I’ve been reading Jonathan Zimmerman’s and Emily Robertson’s The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools over the past few weeks. In the course of reading I unexpectedly ran across a concept related to ignorance studies but, heretofore, unmentioned in those works and, yet, important to them. Continue reading
Tonight I began a six-week session leading a Newberry Library seminar on Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. I’m pleased to report that the course is full. Twenty-two people voluntarily signed up to explore a 54-year-old work of intellectual history. And even the waitlist is eleven-deep. Yes, I’m bragging a bit. It’s because I’ve never had so much enthusiasm for one of my seminar offerings. It’s exciting.
But the excitement comes at a time when my relationship with the book has never been more complicated. Continue reading
Richard Hofstadter asserted, in his 1963 classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, that anti-intellectualism is about resentment and hostility toward “the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it.” On the latter, it was about categorizing intellectuals as outsiders, servants, and scapegoats. It would be foolish to deny that instances of these attitudes and behaviors have occurred, both in the past and present.
Yet, as my reading in the historiography grows (in terms of Hofstadter’s heirs), a lack of evidence, or at least evidence that can be interpreted in different ways, is pointing me to a contrarian claim: citizens are not, in fact, exhibiting clear general problems in those areas. They do not generally resent critical thinking, creativity, research, or intellectual individualism. Regular people are not hostile to what Hofstadter identified as “the play of the mind” or “playfulness” of the intellect. While some evidence exists regarding contrary tendencies, that evidence doesn’t indict broad swaths of the population. What seems clear, however, in historical and present-day political news is a resentment about what those intellectuals represent in the sturm und drang of democratic discourse. Hostility toward intellectuals is accidental in relation to what those individuals symbolize, or appear to symbolize. To belabor the point no longer, very often I find that instances of so-called anti-intellectualism are really about elitism and anti-elitism. Continue reading
Despite the depth of its subject matter, the book is a relatively easy read—very accessible. It’s not every day you can say that about a work that locates problems of late-twentieth-century Evangelical intellectual culture in what Henry May called the “didactic Enlightenment.”
Part of my shame about waiting so long to read the book has to do with my own work on both anti-intellectualism and Mortimer J. Adler. Continue reading
[Thanks to Ben Alpers and Robin Marie for pre-reading and giving comments on this piece. Their comments, however, do not constitute approval of everything within. I take full responsibility for what follows. – TL]
As is perhaps the case with many thinking people, young and old, the quest for truth can be an inspirational endeavor. It still inspires me—no matter the complications, difficulties, and potential impossibility of obtaining some particular truths. As I grew older, however, the quest for understanding began to overshadow the pursuit of truth. This probably arose from a desire to think through all the grey areas of human action and thought. As an offshoot of that, as a professional historian I have been continually intrigued by what one could call a mirror image of the quest for truth and understanding: the problems of unreason, anti-intellectualism, and ignorance.
Given those deep currents in my life, there was never any question about whether I’d read Lee McIntyre‘s provocatively titled Chronicle of Higher Education essay: “The Attack on Truth: We have entered an age of willful ignorance.” Continue reading
[Note: This following was presented on April 18, 2015 at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in St. Louis. As a note of appreciation to S-USIH for sponsoring my panel, I am happy to reproduce it here. Advance apologies for the length (note the handy print button at the bottom of the post!). I hope, nevertheless, that you find it rewarding. I received nice comments from my panel chair, Matthew Osborn, but would love more feedback here. – TL]
In chronicling the long history of vaccination and the anti-vaccination movement in the United States, investigative journalist Arthur Allen observed that “the Golden Age of public acceptance for vaccination” began late in World War II and during the Cold War. In that period, which lasted until around 1980, collective fears about foreign aggression coalesced into a need for collective security. The common good trumped individualism and ideology in order to build up the United States’ “immunological commons.” Allen argues that, in Cold War America, a “new spirit of compliance” resulted from “militarization” and “heightened public trust in medicine and its genuine advances.” That trust negated the need for compulsion and coercion. The fear of biological warfare, instigated by the U.S.S.R., also added a sense of necessity to that trust. Indeed, as historian Kendall Hoyt noted in her 2012 book Long Shot, “bugs [have often] played a larger role than bullets” in military history. Whatever the source, disease is the more traditional and long-running security threat to humanity. Vaccination, then, provided some sense of safety in a wartime world full of human hazards. These factors created a unique “golden age” narrative for vaccination—an age against which subsequent narratives of vaccination and anti-vaccination movements have been measured.
But this essay is not about that period. Continue reading
[Note: Last week I began this essay by undermining Steve Wasserman’s assertion that there was a “golden age” of middlebrow intellectualism based on the great books idea. This week I argue against his characterization of the recent past and present state of American intellectual life. – TL]
III. The So-Called “New Anti-Intellectualism”
Wasserman asserts that a “new anti-intellectualism” has arisen since around 2000. In what fashion? For starters, he despairs that the old means of intellectual dissemination have been decimated: “Today, America’s traditional organs of popular criticism—newspapers, magazines, journals of opinion—have been all but overwhelmed by the digital onslaught: their circulations plummeting, their confidence eroded, their survival in doubt.” Without the old organs of circulation, Wasserman fears for the mental health of the populace.
The new means of dissemination privilege anti-intellectual modes. To underscore his point, Wasserman references the thinking of Leon Wieseltier: Continue reading
In a piece for The American Conservative, titled “In Defense of Difficulty” (and appearing the March-April paper issue), Steve Wasserman argues that something of an Arcadia of middlebrow thought existed from roughly the 1940s until around 2000. But the “New Information Age,” brought into being by the world wide web, deflated the positive intellectual climate of that period. As with the aftermath of the Dot.com bubble, the world wide web has brought only a kind of longer-term intellectual recession rather than the promised “radiant future.” Here’s how Wasserman characterized the dream: Continue reading
Here’s yet another piece from the book that didn’t make the final round of content cuts. In this Mortimer Adler articulated an embryonic philosophy of television in relation to books, great books, and learning. This selection has only been lightly edited in relation to how it would’ve appeared in the book.
Unlike other posts in this series, I’m glad this was cut. Continue reading
Many moons ago I noted here at the blog that I’d be drafting an encyclopedia article on “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” I’ve begun and am now deep into endeavor. I have a reasonably thorough outline, and many words drafted (out of 3500 possible) with that structure in mind. I like what I’ve done so far, but this is a good spot for posing a question—i.e. a blog survey, a blurvey(!): Continue reading