Tag Archives: Anti-Rationalism

The Causes of Anti-Intellectualism

Historian Richard Hofstadter gave us the best definition of the term:

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

Author Susan Jacoby maintains that, due to a re-invigoration of anti-intellectualism in this country, Americans have been getting dumber over the last several decades. She argues that Americans have grown increasingly passive and uninformed amid a video-driven culture that prizes “infotainment,” celebrates ignorance, and devalues critical thinking. The net result, she says, is a “crisis of memory and knowledge” that poses a serious threat to the two pillars of American intellectual life, reading and conversation, and carries very real consequences, such as the war in Iraq.

First and foremost among the forces behind the new anti-intellectualism is electronic media. The major casualties of our current media-saturated life are three things essential to the vocation of an intellectual:  silence, solitary thinking, and social conversation.  For example, the decline of book, newspaper, and magazine reading is by now an old story.

  • Reading has declined not only among the poorly educated, according to a report in 2004 by the National Endowment for the Arts, but among Americans of all ages and education levels.  In 1982, 82 percent of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later, only 67 percent did.  And more than 40 percent of Americans under 44 did not read a single book — fiction or nonfiction — over the course of a year.  The proportion of 17-year-olds who read nothing (unless required to do so for school) more than doubled between 1984 and 2004.  And what do Americans read when they do read?   Here’s a hint:  you can find multiple magazine racks like this at almost any supermarket.
  • Grocery store magazines at checkout aisle.

  • The time period between 1984 and 2004, of course, encompasses the rise of personal computers, Web surfing, and video games.  In a study released last August, University of Washington researchers found that babies between 8 and 16 months recognized an average of six to eight fewer words for every hour spent watching videos.
  • The inability to concentrate for long periods of time and the impatience with the process of acquiring information through written language may be a consequence of the rise of video. After all, it is difficult to spend more than a few moments before being distracted while reading hits for information on the Web.  In support of this assertion, Harvard University’s Kiku Adatto found that between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate — featuring the candidate’s own voice — dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds.  By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds.

The shrinking public attention span fostered by video is closely tied to an important symptom of anti-intellectualism in American culture: the erosion of general knowledge.

  • According to a national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences and conducted by Harris Interactive, only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun; only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time; and only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water. Furthermore, only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.
  • According to a survey by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of government, a minimal requirement for understanding America’s constitutional system, and almost 40% of Americans falsely believe the president has the power to declare war.   Only 24% of college graduates know the First Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States and only 54% can correctly identify a basic description of the free enterprise system, in which all Americans participate.
  • In addition, the ISI survey reveals that elected officials typically have less civic knowledge than the general public — for example, 30% do not know that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Interestingly, ISI examined whether other factors add to or subtract from civic literacy and how they compare with the impact of college. The survey revealed that in today’s technological age, all else remaining equal, a person’s test score drops in proportion to the time he or she spends using certain types of passive electronic media. Talking on the phone, watching owned or rented movies, and monitoring TV news broadcasts and documentaries diminish a respondent’s civic literacy.  In contrast to these negative influences, the civic knowledge gained from the inexpensive combination of engaging in frequent conversations about public affairs, reading about current events and history, and participating in more involved civic activities is greater than the gain from an expensive bachelor’s degree alone.

That leads us to another force behind the new anti-intellectualism: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know — it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place.  Americans go to websites and attend lectures only when they want to hear information that reinforces what they already (think they) know.  Only a small minority of people are any longer willing to learn from people with whom they disagree.   There is little motivation to learn.  Call this anti-rationalism, often exhibited by certain religious groups that reject Reason and embrace Faith as the only way to knowledge.  This current of anti-intellectualism is actually not new — for example, it was famously expressed in The Pouring Out of the Seven Vials (1642) by the Puritan John Cotton, who wrote:

The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee.

Another source of anti-rationalism is a narrow, utilitarian focus on jobs and career as the ultimate goal of learning – for example, this was famously expressed by Henry Ford in 1916, who said:

History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.

According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made.  More than a third consider it “not at all important” to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it “very important.”   So, why is it important to know about humans living in different places and in different ways?  Because we are part of a massive global economy where our local actions, in the aggregate, have massive global consequences.


