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Anti-Intellectualism in American Life ()

Pulitzer Prize (Nonfiction)

The course of every intellectual, if he pursues his journey long and unflinchingly enough, ends in the obvious, from which the non-intellectuals have never stirred.
    -Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point

Reading this book is akin to reading an old flyer promoting the unsinkable Titanic's maiden voyage; it is the purblind product of an overweening hubris.  Hofstadter's basic thesis is fairly inarguable: that American history demonstrates a strong strain of what he loosely terms anti-intellectualism:

    The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual 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.

However, his purpose in writing the book was to argue that America's historic hostility towards Intellectuals and intellectualism was misplaced and that society has suffered as a result of this antipathy.  The book is very much a reaction against the McCarthy/Eisenhower era and a paean to the type of intellectual activism seen in the New Deal and the impending Great Society.  Having spent the last twenty years cleaning up the mess that the Intellectuals inflicted upon the nation, I think we can now officially say that this book is idiotic.

As a threshold matter, Hofstadter has great difficulty defining intellectualism, but he does contrast it with intelligence:

    [I]ntelligence is an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, an
    predictable range... Intelligence works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals, and
    may be quick to shear away questions of thought that do not seem to help in reaching them.

    ... Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind. Whereas
    intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders,
    theorizes, criticizes, imagines.

His fuzziness is such that while he acknowledges the American love affair with inventors and other men of practical intelligence, he quite mistakenly groups scientists generally into the category of Intellectuals.  In fact, there is a fairly simple definition of the term intellectual that will clear up much of the confusion:  an "intellectual" is someone who deals in pure ideas, that is ideas untested by reality.  The term "Intellectual" in turn has come to denote anyone who believes that these untested ideas should be tried out upon society.  Once we accept these fairly simple definitions, it becomes pretty obvious why America has an anti-intellectual tradition and why members of the American Left are so troubled by it.

As even his own feeble definition provides, it is the nature of "intellect" to oppose the existing order.  But in a democracy, it is the great public majority which determines that order in the first place; those who wish to "manipulate, re-order, adjust" are seeking to impose the ideas of an elite few on a system that has been founded, built and maintained by the many.  The very structure of the government bequeathed to us in the Constitution is intended to thwart just such manipulations.  The carefully wrought system of checks and balances was put in place in order to make it as difficult as possible to make the types of changes that Intellectuals tend to dream up.

It was Hofstadter's misfortune to be writing at a time when it mistakenly looked like this historic truth was changing.  It appeared to him that the 1950's had been an aberration, with the return to traditional American anti-government and anti-intellectual attitudes.  The cadres of "The Best and the Brightest" running the Kennedy White House harkened back to FDR's Brain Trust and suggested that the reliance of government on Intellectuals had become the norm.  What he failed to reckon with was the warning of F.A. Hayek, that it is impossible for small groups of elite bureaucrats to make decisions which will operate efficiently for the betterment of all of our lives.  Rule by the Intellectuals is inevitably doomed because it is cut loose from the rigors of the marketplace and the exchange of information which markets provide.  Having decided on a direction for purely ideological reasons, Intellectuals have no choice when the idea turns out not to be working but to try more of the same.

We see this at work especially in the Intellectuals' two great wars, the War on Poverty and the Vietnam War.  In each of these instances, bureaucratic elites decided that they had found a laudable goal, and indeed the eradication of poverty and the freedom of the South Vietnamese are entirely justifiable ends.  The problem is that it was not possible to effect either of these purposes, nor any other purposes for that matter, through the vehicle of centrally planned government action.  But having set the colossal forces of the government in action, The Best and The Brightest found it impossible to admit that they were losing these wars and, more importantly, found it impossible to admit that their methods were actually contributing to the loss.

The idea of the War on Poverty was that you could improve the lives of the poor by spending large amounts of government money.  There was no evidence that this proposition was true, in fact the evidence of the New Deal tended to suggest that it was demonstrably false.  But as Hofstadter would put it, men of intellect could "imagine" it to be true.  Therefore, even as Great Society spending programs contributed to the destruction of nuclear family in America's black inner city communities and led to a growing dependency on government largesse in the communities, the intellectual fathers of these programs had no recourse but to pump more money into them and exacerbate the damage.

Ditto Vietnam.  The idea was that the giant American war machine could beat tiny North Vietnam.  When this did not happen, the Intellectuals reacted by pouring more men and material into the fight.  Whereas practical men set goals and work towards them, using narrowly tailored means and the time honored principle of trial and error, Intellectuals adopt ideas and religiously apply them, regardless of the results.

