Anti-intellectualism

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Anti-intellectualism is the opposition to intellectualism, intellectuals and the views and methods of intellectuals. It is possible to be consciously anti-intellectual, but more often than not, anti-intellectualism is a critical label or sub-conscious position.

There are arguably two separable aspects or strains of anti-intellectualism. The rejection of the life of the mind is associated, on the one hand, with the spurning of Left intellectuals who have rejected conservative politics and traditional morality. It is also associated, on the other hand, with the rejection of the usefulness of "trivial" facts and abstract thinking, the reading of old, irrelevant books, and spending time in schoolrooms instead of out in "the real world" getting experience.

Although anti-intellectualism is often accompanied by anti-rationalism, those discussing the former usually distinguish it from the latter. Such was the case with Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, who omitted from this classic text on the topic discussion of intellectual self-critique or anti-rationalist ideas from within the academy. Typically, those who go to the trouble of critiquing rationalism in its various forms are themselves intellectuals and very much part of the "life of the mind."

Anti-intellectualism as a political, religious, and ethical phenomenon

Often fundamentalist religious movements or denominations are described as anti-intellectual, and while they do not tend to be opposed to intellectuals per se, they are criticized for discouraging independent thought. There is also a well-known strain of anti-intellectualism among far left movements, which led for example to the Killing Fields—the systematic slaughter of intellectuals—in Pol Pot's Cambodia. European Fascism was also famously anti-intellectual.

Many modern conservative movements in the United States and elsewhere are often seen as anti-intellectual—blaming academics and intellectuals for moral decay by promoting unorthodox ideas and morals (the Princeton ethicist Peter Singer is often accused thusly), or accusing intellectuals of wasting time and resources on abstract and irrelevant thought when they should be spending their time on more useful pursuits. Typical of this attitude may be the former British education secretary, Charles Clarke, who thought that education for its own sake was "a bit dodgy" because it lacked vocational utility—students "need a relationship with the workplace".[1]

Being seen as "too intellectual" has been thought a political disadvantage in American politics for some time, and has been given as a reason for Al Gore's failure in the 2000 presidential election and Kerry's failure in 2004. Some commentators argued that the same would be true for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential elections.[2] Similarly, George W. Bush's populist appeal, in spite of his education at Yale and Harvard, has been considered by some commentators an appeal to voter's "resentment of brains."[3] Before this, the presidential campaigns by Adlai Stevenson and his defeats in both 1952 and 1956 by Dwight D. Eisenhower are seen as a prime example of the political power of anti-intellectualism, and as the source of the term egghead (referring to Stevenson's bald head).

Anti-intellectuals, especially on the Right, often perceive intellectuals, especially on the Left, to be out-of-touch with common morality, elitist, immoral, often unorthodox in their religious beliefs, and sometimes sexually unorthodox—gay, bisexual, polygamous or even asexual. This was seen in the reaction to Bertrand Russell's proposed appointment at City College in New York City in 1940, when religious activists blocked Russell's employment at City College because of his liberal morals regarding sex and marriage, his pacifist opposition to the first and second World Wars and his atheism.[4]

Anti-intellectualism as the rejection of education

Indeed, some of the whole 20th and 21st century narrative about intellectualism just maps "liberal egghead" sensibilities onto the intellectual label and "reactionary conservative" sensibilities onto the anti-intellectual label. It is well-known that most intellectuals have, for a long time, been politically on the left. Conservatives often conclude that such intellectuals use, twist, or invent the theories, arguments, and data to support policies that conservatives believe would be otherwise untenable. But there have always been conservative intellectuals as well, scattered here and there, concentrated at a few religious universities and conservative think-tanks and political journals. And there have always been anti-intellectual people on the left.

So not all anti-intellectualism can be identified or associated with partisan politics or the moral attitudes associated with Left or Right. A large part of American anti-intellectualism, as well as in other countries, is arguably not partisan at all, but is aimed at those who "think too much," "read too much," spend "too much" time in school. Susan Jacoby--herself a liberal non-fiction writer--points this out at great length in her 2008 book, The Age of American Unreason.[5] Jacoby devotes a chapter to the anti-intellectualism in "ghetto culture," other strands of youth culture, and popular culture generally. She also devotes a chapter to "junk thought" that proudly and defiantly rejects the necessity of careful research, high standards, or expertise--an attitude that some associate with Wikipedia's reputation, especially among young people, as a serious encyclopedia.[6]

The causes of anti-intellectualism

The causes of anti-intellectualism are varied but include a belief in some forms of pragmatism, whereby the intellectual is seen as irrelevant, since truth can be determined more through doing than thinking abstractly or the memorization of a lot of recondite facts. Others see intellectuals as the embodiment of elitism, or as being opposed to the interests of the common people. Some combination of philistinism, populism, and belief in an elitist conspiracy might also help explain the phenomenon of anti-intellectualism.

History of anti-intellectualism

Forthcoming...jump in here!

References

  1. "Clarke criticised over classics," BBC News
  2. Jonathan Chait, Obama's Speech, and One (Singular) Advantage of Being Black, blog on The New Republic
    Eric Boehlert, The media's assault on reason, Media Matters for America.
  3. Todd Gitlin, "The Renaissance of Anti-Intellectualism", Chronicle of Higher Education December 8, 2000
  4. See Professor Edwards' discussion in the appendix to Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian; Thom Weidlich's Appointment Denied: The Inquisition of Bertrand Russell and review of latter.
  5. Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (Random House, 2008).
  6. Cf. Jaron Lanier, "Digital Maoism," EDGE.org, May 30, 2006.