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A second look at anti-intellectualism in America

September 04, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

In 1962, a prominent American historian, Richard Hofstadter, authored a classic study of the forces of irrational activity in the United States. In "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," Hofstadter reports on his long study of "The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual, (which) is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life."

He then follows with more than 400 pages of his supporting data of the state of affairs in America. The unpopularity of the intellect is noted in statements by influential citizens such as George Ripley, who in 1839 wrote, "Much as I value a sound logic in its proper place, I am sure it is not the instrument which is mighty through God to the pulling down of the strong holds of sin."


Evangelical clergy of our early history are quoted liberally to document a widespread distaste of the power of intellect. Charles Grandison Finney, the great revivalist, is representative of this attitude. He preached, "I cannot believe that a person who has ever known the love of God can relish a secular novel. Let me visit your chamber, your parlor or wherever you keep your books. What is here? Bryan, Scott, Shakespeare, and a host of triflers and blasphemers of God."

Hofstadter identifies this disdain of rationality in several aspects of our national life, including politics, education and businesses reaction to modernity. Not to be excluded was an assessment of the role of the intellectual in American life. In a word, the position of the intellectual is alienation. They tend to exist on the fringe of acceptance and tend to fear that too much acceptance would dilute or corrupt their intellectual honesty and independence.

This year, Susan Jacoby, in "The Age of American Unreason," updates the work of Hofstadter. Jacoby's subject matter is the same -- only "anti-intellectualism" is replaced by "unreason." Jacoby apparently wanted to document the observation that, in the 40-some years between Hofstadter's research and her studied look, there has been a further erosion of respect for the power of the mind.

Jacoby writes, "During the past four decades, American's endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic. This new form of anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation's heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason, but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics."

Susan Jacoby isolates several culprits responsible for this massive decline in respect for things intellectual. First is the all-pervasive influence of mass media. The 24-hour-a-day bombardment of the senses leaves little time for reading and reflection. Our sensate culture, as Pitirim Sorokin called it, has smothered the capacity for extended concentration of significant matters.

The second major "spur" to anti-intellectualism "has been the resurgence of fundamentalist religion." Jacoby specifically takes note of their appeal to emotion at the expense of the use of reason. Its exclusivism and emphasis on a bloody, apocalyptic end of the world is objectionable since fear has replaced reason as the motivation for choosing to participate in the religious community.

It is a surprise to find out that Jacoby's book became a national best seller. It is a warning to parents who want their children to be aware of the larger world of the mind that both parent and child can be sidetracked by both religious and secular forces which do not care for -- indeed are opposed to -- a life tempered by reason.

Jacoby concludes her massive study of American culture with a less that encouraging note: "It is possible that nothing will help. The nation's memory and attention span may already have sustained too much damage that they cannot be revived by the best efforts of America's best minds."

One thing seems clear -- there is no burning desire to look to intellectuals for the solutions to the problems we face.


Allan Powell is a professor emeritus at Hagerstown Community College./

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