    The Varieties of Anti-Intellectualism

    In May of 2001, Massimo Pigliucci, who is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York-Lehman College in Brooklyn, New York, published a very enlightening essay entitled, “The Many Faces of Anti-Intellectualism”. Since I am interested in this topic, and since Dr. Pigliucci has given permission to freely repost his essay on the Intenet, it appears below in its entirety.


    Universities should not subsidize intellectual curiosity. This oxymoronic statement was uttered by none other than then candidate for the governorship of California Ronald Reagan in the late 1960s. The astounding thing is not that somebody like Reagan would actually say something so outrageously stupid, but that this helped him winning the election and ushering a new era of official anti-intellectualism in America. This is continuing to this day, witness the fact that the current president, George W. Bush, has run a campaign as the (Yale-educated!) champion of the everyday man against the “pointed-head” intellectualism of rival Al Gore.

    Anti-intellectualism has always been a powerful undercurrent in American culture, and it will probably play a major role in our society for a long time to come. Regardless of how depressing such thoughts might be, the first rule to win a war is to know thy enemy; which is why I’d like to discuss the major types of anti-intellectualism and how they threaten the very existence of a liberal society.

    Note by Prof. Olsen: The word liberal here means “tending in favor of freedom and democracy”. Liberalism is the belief in the importance of individual freedom and has been recognized as an important value by many philosophers throughout history. For example, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote praising “the idea of a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed.” Modern liberalism has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment, beginning with John Locke (1632-1704) who wrote “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” In fact, the American Declaration of Independence proclaims the liberal ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”


    Richard Hofstadter, in a classic book on anti-intellectualism, first described the phenomenon in its entirety, and what I succinctly propose here is an elaboration on his main categories and on the more recent work of D. Rigney. The first kind of anti-intellectualism can be termed “anti-rationalism.” This is the idea that rational thinking is both cold (as in lacking sensitivity) and amoral (which is apparently a bad thing, in some people’s mind not sufficiently distinct from im-moral). The perception that scientists and philosophers — the very paragons of rationalism — are cold and insensitive is as widespread as it is false. If you know any individual belonging to these professions, you surely realize that they can get as emotional as the guy next door. The idea that rationality and emotions, science and poetry, cannot mix is simply unfounded. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out in Unweaving the Rainbow, science simply expands your ability to experience awe and wonder, it does not constrain it. As for a-morality, this view is best summarized in the words of John Cotton (back in 1642): “The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan you bee.” I honestly never understood why God would not appreciate humor and culture. Then again, there is that story of Eve and Adam stealing the fruit of the tree of knowledge…

    Spectators adoring football players.

    One can be anti-intellectual also by rejecting intellectualism because it is elitist. Anti-elitism is very peculiar to the American psyche, and it is virtually unknown in the rest of the universe. Most other people recognize that in matters of the intellect, as in any other human activity, there are people who do it better and others who are not quite as good. That does not — and should not — imply anything about the intrinsic worth (or lack thereof) of such people. Astonishingly, Americans don’t have any problem with elitism per se: just watch the adoring crowds at a basketball game and the recursive tendency to set up athletes as “role models” for our youth. The underlying assumption seems to be that everybody can become an Olympic athlete, but that the way to science and letters is only reserved to the lucky few. Ironically, the truth is quite the opposite: while the chances of making it in professional sports are almost nil, a country with a large system of public education and some of the best schools in the world can give the gift of intellectual pursuit to millions of people.

    Suppose you are a mathematician and you are attending a cocktail party. Somebody approaches you for small talk and asks: what do you do? Chances are you’d rather answer that you are a traveling salesman than that you spend your time contemplating problems in set theory. This is because you are afraid of a third form of anti-intellectualism, unreflective instrumentalism. This is the idea that if something is not of immediate practical value it’s not worth pursuing. Hence, most of science and all of philosophy should be thrown out the window. The root of this attack on the pursuit of knowledge is to be found in capitalism at its worse. Andrew Carnegie, for example, once quipped that classical studies are a waste of “precious years trying to extract education from an ignorant past.” But the very idea of a liberal — not politically, but as opposed to practical — education is that it is far better to train somebody to think critically than to give her specific skills that will be out of date in a few years. Yet, captains of industry are not interested in your mental welfare; what they want is a bunch of mindless robots who are especially adept at carrying out whatever tasks will turn the highest profit for the stockholders. In this sense, intellectualism is a very subversive enterprise, which explains its persecution by rogues of the caliber of McCarthy and Reagan.