Ultimately, we can see that intellectualism stands for little more than the elevation of ideas in themselves over the results of those ideas.  Americans have always, or almost always, had a healthy skepticism towards men who wish to try out their big new ideas on the American populace.  Tragically, but somewhat understandably, we abandoned this good sense during the Depression and allowed FDR and the New Dealers to vastly expand the size and power of the federal government.  The very fact that this had no effect on the underlying economic conditions should have been sufficient for us to term it a failure and to demand that the government return that power to the people.  However, our failure to prosecute World War Two to it's logical conclusion, by destroying the Soviet Union, left us in the always dangerous position of maintaining a wartime footing.  Even Hayek acknowledged that in times of war it may be necessary to concede greater power to the government than is ordinarily healthy.  Given this state of affairs, Eisenhower limited government to a degree but did not undertake the fundamental dismantling that was desperately needed.  This meant that when the Intellectuals found themselves back at the reigns and particularly when they were handed JFK's bloody shirt to wave, they were in a position to use the dangerously powerful strength of the government to inflict some real damage.  It was not until the late 1970's, with economic disaster once more rearing it's head and with defeat in the Cold War looking like a very real possibility, that the Intellectuals were finally put to flight.  Since then, the most instructive moment occurred during the Clinton Health Care Plan debacle.  All that was necessary was for companies to convince voters that bureaucrats would be making medical decisions for them and the plan was doomed.  The American citizen, at least, is back to distrusting Intellectuals.

There's no need to belabor just how wrongheaded this book, but there is one more point I'd like to address briefly here (I'll take it up more fully in a subsequent review).  I mentioned that Hofstadter erroneously includes scientists in his classification of Intellectuals.  Using the more precise definition which we crafted above, it should be obvious why this is an error.  The very essence of the scientific method is that men of science propose and idea but then it must be rigorously tested before it is accepted as true.  Hofstadter naturally devotes much space to anti-intellectuals' resistance to the teaching of evolution in schools.  He depicts this as opposition to science and mere religious blindness.  In truth, evolution resembles Intellectualism much more than it does hard science.  There are any number of modern scientific ideas which challenge traditional religious beliefs--Relativity, Particle Physics, etc..  Indeed, they all engendered great initial skepticism because they defied logic, but the forces of anti-intellectualism by and large accepted them once they were proven by experiment.  It is only evolution which continues to meet resistance.  Why?  Quite simply because it remains unproved.  In the century and a half since Darwin proposed natural selection as a theory, we have not observed a single instance of it occurring in such a manner that it actually leads to a fundamental evolutionary step in the species effected.  Nor do evolutionists propose any experiments which would prove the theory in the lab or any other controlled setting.  This stands in stark contrast to Einstein who proposed several experimental observations which would either tend to prove or disprove his own theories.    This is not to say that Darwin's ideas will never be proven, rather, to believe in them in the absence of proof is to once again embrace the idea in itself.  This is intellectualism, not science.  Americans are wisely skeptical of these unproved claims, just as they are dubious about unproved political schemes.

So in light of all this, we can assume that this book has been consigned to the ash heap of history, right?  Not a chance.  The simple fact that this book remains in print--along with Malthus and Paul Ehrlich (see Orrin's review) and the like--serves to demonstrate the sway that the Intellectuals still hold.  Not surprisingly that power is now concentrated in the academy.  It is positively frightening to see the number of required reading lists and course syllabi that pop up when you search for this title on the Web.  God bless their pointy little heads, just because the central thesis of the book has been thoroughly discredited by the past seventy years of experience, doesn't mean that the Intellectuals will abandon it's call for them to exert more power over our lives.


Grade: (D)



Richard Hofstadter Links:
-ESSAY: The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Richard Hofstadter, November 1964, Harper’s Magazine)

Book-related and General Links:
    -BIO: The Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition.  2000.  Hofstadter, Richard
    -ARTICLE: Richard Hofstadter's Tradition:  Fifty years ago, amid trying personal circumstances, an audacious young historian wrote a book of lasting merit about American Presidents and their politics (David Greenberg, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: by Richard Hofstadter THE FATE OF THE UNION: KENNEDY AND AFTER (Richard Hofstadter, NY Review of Books)
   -ESSAY: by Richard Hofstadter  A Long View: Goldwater in History (Richard Hofstadter, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: by Richard Hofstadter of The Available Man: Warren Gamaliel Harding by Andrew Sinclair (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: by Richard Hofstadter of George W. Norris: The Making of a Progressive, 1861-1912 by Richard Lowitt (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Turner and the Sociology of the Frontier edited by Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Martin Lipset  (John Higham,  NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington by Richard Hofstadter   (David M. Potter,  NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY:  Christopher Lasch: On Richard Hofstadter (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: History: It's Still About Stories (James M. McPherson, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Humpty Dumpty of Scholarship: History Has Broken Into Pieces (DAVID OSHINSKY, NY Times)
    -The Politics of Scholarship: Liberals, Anti-Communism, and McCarthyism (Athan Theoharis, The Literature & Culture of the American 1950's)
    -REVIEW: of   Liberalism and Its Discontents  by Alan Brinkley   (Fred Siegel, Culture Front)
    -ESSAY: The Enemy Within:   What has come to be known as McCarthyism should, with more respect to chronology and power, be known as Hooverism (James T. Patterson, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Edmund S. Morgan, NY Review of Books)
    -EXPLANATORY BLURB: about the book Radical Beginnings: Richard Hofstadter and the 1930s (Susan Stout Baker)

