This Wk’s Mtg: Is American Anti-Intellectualism On The Rise?

As I noted two weeks ago, one of my main goals for this group is for us to examine why Americans have the political opinions they do, so we can better understand the root causes of our current scorched earth politics.  We’ve devoted evenings to culture, psychology, economics, government policies, etc.; and to specific groups, like the tea parties and the religious left and right.   These discussions have helped us learn about what different groups of Americans want out of politics.  Yet, a major driver of our political wars is not about what people want; it’s about what they don’t want and who they don’t like telling them what to do.  Left and right hate different elites, of course, but the public’s need to fear and dislike some elites seems to be built into our political culture.

This week’s meeting will look at one particular type of anti-elitism: Anti-intellectualism.  As I see it, anti-intellectualism can mean two very different things.  It can refer to the public’s distrust of what used to be called “public intellectuals:” Academics/scholars who inject themselves in politics and public affairs.  Think FDR’s brain trust, JFK’s best and brightest, or the supply side economists.  Intellectuals have certainly earned some of this resentment.  but, what else is going on to gin up this hatred of them?  Second, anti-intellectualism can mean a more fundamental hostility to science, empiricism, or even rationalism.  This, too, has always been with us, but it just seems more prevalent today than it’s been a in a long time: Global warming denial, creation science, some of the wackier New Age stuff.  Even left-wing post-modernism can be viewed as a kind of anti-intellectualism.

So, we have a lot to talk about.  To help us frame things, I’ll open us up on Thursday by introducing the above two ways of viewing anti-intellectualism.  Then, I’ll list some of the reasons people might feel this way, some of which I think we should have some sympathy for (if not agreement with), especially the anti-technocrat type of anti-intellectualism.  There have been a zillion books and articles in recent years on this subject, and I’ve read a few of them.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is anti-intellectualism?  Is it just ignorance and “backward” thinking, or does it serve a useful purpose in a country where democracy coexists with meritocracy and powerful elites?
  2. What causes anti-intellectualism?
    —  The intellectuals?
    —  A religious population?
    —  The ethos of the “wisdom of the common man?”
    —  A business- and practical experience-worshipping culture?
    —  Resentment of liberalism and its “social engineering” achievements?
    —  Exploitation: One elite using the public’s anti-intellectualism against it?
  3. What harm – or good – has anti-intellectualism done?
  4. Is anti-intellectualism getting worse?  How can this be, in a country growing less
    religious and more educated?
  5. Are we the snobs?  Why/why not?
  6. Is the information age eroding anti-intellectualism, or feeding it by making everyone a font of “knowledge?”
  7. What can we do about anti-intellectualism?

LINKS –

Anti-intellectualism in general:

The rise of conservative ant-rationalism:

Bring your resumes.

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3 responses

  1. Richard Hoftader wrote more than an essay. He published a book in 1964 which was called Anti-intelluctualism in American Life. dw

    1. Yeah, I didn’t read the book, and I tried to find a good summary of it, but not much luck. You can try this one: http://mtprof.msun.edu/Spr2008/weltzrev.html. But, it’s a little all over ther place.

  2. Had a great time joining your group tonight.
    I didn’t see the notes that were put together before. Very well thought out and organized.

    I’ll definitely be coming back.

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