Friday, October 10, 2008

Palin and Hofstadter: The History of American Anti-Intellectualism

C.L. Hanson, in her blog "Letters from a broad. . . ," wrote a very intriguing post recently, examining the role anti-intellectualism has played in the presidential race. Why is it, she wonders, that someone who points to Obama's obvious advantages in innate leadership is immediately blasted as an "elitist"? "You're not paying Joe and Jane Average a compliment by saying that they can't deal with voting for someone who has relevant leadership/diplomatic skills that the average person doesn't have," she argues. "Joe and Jane Average may not have exactly the same skill set as Obama, but they're capable of being qualified for their own jobs, and if they're proud of that, then they should expect no less from the President." Hanson's inspiration was this Salon editorial, in which Joe Conason shakes his head at the GOP's sudden devaluation of "basic diction and intellectual coherence." Do Republicans really believe that Americans are too stupid to vote for a capable, intelligent human being?

Although I happen to be a McCain supporter myself, all this hoopla brings to mind a book I read a while ago by Richard Hofstadter called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred N. Knopf, 1964), in which he argues that the blessings of American popular democracy have been mixed. On the one hand, the United States has evolved into a nation of hard-working, practical-minded people suspicious of anything in politics, religion, or society that strikes them as "aristocratic." The average American relies on and appreciates “inborn, intuitive, folkish wisdom" as opposed to "European” standards that recall the "cultivated, oversophisticated, and self-interested knowledge of the literati and well-to-do" (154). This populist outlook manifests itself in religion, politics, and business, where hostility towards formal learning has essentially, until very recently (by 1964, that is), marginalized the intellectual and viewed his critical, creative, and artistic accomplishments with undisguised suspicion. By the time of his writing, however, Hofstadter feels that this anti-intellectual attitude has waned somewhat; yet, given America’s history on this matter, the current atmosphere of rapprochement is unlikely to be permanent (yeah, no kidding). It is therefore vital to understand the origins of and reasoning behind America’s apparent disdain for the artist, writer, and scholar, and it is to this end that Hofstadter sought to trace the social movements that have contributed to it. The result a real narrative tour-de-force covering major developments in American thought from the Puritan era to the mid-twentieth century that remains relevant today (just turn on your TV, open a newspaper, or hop over to your favorite conservative political blog and note the concern over "elite" interests trying to take Palin down).

Hofstadter believed that the antagonism of his time towards intellectuals was a reaction towards their new prominence and rise to positions of power. At the same time, however, he felt that this was most likely a mere phase in a cyclical pattern in which the American intellectual passes from high esteem to social and political alienation and back again, depending upon the historical factors (populist feeling, religious sentiment, economic climate, and so on) in play at the moment. Perhaps in keeping with the general disregard held for the intellectual, the historicism of anti-intellectualism in America is appropriately limited and usually deals with how America is seen by intellectuals and not vice versa. The very vagueness of the term “intellectual” may be useful to those politicians and evangelists who wish to classify, characterize, and stigmatize a particular group, but such definitions do not lend themselves well to the historian who needs to clarify what he intends to research and discuss. Hofstadt prefers to see the historical subject of the “intellectual” not as a single concrete entity, but as "a force fluctuating in strength from time to time and drawing its most potent power from varying sources." A pure, unrelenting aversion to the intellect is unusual – America has, after all, traditionally valued education – yet at the core of Hofstadter’s book is the proposal that anti-intellectualism is the common thread that binds together myriad ideas from differing cultural spheres (6-7). “In these pages,” Hofstadter declares, "I am centrally concerned with widespread social attitudes, with political behavior, and with middle-brow and low-brow responses, only incidentally with articulate theories" (9).

Hofstadter admits that anti-intellectualism is a pervasive but not dominant force in American culture, since most Americans are merely non-intellectual (19). Yet the feelings and ideologies of those who do espouse forms of intellectualism have their basis in the American evangelical tradition. "Puritanism," says Hofstadter, "as a religion of the Book, [had] placed a strong emphasis upon interpretation and rational discourse and eschewed ranting emotionalism" (60-61). Despite its intellectual origins, however, Protestant Christianity in the United States has been driven largely by antinomian and anti-authoritarian impulses that were only reinforced during the Second Great Awakening by political Jeffersonianism (DO read Nathan O. Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity for a full treatment of this). If the people were to rule with as little guidance as possible from the educated and propertied classes, that guidance must necessarily come from another source – specifically, from within the individual citizen (154). "State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor," Jefferson wrote to his nephew in 1787. "The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been lead astray by artificial rules" (155). Jefferson himself can hardly be described as anti-intellectual, Hofstadter admits, but his influence was keenly felt behind the post-Revolutionary attacks on "aristocracy," as well as the new spiritual movement that sought to do away with paid clergy and formal religious learning in favor of spontaneous conversion and evangelism that appealed to the “simple people” (65-68). Revivalists successfully carried "the light of the gospel to a people who were not only unchurched but often uncivilized" (75).