    Note by Prof. Olsen: The term “liberal education” was first used in classical Greek and Roman times. In fact, the major historical originator of liberal education is the ancient Greek rhetorician Isocrates (436-338 B.C.E.), who wrote in Antidosis [sections 261-265]:

    For I believe that the teachers who are skilled in disputation and those who are occupied with astronomy and geometry and studies of that sort do not injure but, on the contrary, benefit their pupils, not so much as they profess, but more than others give them credit for….it seems to me both that those who hold that this training is of no use in practical life are right and that those who speak in praise of it have truth on their side….For while we are occupied with the subtlety and exactness of astronomy and geometry and are forced to apply our minds to difficult problems, and are, in addition, being habituated to speak and apply ourselves to what is said and shown to us, and not to let our wits go wool-gathering, we gain the power, after being exercised and sharpened on these disciplines, of grasping and learning more easily and more quickly those subjects which are of more importance and of greater value.

    Education was not available for the many people in ancient Greek and Roman societies who were held in slavery, but only for those who were politically free and economically independent. Thus, the word liberal reflected the fact that people who were educated started out free (liber in Latin means “free man”). As the Renaissance humanist Petrus Paulus Vergerius wrote in The Character and Studies Befitting a Free-Born Youth around 1400, “We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man; those studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom; that education which calls forth, trains and develops those highest gifts of body and of mind which ennoble men, and which are rightly judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only.”

    The Greeks and Romans recognized that education arms a person to confront the influence of others critically. Such a person is less easily manipulated and deceived. Still today, in order to form a more perfect union, we need citizens who are informed, discerning, and morally courageous. In a democratic republic with universal suffrage, the ideal – difficult as it may be to realize – is a liberal education for all citizens. Thus, a liberal education can be defined as one that furnishes an individual with the capacities to be a free and responsible citizen. It is the pursuit of human excellence, not the pursuit of excellent salaries and excellent forms of polish and sophistication. As Vergerius observed, “For to a vulgar temper gain and pleasure are the one aim of existence; to a lofty nature, moral worth and fame.”


    I recently had the pleasure and honor of attending a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut. He asked the audience to remember one thing from his visit: start calling your TV “the tantrum” and for God’s sake, turn it off and start talking to each other. Or reading. The idea that intellectual pursuits are a lot of work and that it is far easier and more pleasurable to watch TV is the fourth kind of anti-intellectualism, unreflective hedonism. While I do not suggest to kill your TV, as some radical friends of mine would want you to do, do try to read a good book. I bet that the experience will be much more pleasurable than you thought. A novel by Vonnegut might be a good place to start.

    Political cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1875 contrasts a reedy scholar with a bovine boxer, epitomizing the popular view of reading and study as antithetical to sport and athleticism.

    We have met the enemy, and it is us, as Pogo concluded in the famous comic strip. The most pernicious kind of anti-intellectualism comes from other intellectuals. In recent years a movement called post-modernism (or deconstructionism) has made headway in humanities departments throughout the US and has been given a sympathetic hearing by major media outlets. The idea is that knowledge is relative because it is a cultural construct. So, you are equally fine if you believe in evolution or creation, because these are both narratives “constructed” by pockets of our culture. Of course, if everything is relative and no theory has any particular claim to truth or reality, then why should anybody believe deconstructionists? Postmodernism has actually been imported in this country from France, and as philosopher Ted Honderich has remarked, one can think of it as “picking up an idea and running with it, possibly into a nearby brick wall or over a local cliff.”

    What do we do about all this? Once again, the only available road is the long and tortuous path to education. But it should help knowing what we are dealing with before engaging in battle. Contrary to what a postmodernist might say, Napoleon really did lose at Waterloo, and it was because of poor intelligence on what the other side was doing.


    • Isocrates.  Isocrates with an English Translation in three volumes, by George Norlin, Ph.D., LL.D.  (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press;  London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1980).