Persistent Problems: An Analysis of Richard Hofstadter’s ‘Anti-Intellectualism in American Life’ By Chris Kuberski/March 12, 2009
Introduction/Biography • Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) was an American historian, professor and intellectual. • He was a leftist and Communist in college. Later in life he broke from any vestige of Communism, but retained his criticisms towards capitalism.
Introduction/Biography • He was especially influenced by the work of Charles Beard, which shaped Hofstadter’s perception that most struggles were rooted in class & economic issues.
Introduction/Biography • His 1963 book, ‘Anti-Intellectualism in American Life’, studies the reasons towards, symptoms and effects of antipathy towards scholarly pursuits in this country, spurred by the vehement conservative climate of the 1950s. It won the 1964 Pulitzer for Non-Fiction.
Introduction/Biography • The book analyzes the role and/or lack of education in America, as well as the influence of Christianity, specifically branches of Protestantism. • Issues of community, politics, geography and gender identity also come into play.
Introduction/Biography • As will be discussed, Hofstadter provides a fascinating look at the 1950s & early ‘60s, as well as the longer history of the country, that repeatedly mirrors the concerns of the modern era.
Chapter 1: Anti-Intellectualism in Our Time • Hofstadter wrote the book as an analysis of the 1950s & Cold War culture. He quickly refers to Joseph McCarthy’s Communist hunts and the “unpalatable” Richard Nixon while discussing the gap between intellectuals and the American people.
Chapter 1: Anti-Intellectualism in Our Time • In terms of defining what he means by ‘intellectualism’ Hofstadter is never completely clear. However, he explains it is a complex of related propositions, and that the complex and the common strains are what matter. • He continues that it is NOT dealing with feuds of the intellectual community, anti-rationalism, or the concerns of widespread attitudes, politics or middle/lowbrow behaviors.
Chapter 1: Anti-Intellectualism in Our Time • He gives several examples to further make a point & prepare the reader. • Example A: the 1952 Presidential campaign saw the ‘egghead’ insulted as emotional, superficial, feminine, confused, socialist and/or a stuffy prig. Simpsons character Martin Prince comes to mind.
Chapter 1: Anti-Intellectualism in Our Time • Example B: President Eisenhower said an intellectual was a man who uses too many words to make his point.
Chapter 1: Anti-Intellectualism in Our Time • Example C: The role of expertise over book knowledge is discussed. Maxwell Gluck was the Ambassador to Ceylon; he was clueless and fired within one year.
Chapter 1: Anti-Intellectualism in Our Time • Example D: The issue of science and insufficient funding is raised. This is just the first of numerous examples that will make the modern reader pay attention.
Chapter 1: Anti-Intellectualism in Our Time • Example E: the right wing had a hatred towards culture. They argued that the ‘real’ Americans were in the Midwest and rural regions and were too busy working. • Once again, this sounds familiar, especially in lieu of the 2008 election.
Chapter 1: Anti-Intellectualism in Our Time • Example F: Universities were targets, due to clashes of Communism and freedom. • Example G: There remained a Jacksonian hatred of ‘experts’. • Example H: There were many crackdowns on ‘unusual’ art. • Example I: Right wingers complained of relative morals that pervaded society.
Chapter 1: Anti-Intellectualism in Our Time • Example J: School curriculum needed to involve action, since pure knowledge was viewed as decadent. • Example K: There were endless clashes between well-meaning parents and the wicked, corrupting teachers who exerted influence over their kids. • Example L: The 3 R’s weren’t needed for everybody and everything.
Chapter 1: Anti-Intellectualism in Our Time • Hofstadter concludes that most Americans were non-intellectual, not anti-intellectual. • Also, intellect could be overvalued and should be properly balanced in one’s mind, work and life.
Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect • Hofstadter contrasts intellect (viewed as bad & critical) & intelligence (good for an excellent mind). • Max Weber had the notion that one should live off of ideas, not for them.
Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect • What is the difference between the two? Attitude! • He writes intellectuals should be a society’s moral antenna, to clarify & realize larger moral issues. • Zealotry in any form is a defect, and one must avoid too much mischief or piety.
Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect • Playing & doing were key functions to learning about the world, and he cites men like Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson & John Maynard Keynes as people who were very accomplished, yet practical in life.
Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect • Hofstadter constantly discusses the push for practicality that has dominated American thinking. • Many have asked how much education is necessary for a practical life. • Further, intellectualism is often perceived with fear and resentment as belonging solely to the powerful & privileged.
Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect • The public often resigns itself to passivity in regards to corporate control. • Scientific experts are OK, but social science experts are not, and are thus targets of the “type of mind that elevates hatred to a creed.” (37) • It is sacred for an intellectual to work as a prophet, scholar or artist who is respected for sacrifice. • It is profane to for an intellectual to try to have sway over public opinions.
Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect • Experts are distrusted and perceived as a threat to the sensibilities of the individual; further, they might go so far as to destroy an entire society!
Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect • The term ‘intellectual’ comes from France, where the right wing viewed it as a slur and the left wore it as a badge of honor. • Issues arose for keeping freedom against the encroachment of the church, army, royalty & aristocracy.
Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect • Liberals were historically & increasingly connected to progressive and radical causes. • Problems developed in America when these traits were linked to the right’s enemies, a la Communism. • During the 1930s 400 intellectuals signed a manifesto supporting Hitler’s Germany, and errors such as these were not forgotten by the right.
Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect • Decades after World War II right-wingers were reluctant to stop hunting their Communist enemies, since they needed some target to remain vital. • This included Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United Nations, African & Jewish-Americans, taxes, fluoridated water and modern religion. • McCarthy complained of “20 years of treason”, which was proceeded by another 20 years starting with the 1913 Income Tax Amendment.
Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect • They struck at famous figures, and often tried to get revenge for decades-old slight. In their minds: New Deal Welfare State Socialism Communism In this method, Communism became not the target, but the weapon to hurt opponents.
Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect • Looking further back, from 1890-1920, America was still a mostly rural nation, with towns that were comfortably isolated. • They began to recoil from what they viewed as the unpleasant realities of the 20th century, which led to a loss of ruralism & tradition.
Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect • By the 1950s, with the weight of the World and Korean Wars, the heartland rumbled with revolt. • The catalysts included the new religions, literature, art, morals, sexuality, communications, the Scopes Trial, and the works of Freud, Marx and Keynes.
Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect • Intellectuals were blamed for problems, and some of this attitude is justified, since thinkers’ ideas often jeopardize the old order. Still, much of the case against is exaggerated, if not wholly false. • Avoiding any form of intellectualism can divorce one from a fully-realized life, but rationality is a danger to religion. • This country was founded on breaking away from Europe’s decadence, and resulted in a more stubborn and hardscrabble existence.
Chapter 3: The Evangelical Spirit • Here Hofstadter explores how the American attitude has been shaped by Puritans & Protestants. • The was a focus on purely useful ideas, and emotions trumped everything else. • Dating back to Europe, church attendance was more liked to social class. Lots of lower class people emigrated to America, and they wanted direct access to God and their own Bible, not more social authority they had to give in to.
Chapter 3: The Evangelical Spirit • Faults were found in Anglicanism & the old Presbyterianism, and professional preachers were ignored, while new sects sprang up, including: Millenarians, Quakers, Seekers, Ranters, and the New Model Army. • One definitely needs to look back to the Puritans to understand the new religions, as well as the causes & impacts of the Great Awakening.
Chapter 3: The Evangelical Spirit • Puritans have a negative image, but were an intellectual ruling class. They had faith in learning, and founded Harvard University. Many graduated from Cambridge or Oxford, and stressed Humanist training. • This resulted in tremendous overall productivity.
Chapter 3: The Evangelical Spirit • The secular & sacred were merged together in America for survival and morale, especially during the bloody Indian Wars of the 1670s. • It was still an age of relevant intolerance, but the clergy was still diverse, even if they couldn’t make the masses realize and accept every ideal.
Chapter 3: The Evangelical Spirit • The clergy were actually more liberal, with a decent social record, while the civic leaders had to pander to the masses. • By the late 17th century the balance between intellect & emotion in the church split, and this set the stage for the Great Awakening by the middle of the following century.
Chapter 3: The Evangelical Spirit • The Great Awakening prepared the way for later attacks on intellectuals. Established churches lost people because the services were dull. • The revivalists were direct. Men like Gilbert Tennent were noisy and exciting, and challenged the notion that ministers had to be educated or orderly. • Jonathan Edwards was rare, combining old Puritan toughnness with a modern 1730s zeal.
