Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

by Richard Hofstadter

Cover image

Publisher: Vintage
Copyright: 1962, 1963
Printing: February 1966
ISBN: 0-394-70317-0
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 434

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It's only because of Stephen Laniel's glowing review that I picked up this book. Yes, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, but it gives off an aura of dense, scholarly writing, it's now fifty years out of date, and the title suggests more of a self-defensive justification than a deep investigation. But Laniel has repeatedly mentioned that it's one of the best non-fiction books he's read, which convinced me to give it a try.

I'm very glad that I did, because while this book is dense, it's an eye-opening and insightful historical look at American culture and mythology that balances both criticism and admiration. It's a remarkable piece of analysis that is going to have significant influence on how I look at both American intellectualism and American egalitarianism.

The tension at the core of this book is more complex than it sounds. Almost anyone familiar with US politics will have noticed occasional verbal conflict between what Hofstadter roughly defines as intellectuals — academics as one group, yes, but more broadly anyone who highly values broad-ranging philosophical education and enjoys the play of ideas without necessarily any practical focus — and a perceived class of "average working people" (or, along a different axis, businessmen). These days, this conflict shows up in common phrases like "liberal elites" and "ivory-tower academics," or on the other side "rednecks" and a host of synonyms for ignorance ore close-mindedness. But this book was written 50 years ago, so Hofstadter doesn't come at this from the current, over-played red and and blue state angle. Instead, this book was written in the aftermath of Joe McCarthy and his wide-ranging witch hunts among academics and progressives, and is deeply influenced by the reform, socialist, and communist movements between the World Wars. One of its remarkable properties is how, despite that, it is very applicable to current debates and frequently compares favorably to contemporary commentary.

After an introductory definitional chapter, Hofstadter looks at this tension from four different angles: religion, politics, business and self-help culture, and education. Each angle is explored from the colonial period up until the 1950s. This is neither precisely a history nor precisely a persuasive or argumentative book; rather, it's a wide-ranging general discussion of the topic with a loose chronological presentation. Hofstadter will occasionally provide a historical study, and will occasionally make an extended argument on some point of interest (such as the chapter devoted to discussing the educational theories and arguments of John Dewey).

When Hofstadter starts the discussion of religion by defending the Puritans against claims of anti-intellectualism and stressing their committment to both education and to intellectual study, it's clear that this book is not necessarily going to follow one's initial expectatations. He traces the start of the conflict between religion and intellectualism to the Great Awakening: the surge of evangelical activity in America in the late 1700s with a focus specifically on conversion (rather than on the life one lives after conversion). Hofstadter also sets the tone for the balanced and considered approach of the rest of the book by pointing out the practical reasons why intellectual Christianity was neither accessible nor attractive to frontier farming communities with little access to either education or books. It's a natural human tendency to gain a dislike of things that are valued by rich society but which one doesn't have access to. Christian preachers in such communities reduced the intellectual components of the religion to appeal to their audience, but also raised the available knowledge and education compared to what was otherwise available.

This is the first of many places where Hofstadter analyzes the tension between American egalitarianism and American respect for knowledge and intellectual pursuits. He tells a similar story in politics during the rise of Jackson and the growth of democratic sentiment and backlash against the political elite represented by the Federalists and even democrats like Jefferson. Americans have a passionate (and laudible, in Hofstadter's presentation) belief in social equality, but one of the ways that belief expresses itself is as disapproval of education, study, and intellectual pursuit that were associated with social or political elites. And this, too, is not without some justification, given the degree to which those same elites clung to forms of education and study that were as much class markers as they were intellectual exploration. There's a constant struggle between attempts to raise the intellectual level of the entire population and dislike of intellectualism that's outside the typical pursuits of the average person.

I could continue like this at great length. There's just so much in this book, including a fascinating analysis of American business culture and its focus on "practical" knowledge, and how that relates to the huge class of self-help and self-improvement books. And while Hofstadter is thoughtful and measured in his appraisal, he's willing to lauch devastating (and entertaining) frontal assaults when it seems warranted:

Modern inspirational literature builds upon the old self-help tradition and bears a general resemblence to it, but it also has major differences. In the old self-help system, faith led to character and character to a successful manipulation of the world; in the new system, faith leads directly to a capacity for self-manipulation, which is believed to be the key to health, wealth, popularity, or peace of mind. On the surface, this may seem to indicate a turning away from the secular goals of the older self-help books, but it actually represents a turning away from their grasp of reality, for it embodies a blurring of the distinction between the realms of the world and the spirit. In the old literature these realms interacted; in the new they become vaguely fused. The process represents, I believe, not a victory for religion but a fundamental, if largely unconscious, secularization of the American middle-class mind. Religion has been supplanted, not, to be sure, by a consciously secular philosophy, but by mental self-manipulation, by a kind of faith in magic. Both religion and the sense of worldly reality suffer.

But, as good as the rest of the book is, I think it's the closing section on education that deserves special attention. The United States is plagued by troubles with its educational system, troubles that are widely believed to be unique to the present day and that can be tackled by various methods of return to an earlier day of better funding, better fundamentals, better employment practices, or some other lauded technique.

Anyone who believes that, even in part, needs to read this book. Hofstadter starts the education chapters by disabusing the reader of the idea that any of our current struggles are new. He's writing in an era that's now held up as a superior time for public education, but he documents complaints that sound remarkably familiar dating back to the beginning of public education in America. And then documents the systemic paradox of US education: everyone wants universal, egalitarian education, but the country has never had a firm grasp of the amount of resources doing that properly would require.

The educational writing that has been left to us by men whose names command our respect is to a remarkable degree a literature of acid criticism and bitter complaint. Americans would create a common-school system, but would balk at giving it adequate support. They would stand close to the vangard among the countries of the world in the attempt to diffuse knowledge among the people, and then engage drifters and misfits as teachers and offer them the wages of draymen.

To the extent that the US has been able to build a comprehensive public education system while underfunding it, it benefited greatly from systemic sexism in the job market, which severely limited the available careers for intelligent women. That allowed the US to build a public education system largely by underpaying talented women who had no available career options other than teaching. When that bias began to ease and women could pursue other careers, the educational system immediately began to suffer, since the same quality of teacher would no longer work for the much-reduced salary and poorer working conditions of that profession. This analysis alone explains so much about the current state of the US educational system and the befuddled lack of understanding of how it could be getting worse.

There's much more than this, of course, including a broadside against some of the new educational theories that were common at the time Hofstadter was writing. It's somewhat reassuring to hear about some bad educational theories that we've dropped, such as the idea that there is no such thing as transfer of knowledge from one field to another. There is at least now widespread understanding that any education, even in another topic, helps people learn how to learn and can be partly transferred to new topics.

This book needs to be read slowly and thoughtfully. It took me most of a month to read, and I'm a fast reader. But in my opinion it's worth the time and effort, particularly if you're from the United States or have an interest in US politics. It also passes my test for historical analysis: it leaves the world more complicated than one realized before reading it. Human history and society is endlessly complex, with numerous conflicting causes and effects, so books that improves one's understanding of that complexity rather than offering a theory of fake simplicity are the books to seek out. This is one of those.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-04-14

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