Anti-intellectualism in the U.S.

In this blog post, Julius Lester articulates something I’ve been thinking about recently. Lester says:

There are many who wonder if a black man can be elected president. That is not my fear. I wonder if someone who as intelligent as he is can be elected president.
Emphasis mine.

The United States is an anti-intellectual country these days. Where the prejudice against intellectuals comes from I don’t know; but I know it’s there. I have many quarrels with Obama (especially his repudiation of his liberal church), but I acknowledge that he is a politician who does not feel compelled to break things down into 30 second sound bites devoid of all nuance. He does not pander to the lowest common denominator. He is willing to be intelligent in public. An intellectual politician? — this is almost inbelievable.

Julius Lester believes that Obama will get elected “if the young vote in unprecedented numbers”; otherwise, older voters who “resent his intelligence” could keep him from getting elected. Certainly, the young adults I know are more open to nuance than older generations. Certainly, United States generation who are just a little bit older than I have been notable since the 1960s for letting rigid ideology trump intelligence (as is true of George W. Bush), or worse yet for having no deeply-felt idealism to guide their intelligence (as seemed true of Bill Clinton).

But, cynic that I am, I doubt that the anti-intellectual climate of the United States is moderating in the younger generations. But what do you think? Do you sense more toleration for intellectuals in your part of the United States these days — or less?

5 thoughts on “Anti-intellectualism in the U.S.

  1. Jean

    Never pose this question with a teacher in the room. Anti-intellectualism, or a distrust of well articulated ideology, is alive and thriving in the young. Just as prevalent there as it is in the old. In fact I think so-called anti-intellectualism has little to do with age or generation at all. Where I live I am very careful about how I speak and act — to be an intellectual, to sound intelligent — this can be and is often seen as an act of snobbery, elitism, the putting on of airs. And you know what? Too often it is. What drives this is? I be,lieve it’s economic frustration more than anything. I see my students — all ages, late teens through late fifties — stuck in crap jobs, angry at the lack of good jobs, angry at being a “have not” instead of a “have” and making a leap to seeing intellectuals holding the prizes — money, jobs, prestige, power — out of reach. I don’t like to think this is true, but maybe it is. For what it’s worth — the last place in this country where anyone can freely mock anyone else is the realm of socioeconomic class. It’s not okay to mock race, ethnicity, disability — it is, however, okay to mock class. Label someone a hick, white trash, trailer trash, hillbilly, redneck — pick your socioeconomic classist slur of the moment– and you can get away with it. Label that person just that when they come looking for a job, or wanting to go to your church, or move into your neighborhood, or play with your kids, or ask a question in class, and you can get away with this version of bigotry, and probably will, and the country will go on as it has for decades, divided by class into those who have and control the power, and those who don’t.

    I would say, rather than point the finger at “anti-intellectualism” as a kind of weed that’s infesting our country, it might be more important to look the soil this plant thrives in. There lies the problem.

  2. ck

    I read a book by Mark Noll a while ago about anti-intellectualism in Protestant/Evangelical America. As I recall, he argued that this is a strand of thought that has been part of America in some ways since its founding.

    Because of the non-hierarchical, congregational structure of Protestant churches and the belief that anyone can interpret the Bible as s/he deems fit, some kind of antipathy towards authority and hierarchy has been part of the US from the start.

    At least that’s my memory of his book’s thesis–I’d have to check.

    And re the earlier comment and education: I see this attitude in philosophy classes at the undergraduate level, to some extent. There’s a fear of saying that someone’s argument is better, or that a view is wrong, which winds up as a kind of relativism.

    Come to think of it, I also heard this discussed in the Buddhist Geeks podcast in the context of Western Buddhism’s tendencies towards wanting to talk about what ever they want, rather than the knowledge a teacher can pass on. I think it was the episode called “Coffee Table Dharma.”

    Yeah. So I think this is a huge problem and has been with us for a long time and manifests in lots of ways.

  3. unitalian

    CK may be right about anti-intellectualism’s aged origins. It is an Anglo-Saxon habit: the English are fiercely anti-intellectual. English anti-intellectualism has its roots in suspicion of the European intellectual tradition, the tension between Anglo Saxon empiricism versus French Cartesianism, etc.

    Perhaps the US absorbed this cultural tic, which is possibly more pronounced because your society is more of a hybrid – an Anglo Saxon culture overlaid by a “European” ideology (catalysed by the English civil war, codified by French thought) so what we effectively have is an “English” people living within a “French” state – certainly there has developed a similar cultural dislocation between the “Liberal Elite” and the folk from the flyover states as there is between the French bourgeois and the people.

    So basically where your anti-intellectualism springs from is an old-fashioned Anglo Saxon suspicion of the French.

    Simple. ;-)

  4. Steve Caldwell

    A pop-culture criticism of American anti-intellectualism can be found in Mike Judge’s movie “Idiocracy” — described on Wikipedia as follows:

    ” … a 2006 American dark comedy directed by Mike Judge, and starring Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph. The two main characters sign up for a military hibernation experiment that goes awry, and they awaken 500 years in the future. They discover that the world has devolved into a dystopia where marketing, commercialism, and cultural anti-intellectualism run rampant and dysgenic pressure has resulted in a uniformly stupid human society. Despite its lack of a major theatrical release, the film has achieved something of a cult following because of its anti-corporate message and satire of the mass media.”

    So … the concern about anti-intellectualism in the US is serious enough for the creator of “Beavis and Butthead” to make a film about it.

  5. Dan

    All — Thanks for the comments! — all the above comments are examples of where you commenters write more intelligently and persuasively than I do.

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