Chapter 3: The Evangelical Spirit • The ministers responded brusquely, complaining of unintelligence and superstition in the new breed. • Awakeners kept the Bible as the only necessary book, and often burned all of the others. • In the burgeoning religious democracy pepole wanted their own tools for salvation. This grew into a militant anti-intellectual & anti-authority movement.
Chapter 3: The Evangelical Spirit • In the Southern & Middle Colonies this zeal led to the creation of the Revivalist as we often perceive him: ecstatic, crazy, and howling, a stark and uncivilized contrast to that in the original colonies.
Chapter 3: The Evangelical Spirit • Many believed that learnig was contrary to God’s wishes. After the American Revolution people kept pushing further west, away from any type of structure or restraint. • As they went, American Christianity took on a more pronounced primitivism.
Chapter 3: The Evangelical Spirit • Many families made at least 2-3 moves, and they traveled light. They were often squatters with no furniture, just utensils, simple beds, clothes and spoiled food. • Kaskaskia, IL didn’t have a single Bible, and China, Indiana was noted in 1833 for a “dearth of intellect.”
Chapter 3: The Evangelical Spirit • Pragmatically toughness and fortitude were more valuable on the frontier than literacy, and these traits would remain central, even as the remainder of the country became settled and civilized.
Chapter 4: Evangelicals & The Revivalists • This new American Christianity was marked by liberty, with people choosing their own churches. • YOU were responsible for getting religions, not vice versa, and there began a fierce drive for revivalists to convert the laypeople.
Chapter 4: Evangelicals & The Revivalists • In an especially interesting turn, Revivalist preachers took on the styling of modern pop stars. They were dynamos who traveled the revival circuit and argued that piety was primary, and thus incompatible with the intellect.
Chapter 4: Evangelicals & The Revivalists • They were responsible for spreading Protestantism to villages and cities, not the churches, and this led to an explosion in congregational enrollment. • Hofstadter then focuses on 3 main groups, the Presbyterians, Methodists & Baptists.
Chapter 4: Evangelicals & The Revivalists • Presbyterians were the most intellectual, but they were still limited. Charles Finney was prominent, and his goal was souls. He’d practiced law and spoken in the Puritan style, saying school couldn’t help ministers, and that elegance led to depravity.
Chapter 4: Evangelicals & The Revivalists • Methodists grew to accept education. One key figure was John Wesley, a serious reader and Oxford cleric. He brought intellectual vigor & credibility. • However, Francis Asbury, founder of American Methodism, said clerics should move around to stay fresh & free.
Chapter 4: Evangelicals & The Revivalists • Methodists were tough, and worked the circuits harder than anyone. They earned a reputation for true seriousness, and focused on the uneducated and poor to grow their ranks. Only later when they wanted respect and more stability did they focus on education and learned discourse. • Baptists had much in common with Methodists, with little focus on central authority, compromises or an educated & salaried minister.
Chapter 4: Evangelicals & The Revivalists • New civics and industrial changes spread after the Civil War. Dwight L. Moody was an independent preacher who’d spoken to millions in the UK and was a “lovable” figure in American Protestantism. (107) • He focused only on religion, countering knowledge, culture & science. He had the will and confidence of Ulysses Grant, and the business acumen of Andrew Carnegie and P.T. Barnum.
Chapter 4: Evangelicals & The Revivalists • Moody had financial assistance, agents and advertising to take advantage of a pre-millenial cynicism & desire for meaning. He also brought respectability in that he wanted to purge the bestial elements from his crowd, and to speak plainly.
Chapter 4: Evangelicals & The Revivalists • Moody’s successor, Billy Sunday, worked nearly 40 years, until 1935, and he similarly gained support from men like Theodore Roosevelt. His meetings had the flair of a circus; he spoke plainly to his working class crowd, and helped them believe that Jesus was just like them, a poor working man, and the “greatest scrapper of all time.” (114)
Chapter 5: The Revolt Vs. Modernity • Revivalists Sunday fought modernist elements like Darwinism, city life and mobility fiercely, leading a militant religion. • Here Hofstadter discusses the “100% Mentality” in which there would be no challenges, wavering or weak peace. (118) • Intellectual sympathizers with Germany during World War I led to further hatred and the “generally prejudiced mind.”