Richard HOFSTADTER Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (NY 1963)
Wednesday, 9 June 2021
It is odd to be turning to a sixty year-old book to explain what is happening now, but Richard Hofstadter’s classic seems as relevant as ever. Though long, it is well-written, absorbing and packed with interest. Its theme is simple, so the general reader can pick it up and put it down without ever losing the thread.
The author’s thesis, very simply put, is this. The United States was founded on a number of claims : men and women are born free, equal and rational; what can be simply expressed is true; the heart is often a better guide than the head; the future is far more important to the present than is the past; the sky is the limit; elitism is undemocratic; compromise is usually wrong; to stand out in intellect, ability or expertise is to risk being called un-American.
The roots of these claims lie in the Protestant, usually nonconforming, Christianity of the first New World settlers. This religious attitude was progressively de-intellectualized by the demotic pietism of XVIIIc revivalists, and hardened by the biblical literalism of their XIXc successors. At each stage it was increasingly held that individual judgement should trump (sic) nuanced debate or the fruits of intellectual enquiry. Certainly there were other voices, and from time to time those voices were heard : but they have never been quite in harmony with the American myth of the democratic self-sufficient successful pioneer.
With fundamentalism in religion went practicality in economics and politics. The common sense of the common man was prized over the theories of experts, and practical achievers were respected more than eggheads —General Dwight Eisenhower (R) rather than Governor Adlai Stevenson (D). The effect on educational theory was equally profound. By XXc, the educational establishment wished to prepare for citizenship, even for informed consumerism, rather than develop the mind. A child-centred curriculum should reflect the democratic nature of society and there should be parity of esteem for children of all abilities. Anti-intellectualism, far from being pragmatic, is at least as doctrinaire as what it opposes.
The book carefully reviews the evidence. It represents a definite point of view, but the argument is compelling. What has just been outlined has been more than a tendency : Professor Hofstadter claims that it is the majority’s default position especially, though not always, at times of uncertainty. To read it is to understand better the alarming sight that the United States has recently been presenting to the world : widespread Covid denial, unproved claims of unimaginable voter fraud, a former president who denies plain truths.
It also raises uncomfortable wider questions. Where are the proper boundaries between the will of the many and the wisdom of the few? Are we all equally able to discern the truth? Was Churchill right : “democracy is the worst form of Government except all other forms that have been tried from time to time”? Is vox populi vox Dei ? The US in particular badly needs an answer.