Sunday, August 5, 2018

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Nothing has changed in the fifty years since Richard Hofstadter chronicled the history of anti-intellectualism. The warning bell may seem muted because the names Billy Sunday, Carl McIntire, and J. Frank Norris no longer resonate. The value here is to learn and remember that today’s attacks on education are not momentary news but substantial tradition. Anti-intellectualism is not a quirk of the times; it is an abiding cultural context within which other phenomena can be understood. 

The irony of history is that we cannot see the day after tomorrow. So, publishing in 1962, Hofstadter could not write about the transformative generation that was about to enjoy a long life of broad, deep, and swift intellectual activity. But Hofstadter was prescient in identifying the long train of abuses against education launched by both nominal progressives and self-styled patriots. 

It is the patriots, in particular, who easily deny the Enlightenment that made possible the American Revolution and the political constitution that resulted from it. They did so in the 1800s and the 1900s, and do so today. But they are not alone. Radical progressives use physical force to deny access to campuses by those whose ideas they dislike. It is not just actual “hate speech”- though the Skokie Ruling long ago protected even that – but anything they seem to find worthy of their own hatred. 

Hofstadter examines the foundations of thought (or lack of it) that appear as outbursts in the common space. The newspaper editorials and Congressional hearings of the past exist today as blogs, websites, podcasts, and tweets. They all reflect deep assumptions within our culture. The insistence that university, high school, or elementary education serve “practical” goals of career or employment, community service or family responsibility can be found all along the course of American political history whether you look to the left or the right. 

“This distinction may seem excessively abstract, but it is frequently illustrated in American culture. In our education, for example, it has never been doubted that the selection and development of intelligence is a goal of central importance; but the extent to which education should foster intellect has been a matter of the most heated controversy, and the opponents of intellect in most spheres of public education have exercised preponderant power. But perhaps the most impressive illustration arises from a comparison of the American regard for inventive skill as opposed to skill in pure science. Our greatest inventive genius, Thomas A. Edison, was all but canonized by the American public, and a legend has been built around him. One cannot, I suppose, expect that achievements in pure science would receive the same public applause that came to inventions as spectacular and as directly influential on ordinary life as Edison’s. But one might have expected that our greatest genius in pure science, Josiah Willard Gibbs, who laid the theoretical foundations for modern physical chemistry, would have been a figure of some comparable acclaim among the educated public.”

The equivalents in our time are Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk. Admirable as their achievements have been, they upstage the work of the geniuses who discovered the general laws of cybernetics, informatics, and electronics by inventing the infrastructure of our civilization. A hundred years ago, classical Greek was ebbing out of high school education, as unnecessary. Fifty years ago, Latin retreated. Their demise may have been a loss only to a few, but they have not been replaced by new languages such as Java and C. The value in learning to program is not to win a lucrative career in computing – though that is predictable and desirable – but to open the mind to new ways of perceiving and creating ideas that can operate in the material world. In that, they are as important as drama, art, and music, which are academic offerings that also have suffered reduced budgets for want of “practical” value.


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