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June 5, 2020

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On anti-intellectualism in the US

Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) was one of the great American historians of the 20th century, doing his best writing around the time I was in college and graduate school.

While I read his book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” many years ago, probably either as a graduate student or in my first years of teaching at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa, I had not returned to it in the intervening half-century, until now.

As I wonderingly read it, finding so much richness in each page, I was reminded of the twist on one of Oliver Wilde’s famous lines — “Youth is wasted on the young” — turning it into “Education is wasted on the young.”

Clearly, so many more things resonated with me in reading this book at age 77 than when I was in my 20s — my life experience has given me so many more “prongs on my mental coat tree” that I can “hang things on.”

The people of the United States have long had very mixed feelings about not only “intellectuals” but the “usefulness of knowledge,” too, especially some kinds of knowledge.

There are a number of reasons for this, some of which they share with people of other cultures as well.

One of the most potent comes from our rural tradition, which is closely aligned with the world of those who have to work hard for a living with their hands, whether that be in farming, the making or repairing of things, the building of things — all those things that this country cherishes and honors as being valuable “work.” For such people, both the alleged “labor of the mind” — as well as the useful value resulting from such “work” — are viewed with suspicion.

I was delighted to rediscover how balanced and fair-minded Hofstadter was throughout his book in his treatment both of “intellectuals” and of those suspicious of them. For he makes it clear that, for much of our history, if you were a farmer or a laborer you simply couldn’t AFFORD — both in terms of money and time — to become educated, beyond those skills needed to communicate, barter and ply your trade.

Neither could you easily afford to have your children, especially girls, take time off from assisting around the house or the shop to acquire more than the basic necessities. Besides, of what real use was education beyond a certain point? Real men — those who worked hard for a learning — didn’t need all that fancy stuff: history, foreign language, philosophy, etc. Moreover, those who did pursue those studies were regarded suspiciously: What were they going to do that was USEFUL, that contributed to the welfare of their communities with all that “larnin.”

Americans have never liked idlers, and to many higher education was just a more fancy way of contributing little.

This leads me into another reason why “anti-intellectualism” has lingered throughout US history. Firstly, those who were highly educated were usually the well-off, and their counsel or advice often came across as uppity and/or as demeaning the lot of the common people. People really resent being put down, and often that is what it at least appeared to be what intellectuals were doing.

For some fleeting periods in our history — the age of the founders of this country was one of the very few — men of great knowledge (and also, importantly, men who had demonstrated public service) were admired and followed.

And, finally, in my all too brief summary of a rich work, intellectuals have long had a mixed view of themselves: Should they “fit in” or remain apart from popular culture? What is their “value” and their “contribution” to the country?

Greg Cusack is a retired US congressman from Iowa. He now lives in Oregon. The views expressed are his own.


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