Professors and Plowmen
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.
by Richard Hofstadter.
Knopf. 432 pp. $6.95.
Written with all the learning, wit, and sophistication that one has learnt to expect from Professor Hofstadter, this book brings together a mass of illuminating information about an aspect of American development which historians have not hitherto examined in any detail. Beginning and concluding with discussions of recent movements, such as McCarthyism and the growth of the lunatic fringe of the extreme right, Professor Hofstadter analyzes various aspects of anti-intellectualism since the colonial period, dealing more particularly with the growth of evangelical religion, the victory of the Jacksonian brand of democracy, the attitudes of businessmen, and the more fantastic pronouncements of progressive educators. As in his Age of Reform, which presented the agrarian revolt as in some ways a reactionary rather than a progressive movement, he resists the temptation to make easy moral judgments. One of Professor Hofstadter’s especial merits as a historian is his awareness of complexities which make it impossible to label movements as simply good or bad, liberal or reactionary.
Anti-intellectualism is likely to show itself in any conflict in which the forces on one side are mostly “plain people” (to quote the Jacksonian phrase), while their opponents make claims to superior wisdom on the ground of being more highly educated. On the whole, therefore, anti-intellectualism has been associated mostly with democratic ideals, or at least with such ideals perversely interpreted. The exponents of evangelical religion promoted new forms of religious emotionalism and asserted that ordinary citizens could have direct communication with divine grace and did not need to follow the authority of college-trained theologians. Jacksonian democracy opposed traditional notions of the need for an educated ruling class and insisted that any man from any background was qualified for political office and that offices should rotate rapidly in order to enable as many people as possible to share in the tasks of government. Progressive education was largely motivated by the desire to find subjects that could be successfully studied by children of low intelligence, in order that such children should not be handicapped by a sense of intellectual inferiority. Only in the attitudes of businessmen and of contemporary right-wingers has anti-intellectualism become linked with forces that can fairly be labeled as reactionary. And these groups generally oppose progressive education and are not likely to approve of evangelical religion or of Jacksonian democracy. A distrust of brains and education has in the past been mostly associated with movements which progressive intellectuals have supported and approved of.
This seems like a paradoxical conclusion. It becomes less paradoxical if we remember that two different kinds of anti-intellectualism are involved. The anti-intellectualism associated with the growth of democracy was directed against the pretensions of educated aristocrats and professional men who—in the early days of the Republic—constituted a kind of American Establishment. That expressed by contemporary right-wingers, on the other hand, is directed against the free-lance intellectual who is interested in ideas for their own sake and has no particular institutional loyalties. And this kind of intellectual has generally—in America—been a supporter of democracy and has often given aid and comfort to democratic anti-intellectualism. One remembers Jefferson’s famous statement that a plowman was a better moral guide than a professor because he trusted his own innate moral sense and was not led astray by artificial rules.
An intellectual anti-intellectualism has, in fact, been an important element in the American cultural tradition ever since the 18th century. That tradition was largely shaped by the Enlightenment, which taught American intellectuals to regard civilization with suspicion and to glorify the simple natural man. This trust in a natural virtue which civilization was likely to corrupt runs all through American intellectual history, being strongly marked in Transcendentalism, in Mark Twain and the whole convention of popular humor, and in much of the literature of the 20th century. Indeed, even the progressive educators who have carried the attack on intellectualism to its furthest possible limits must be regarded as part of the American tradition and as themselves intellectuals, even though debased ones. And perhaps one of our major cultural needs is a thoroughgoing re-examination of the unstated premises of American democratic thinking, with a shift of emphasis from quantity to quality and from the virtues of nature to those of sophistication.
Lest we grow unduly discouraged by the mass of evidence which Professor Hofstadter has assembled, we might remember that anti-intellectualism is by no means new or restricted to America. Ancient Athens, which probably had more respect for the mind than any other community in history, produced its first and classic expression. The Clouds of Aristophanes presented the standard case against the intellectual in portraying Socrates both as impractical and as subversive of accepted standards of morality.