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The Student News Site of The American School in Japan

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HANABI

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American Anti-Intellectualism

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The United States has always been riddled with contradictions. The universal humanist principles that were ostensibly at the forefront of the Founding Fathers’ minds (and subsequently written into the founding documents of the United States) are in contention with the very settlement of America, and the nation’s path through slavery. As the country grapples with racial inequality and possible reparations, this tension is openly discussed. An American contradiction that is perhaps lesser known, despite becoming increasingly relevant, is the opposition between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism.

Anti-intellectualism presents itself as the mistrust of, or hostility toward, intellectuals or experts. More than that, it encompasses an opposition to education, scientific thinking, and philosophy. The conceptual association between anti-intellectualism and America can be traced back to Richard Hofstadter’s seminal book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hofstadter’s work was pioneering in confronting anti-intellectualism, and he argues that it is a social attitude perennial in the fabric of American national culture.?

Sociologist Daniel Rigney expanded Hofstadter’s theory by defining three major manifestations of anti-intellectualism: religious anti-rationalism, unreflective instrumentalism, and populist anti-elitism. Religious anti-rationalism is the use of emotions, morals, and religious absolutes in favor of facts, logic, and reason. Unreflective instrumentalism refers to the rejection of the pursuit of theory and knowledge unless it is a means to practical ends—such as profit. Lastly, populist anti-elitism, likely the most prevalent type of anti-intellectualism today, is the rejection of elite institutions and people characterized within the social or intellectual elite. Think Donald Trump denying climate change regardless of its scientific grounding: that is populist anti-elitism.?

Conversely, intellectualism is a habit of mind that challenges, evolves, and evaluates ideas. Hofstadter characterizes such a pursuit of knowledge with the “discontent of dogmas.” Intellectuals forbid self-assurance; instead, they accept “conflict as a central and enduring reality” and are “essentially relativist and skeptical.” It is important to distinguish anti-intellectualism from the idea of poking and prodding traditional beliefs. Intellectualism seeks to uncover the truth, questioning what is unquestioned; anti-intellectualism is a tool used to promote one idea over another in order to further the agenda of a certain group.?

However, whilst anti-intellectualism is rather amorphous, taking different forms depending on the circumstances of the time, Hofstadter proposes it is fundamentally American. He traces the origins back to “the framework of our religious history.” America’s first European settlers were persecuted Puritans who fled the Anglican church seeking religious freedom. The first wave of anti-intellectualism in America dates back to the First Great Awakening, in which American religious figures reacted to scholarly Puritans’ strict self-restraint by shifting to emotionalism.?

As Puritans established universities such as Harvard and Yale, the subsequent economic stratification of education amplified working-class Americans’ distrust of intellect, and the Puritan ideal of the intellectual minister steadily faded from prominence.

Evangelical Protestantism continued to breed anti-education and anti-rationalist rhetoric. Prominent 19th-century evangelist and publisher words — “I do not read a book unless it will help me to understand [the Bible]” — underscore the pervasiveness of religious anti-rationalism.?

The Founding Fathers took evangelical Protestantism to heart, adopting the masculine ideal of the “self-made” man. This man did not need education; through hard work and a little luck, he could become a rags-to-riches success. On the other hand, intellectuals were regarded as effeminate and lacking faith or moral virtue. Federalist leaders saw intellectuals, such as Thomas Jefferson, as incompatible with military and presidential duties. Nevertheless, Jefferson eventually won the 1800 presidential election as the Democratic-Republican (as the party was then known) nominee.?

The next two hundred years would be marked by several anti-intellectualist movements. For one, the Efficiency Movement in the early 20th century observed industrialist Frederick W. Taylor’s quest for economic efficiency and the drastic industrialization of the classical education system. , a manager was required to be “stupid and phlegmatic.”?

As Darwinism, Freudianism, and other scientific theories gained traction, an identity crisis unfolded in many American religious communities. If creationist beliefs were unsound, sacred texts inaccurate, and unconscious instincts not puppeteered by a higher being, then much of humanity had to be reimagined. Modernism and new scientific ideas were thus vehemently combatted.?

In the 1930s, populist movements gained support, and emerging leaders like Huey Long glamorized the common man while vilifying elites. This was further entrenched during the Cold War and the McCarthy era — the era that spurred Hofstatder’s book — as anti-communist, anti-establishment sentiment fuelled distrust in intellectuals. Former U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy found reason for America’s struggles in discrepancies of social status, and perhaps intellect. In a 1950 speech, he fomented antipathy towards those who were “born with silver spoons in their mouths,” in a campaign for his “all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity.” In a spew of irrationality, he denounced 205 members of the State Department — “those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer” — as communist traitors.?

By the 1960s, the first wave of neoconservatism laid the groundwork for corporate anti-intellectualism. This view believed intellectuals threatened American capitalism by giving power to the government. Among other members of the New Left, Irving Kristol — also known as the godfather of neoconservatism — criticized liberal social movements such as Civil Rights for being “.” Corporate rights were deemed more authentic to American meritocracy than government-sanctioned social welfare programs.

By the 21st century, it was apparent what persistent anti-intellectualism had created: America’s pride—the “self-made man.” The rugged industrialist who came from nothing, but succeeds anyway embodies the American values of hard work, tenacity, and faith. He’s smart, but he doesn’t need education.?

Is anti-intellectualism thus integral to American identity and democracy? The self-made man is unlikely to fade away; it embodies the American Dream and is ever-present in American politics. While the idea of rags-to-riches, hard work, and general opposition to elitism isn’t principally counterproductive, when it irrationally rejects intellect and poisons scientific discourse, we must question whether anti-intellectualism may be surging. As writers Adam Waters and E.J. Dionne Jr. remark, “”?

But we must still be open to criticism of the class of intellectuals just as much as we criticize other classes in a free society. To foster constructive inquiry rather than the erasure of education and the “life of the mind,” intellectuals must work harder to bridge the gap between academia and ordinary people. As mis- and disinformation proliferates in the digital age, citizens of every background must participate in an intellectual process that challenges false beliefs rather than further entrenches them.

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