Monday, October 13, 2008

Conclusion: Some Thoughts on American Anti-Intellectualism

Here I saw people more numerous than before, on
One side and the other, with great cries rolling
weights by the force of their chests.
They would collide, and then right there each one,
reversing directions, would look back, crying, "Why
do you hold?" and "Why do you toss?"
Dante, Inferno (Canto 7)

By now, having read the last two posts, you're probably wondering where I stand on this issue of anti-intellectualism in America. Specifically: am I concerned at all about Americans' seeming lack of brains or do I feel it is blown all out of proportion? Do I think anti-intellectualism is necessarily a "bad thing"?

Answer: all of the above. American "anti-intellectualism" is phrase loaded with sociopolitical baggage; to even approach it is to wade through a veritable minefield where the slightest misstep invites an explosion of controversy. Like most man-made concepts, it is built upon the shifting foundation of subjectivity: one man's anti-intellectualism is another's down-home folk wisdom. And like all aspects of a culture, it is rooted in history - before analyzing any contemporary strains, one needs to first study its bygone origins.

Now this latter item is what I have spent the last two days doing by first looking at two books dealing with the subject of American anti-intellectualism in the past: Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity. The impression I got from both these works was of a nation risen on the principles of Jeffersonianism: the rhetorical ascension of the proud, independent yeoman farmer who bows to no one and who embodies republican virtue. According to some strands of eighteenth-century thought, society, like the individual human, passed through stages ranging from infancy to maturity, and then to death or collapse. In his fascinating book The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980), Drew R. McCoy explores how this paradigm shaped the Founding Fathers' perception of what the new United States was meant to be. To them, England represented the final chapter of a nation: it had sunk into luxury, decadence, overrefinement. It had overgrown its land, leaving no option but to horde its excessive populace into factories producing frivolous goods for the wealthy few, else face mass starvation. Although this end stage was believed to be inevitable, Americans such as Jefferson sought to delay it as long as possible. Of course, primitive barbarism, which characterized very young cultures, was hardly desirable either. What Jefferson and his successor Madison envisioned was a society at its "middling" phase, the happy medium where citizens were cultivated and educated, but not seeped in overindulgence and opulence. (As Aristotle once said, virtue is in moderation: walking between the dry bank and the wet.)

Combine that with a new model of republicanism, based on both the Classical ideal and contemporary Enlightenment theory, and you have what has come to be known as Jeffersonianism. The unsettled frontier would provide an outlet for increased population growth, while America's free institutions and modestly prosperous residents would help guarantee long-term liberty. With the fervor of novelty and revolution still in the air and now married to traditional notions of the "City on the Hill," it is not surprising that some Americans took Jeffersonian's ideas farther than he himself would have. As Hofstadter notes in his book, Jefferson himself was very much an intellectual who placed great value on study and learning. But others sought to further sever America's ties to Europe, which they saw as an overripe fruit now rotting from within (and you really can't blame them - this was era of Versailles excess and the rock-star popularity of the Italian castrati). In Europe, some believed, the common man was crushed underfoot by an effete, wanton elite either sunk in luxury or ensnared in the lofty lairs of their own puffed-up intellect. And so, these insurgent American populists fled headlong into the opposite direction.

Virtue is moderation. That is what I like to believe. The Dante quote at the beginning of this post refers to the Fourth Circle of Hell, where the hoarders and squanderers are punished by being required to push great weights against each other for all eternity. At the end of the day, both their preoccupations with material goods deviated from the desired mean; hoarders and squanderers, in other words, are really just flip sides of the same coin. Basically what I'm trying to say is that extremism never did anyone any good. (Of course this is the same Dante who, in Canto 3, gives the "neutral angels" one of the worst punishments available - to be forgotten by the living world - for their cowardly refusal to take sides in the war between God and Lucifer. Whatever. Do we contradict ourselves? Very well. We are large; we contain multitudes.) But I digress.

Now on the one hand, American "anti-intellectualism," in its early incarnation, truly was a revolutionary departure from the stratified, monarchial societies of Europe. It helped differentiate America as a distinct culture with its own forms and practices of religion and politics. Though Jefferson's nightmare certainly came to pass after the Civil War, this hardy populism nevertheless persisted, defeating an 1877 effort by the New York State wealthy to restrict voting rights and boosting the careers of politicians like William Jennings Bryant. It is echoed today in Bill O'Reilly's appeals to "the folks" and Sarah Palin's attacks on "elitists." It is the sentiment that opposes anything that smacks of a coddling, interfering "nanny state" that claims to know better what to do your money than you do.

And yet, it can go too far. Arguably it has done so now, and I'm not talking about Palin's conjuring of "Joe Six-Pack." Being a nation of dunces that reads nothing but US Weekly and eats up reality TV isn't going to get us anywhere but down. Other commentators, more qualified than I, have critiqued the lack of value placed on education and self-improvement in other areas of American culture, while others have either raised the alarm about the state of America's schools, usually in unfavorable comparison to China's, or bemoaned the "liberal indoctrination" supposedly occurring in our universities. So, yeah, I'm worried about American intellectualism, but not from Republican populism gone wrong. It's the popular culture that celebrates exploitation, promotes ignorance, substitutes fluff for substance, and obsessively chronicles the sad existence of Britney Spears. Palin? I like her, even if I certainly don't agree with her all the time. If there's one woman we can peg as the paragon of American stupidity, it's Paris Hilton.

The two "luxury" pictures used here both come from the 1735 edition of A Rake's Progress, a bawdy cautionary tale that effectively demonstrates why so many Americans looked at England with revulsion in the eighteenth century.


Mrs. C said...

e.l., I love your voice. And I cannot wait for my next open day so I can come back and luxuriate intellectually herein. You asked about Comedy on my site, and I cannot answer there, as my students will be tested later this week on precisely that. But I will hint for you here--consider the tragic hero, as defined also by Aristotle, then look at the protagonist of LYSISRATA (yeah, she has no penis, for one thing--albeit the actor who played her at the time did...) Then consider the id, ego and super ego personas of "protagonist" in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU. How far away are these from Oedipus, both physically and sociologically? And can you connect 1215 to this in any way? These are the motes my kids have to work with in anticipation of the exam. And in my class, it's really all about the rhetoric--the exercise of argumentative chops--so it really isn't about getting the "right" answer, whatever Aristotle proposed that to be. More, it's about growing some of that good ol' American intellectualism (and value). Do me a favor, m'kay? if you wanna respond to these prompts (and I would love to have you do so!), withhold until Friday so as not to feed my lurkers stuff that they need to wrangle on their own. Thanks, babe! And please to keep writing such fine stuff? I anticipate making this three-parter required reading for my class (but not until after Friday...)

Mrs. C said...

Ok, I very selfishly carved the time out of my day to completely read the three-parter that this entry caps, and I want you to know how very much I appreciate your readerliness as well as your writerliness. These posts make me wish you were here in my class room. What a pleasure it would be to teach you; what a joy it would be to teach WITH you. So, what ARE you doing? What is your plan?

Oh!, and please, please do tell us what puts you in the McCain/Palin camp.

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