It is here, however, that a central problem with Anti-Intellectualism in American Life makes itself felt. An immediate issue is that Richard Hofstadter, of course, is an intellectual himself and it subsequently comes as no surprise that his book seems to portray a society of simpletons with a knee-jerk distaste for anything that smacks of culture or refinement. Even his own admission that anti-intellectualism is not a prevailing force in American society is soon lost. For all his scholarly aloofness, the overall impression one receives from the book is that of both persecution complex and a kind of overconfidence in his own status. It is apparently the "historic glory of the intellectual class of the [modern] West, that, of all classes which could be called in any sense privileged, it has shown the largest and most consistent concern for the well-being of the classes which lie below it in the social scale" he proudly proclaims (29). Completely ignored is America’s tradition of middle-class reform movements, as documented, for instance, in Daniel Feller’s buoyantly cheerful The Jacksonian Promise (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1995) and Michael McGerr’s study of the Progressive movement in A Fierce Discontent (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). Not that contemporary America has improved much since, according to Hofstadter, it appears to be full of nativist, isolationist fundamentalists who are nevertheless deserving of the reader’s compassion: "One cannot, even if one does not like their responses, altogether withhold one’s sympathies from the plight of a people, hitherto so preoccupied with internal material development and in many ways so simple, who have been dragged away from their ‘normal’ concerns, . . . and forced to try to learn so much in so short a time" (42).

At times Hofstadter’s choice of words is telling, as is his choice of sources. Early America’s aristocrats, we learn, were apparently the "soberer classes" whose withdrawal from politics sent the American government spiraling into a cacophony of slander, vitriol, and fanaticism (161-166). To prove this point, Hofstadter relies exclusively on elite testimony that frequently characterizes Jacksonian Congress as a veritable "bear-garden" (166-167). He then seems to lament the passing of the gentlemanly patronage system, in which men from less advantaged backgrounds would be appointed by their social superiors to places of high position. (Never mind the dependency and "sucking up" inherent to such an arrangement.) Now, alas, "the qualities that put an aspiring politician into rapport with the public became more important than those that impressed his peers or superiors" (167-168). The situation only got worse from there, Hofstadter goes on to say, as the ambitious business mindset seeped into the American character, heralding the ascension of the innovative and dynamic, but also "coarse and ruthless," industrial types who supplanted the old merchant elite whose cosmopolitan outlook had encouraged a lifestyle of refinement and gentility (176; 243-252). Again, Hofstadter simply points to statements made by elites such as Henry Adams as proof of this without allowing their political opponents to defend themselves against these charges against their character.

Furthermore, Hofstadter’s claim that Americans have never valued art and music for their own sake is simply erroneous and seems to reflect his bias against mainstream culture as inherently boorish and brainless. As Ralph P. Locke’s article "Music Lovers, Patrons, and the ‘Sacralization’ of Culture in America" makes quite clear, Americans of all backgrounds did, in fact, at one time enjoy “high-brow” entertainment such as opera and theater. Early nineteenth-century audiences could best be described as raucous motley crews composed of Americans from all socioeconomic backgrounds. The Victorian emphasis on artistic uplift, however, soon demanded that European symphonies and the plays of Shakespeare be presented only in their "pure" original forms (American performers were fond of improvising and adding extras, such as bawdy opening acts) in a hushed, reverent atmosphere. The result, Locke argues, was to essentially snatch culture out of the hands of the lower sort whom, it was felt, could not properly appreciate it. This also directly contradicts Hofstadter’s entire chapter on "The Fate of the Reformer," which argues that culture and refinement were seen universally as sappy, effeminate, and far removed from the burly male spheres of business and politics (186-191). (Although it is admittedly unfair to judge Hofstadter by scholarship from decades in the future, this point still deserves to be made.)

It is towards the current state of American education, however, that Hofstadter seems to go off the proverbial deep end. "There is an element of moral overstrain and a curious lack of humor among American educationalists which will perhaps always remain a mystery to those more worldly minds that are locked out of their mental universe," Hofstadter claims. ". . . When they feel they are about to establish the janitor’s right to be treated with respect, they grow starry-eyed and increased their tempo." The professionalization of education has also spurred educators to "indulge in solemn and pathetic parodies of the pedantry of academic scholarship" (340). (Nor does he provide evidence to support his very loud condemnations.) It is nevertheless Hofstadter who is overindulging here, as his distaste for the American school system spills into hyperbole. His lack of respect for teachers is also disquieting: the typical teacher in the United States, it seems, hails from "culturally constricted lower- or middle-class homes, where the Saturday Evening Post or the Reader’s Digest is likely to be the characteristic reading matter" (311). That is not the impression one receives from Jerald E. Podair’s The Strike That Changed New York (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), which goes into great detail about New York’s rigorous standards and exams for teachers in the '50s and '60s, as well as their strong drive to move ahead in their profession. Granted, Hofstadter’s strong criticism of the Dewey-inspired "life adjustment" education is quite justified, but that should not extend to the entire schooling system in the United States. (In all fairness, I should note that my mother is a teacher.)

Anti-Intellectualism in American Society may have come across here as basically a long rant against American cultural impulses. Although there is an element of that, there is still far more to the book in terms of breadth and comprehensiveness. It is far from perfect, yet Hofstadter does effectively outline the growth of one (emphasis on "one") strand of popular American thought. Despite some difficulties with sources, Hofstadter, a historian by profession, is at his strongest in the chapters dealing with history, which do provide a valuable overview of a segment of American society. He is nevertheless bogged down by the section on the current affairs in education. Given the immediacy of those issues, especially to the intellectual, Hofstadter is unsurprisingly vehement at times and rambles on for too long (the section really could have been shorter). Anti-Intellectualism in American Society is a decent book with value as a history text, albeit one that could be supplemented with other material, given the author's disdain for those outside his cerebral circle. But he did get one thing right: 1964's apparently kinder treatment of intellectuals was definitely not permanent, as right now Palin's got people out there gunning for those pesky "elitists." I wonder what Hofstadter would've had to say about all this. . .

Next we'll examine that Hatch book and how it ties into what Hofstadter wrote, as well as the current election.


Related Posts with Thumbnails