wealth becomes much more worthwhile than intellectual pursuits.

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2 Responses to a genealogy of american anti-intellectualism

  1. Joseph says:

    There is a great book about this: Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-intellectualism in American Life”. One of the strains he traces goes back to Puritan or evangelical religion in America that favors revealed “truth” of scripture over “scholarly” wisdom. Its a classic work.

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks for the suggestion, Joseph! But I just saw it’s from 1966 (which doesn’t make it outdated necessarily, but does miss the last 40 years). I’ll try to read it sometime!

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