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. All historians have complex views of historical works they esteem. We have been taught too much about the intricacies of context, causation, narrative, etc. to treat even the books we love in a naïve fashion. Even books like Anti-Intellectualism, which are at once works of history and social critique (with the latter containing more universal philosophical elements than is usual in a work of history), and which seem to respond appropriately to one’s historical moment, are not exempt from the historian’s critical intensity.
My complications arise from four areas.
First, there is a definite sense, evidenced by the course, that Anti-Intellectualism deserves renewed attention. The events of the past year created an imperative, apparently widely shared, to think through all of the subsidiary topics contained under the umbrella term of anti-intellectualism: ignorance (willful, constructed, and accidental), refusal to engage complexity, unreason, anti-elitism, deception, etc.
Second, several themes in the book deserve deep reflection. That’s why Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was able to build on Hofstadter’s critique of Fundamentalism. The residue of the latter affected late twentieth-century Evangelical circles. Hofstadter’s other reflections on self-help culture, life-adjustment education, and the over-applicability of the business mind are also highly relevant today.
Thirdly, the book and its approach deserve renewed and heightened criticism. It should be noted that criticism existed right from the start. And it continued, as Catherine Liu tells us in American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique (2011), in certain academic corners (e.g. in American Studies) through the 1980s and 1990s. This was primarily through the impulse to avoid elitism. It must be noted that elitism (by Hofstadter and in his work) is a fine angle through which to criticize Anti-Intellectualism. But that same criticism is also *performed* by academic elites in relation to Hofstadter’s fans, which the former argue are being elitist—even while the academic critics ignore still relevant aspects of Hofstadter’s work. It’s complicated, but Liu dissects very well this utopian desire for an “academic populism.”
Fourth, I developed a critique of Anti-Intellectualismover the past year that began, to be honest, as a performative act. I put on the mantle of “extreme critic” to more intensely probe the book’s weaknesses. The goal was to find a valid and cogent pathway into how Hofstadter should be revised or reworked. It was much easier than I thought to find criticisms, not ever having deeply explored the immediate reception of the book. The Pulitzer had always signaled to me that enthusiasm outran criticisms. So much for that. The reviewers were harsh. Of course I’ll be teaching those reviews to my seminar participants. But I was surprised at how engaged I became in a more serious and deeper critique—one that I believe indirectly informed those myriad criticisms, but could not be articulated or spoken at the time. I apologize for being mysterious, but I’ll keep this close to the vest for now since I hope to flesh all of this out in a book project. The larger goal aside, my findings most definitely undermined a great deal of my original enthusiasm for the book.
What does all of this mean? All historians’ relationships with their work is complicated and constantly under revision. These relationships may begin in enthusiasm, or even ardor, but are always contingent on new readings and new perspectives. Finally, we bring those relationships into the classroom. We never rest on relevance, or the enthusiasm, or lack thereof, of our fellow inquirers—even when the politics seem to demonstrate a superficial alignment. No historian I know ever slavishly presents the work of another historian or intellectual. There is always an attempt at remove—to foster critical distance.
For my part, and in relation to this piece and the critique I’ve developed, I take heart, ironically, from Hofstadter himself. In Anti-Intellectualism, he reflected: “The criticism of other intellectuals is, after all, one of the most important functions of the intellectual, and he customarily performs it with vivacity” (p. 8). – TL