    -EXCERPTS: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
    -REVIEW: of   Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter  (Benjamin DeMott, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: The Culture of Cultural Studies  (Partisan Review, Summer 1996. Alan Wolfe)
    -ESSAY: Anti-Intellectualism in U.S. Schools (Aimee Howley, Edwina D. Pendarvis,  Craig B. Howley Education Policy Analysis Archives)
    -ESSAY: GARLIC, VODKA, AND THE POLITICS OF GENDER:  Anti-intellectualism in American Librarianship (Michael Winter, Hermes)
    -ESSAY: Sloth (Michael S. Horton, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals)
    -ESSAY: What Should Children Learn: National standards have been thwarted, but state-mandated academic standards and local action can yet save the schools (Paul Gagnon, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: The Condition of American Liberal Education: An End to Mourning: Liberal Education in Contemporary America (Robert Orrill, College Board Online)
    -ESSAY: Boom and Gloom:  Accentuating the negative in an age of plenty  (Nick Gillespie, Reason)
    -ESSAY: The Gap  (Christopher Shea, Washington Post)
    -Booknotes Transcript: Author: Eric Foner  Title: The Story of American Freedom (CSPAN)
    -ESSAY: A Leap of Faith: The Promise of Partnership (Manuel N. Gómez)
    -SPEECH: Intellectuals and Other People (Merle Curti, American Historical Association)
    -REVIEW: of    NOT BY POLITICS ALONE: THE ENDURING INFLUENCE OF THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT by Sara Diamond Rapture on the Right (Eyal Press, Lingua Franca)
    -THE TOP FIVE: Good books about Americans and God: Anti-intellectualism in American Life By Richard Hofstadter  (Mother Jones)
    -ESSAY: How the Intellectuals Took Over  (And What to Do About It) (David Gerlernter, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of THE BURDEN OF BAD IDEAS How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society By Heather Mac Donald (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY :  The Renaissance of Anti-Intellectualism (TODD GITLIN, December 8, 2000, Chronicle of Higher Education)
    -ESSAY : The Lure of Syracuse (Mark Lilla, The New York Review of Books, September 20, 2001)
    The Latest Theory Is That Theory Doesn't Matter (EMILY EAKIN, April 19, 2003, NY Times)


Except that people who think about alternative social arrangements cause naught but suffering, mayhem, and murder. That's why Americans hold intellectuals in such low regard.

- oj

- Oct-03-2008, 15:21


Largeness of mind (my definition of intellect) is very rare. And, ironically, it is not often exhibited when discussing the intellect or the life of the mind. Hofstadter deplored the narrowing of the American mind that resulted not just from the democratization of the university (and knowledge) but from the reformulation of its mission to suit American interests. The life of the mind suffers when the only nonpartisan value existent in modern American society is market value. Knowledges that produce wealth are the ones that are held in highest esteem. Knowledges that produce no measurable material gain are condsidered irrevelevent. Cultivating the life of the mind is not an option for most, and its this perceived elitism that invited anti-intellectualism in the hard working sectors. But anti-intellectualism also exists among corporate elites and political elites because serious social thought means that things might change and change is not what is desired. Most people cannot even imagine an alternative to current social and economic arrangements because they have not been educated but indoctrinated into a certain way of life that they are told is "unpatriotic" to criticize. This is not freedom.

Most (not all, thankfully) "thinking" that we see on television, cable, and the internet is simply partisan bickering. Media is an "ideologue-o-sphere."

Thankfully, we still have books.

- Doug Anderson

- Oct-03-2008, 14:45


Rubbish, sir, supercilious rubbish. Review reveals severe mental disorganization and deteriation of review author. Seek therapy at earliest convenience. Do not operate machinery while taking present medications.

- Proctor S. Burress

- Jul-13-2006, 09:56


With respect, I must resist the entire thrust of your review of Hofstadter's landmark work. But I compliment you on taking the time to seriously consider it and offer your views. I especially commend you on your Web bibliography, in which I've discovered resources previously unknown to me. Thank you. All the best.

- jgreen

- Oct-20-2004, 11:29


I wonder what Hofstadter would say about the divisiveness among Americans about the whole Iraq issue. Have you seen anything on the relationship between this and the war on Al-Qaida?

- Bart Rhodes

- Dec-07-2002, 12:19