Book: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

As early summer approaches and my classes have come to an end, I have been debating on what to read.  I contemplated Lionel Trilling’s Matthew Arnold, but then concluded it would be a bit much for an early summer read; it is a monster of a work. I will read it by the end of the summer, just not at the beginning. After talking to a friend about my struggles on what to read, I have concluded that I will revisit Richard Hofstadter and his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. This work compliments my earlier reading of The Age of American Unreason, which I blogged about earlier.

Here is what Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is about:

In many ways, Anti-intellectualism in American Life was a commentary on the increasing influence of Protestant evangelicalism, political egalitarianism, and the rising cult of practicality as the new criteria for assessing the private and public worlds. Hofstadter accused religion, politics, and the public schools of fostering in common people a resentment and suspicion of intellect, of the life of the mind, and of those who devote their lives to it. He charged that local evangelical preachers and small town lawyers and businessmen masked their bias against intellect with the rhetoric of morality, democracy, utility, and practicality. Thus, as the twentieth century chipped away at village culture, it was regrettable though not surprising that common folk, made suspicious of urbanity and learning by community leaders, reacted with a “righteous” vengeance to change and those who celebrated it. However, though Hofstadter deplored the anti-intellectualism of village life, he sympathized with those whose way of life was being swept away by the rush of events in the latter half of the twentieth century. He noted the “patience and generosity” of the common American in the face of monumental change. He suggested that the animosity between intellectuals and the common people was not solely the fault of the commoner. He recognized that the life of the villager was at odds with the life of the mind. Where common folk lead hard, belabored lives, intellectuals lead more leisured ones — lives that involved extensive education and time to read, think, and write. Hofstadter also noted that intellectuals were often at odds with their fellow Americans, but perhaps more so with their democratic beliefs. (source for this)


2 thoughts on “Book: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

  1. “There are enough artists, writers, provocateurs, purveyors of fad, cant, and chaos, enough sophisticated and educated to suggest what we see and hear is not what it seems, enough shiftless and transient who reinvent themselves with each move. But at the millennium there are far too few of the other in America, the traditional and time-honored brakemen on an affluent, leisured, and rootless society. There is a reason why farmers defiantly, brazenly, want their children raised differently, want them to subtract from, not add to, the current American madness, want them, I suppose, to be like themselves: to have fields without dreams, rather than dreams without fields.”

    “The life of the farmer is physical. It is concrete. As a part of nature and the unfathomable processes of the plant kingdom, it is also both spiritual and mystical. It is a struggle with a purpose, were self and family have clear roles prescribed by the wisdom of the ages. As both Xenophon and Aristotle saw, there is little exploitation of one’s fellow man in agriculture, “the mother of us all,” where the struggle against nature makes one bigger, not smaller. The larger the number of people engaged in that activity, the greater the brake on the rest of us. Agrarians need not be the majority of the population—-although Aristotle felt their overwhelming presence alone created a stable citizenry—-but they do need to be present in large enough numbers to be heard, to offer a shake of the head, when asked, that sends a tremble and a quiver to the majority to halt and desist.”

    Victor Davis Hanson
    “Fields Without Dreams”

    Intellectualism does not guarantee common sense. It’s good to have both in our republic. -ms

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