Anti-intellectualism is a term that in one sense describes a hostility towards, or mistrust of, intellectuals and intellectual pursuits. This may be expressed in various ways, such as an attack on the merits of science, education, or literature.
In another sense, the term anti-intellectualism reflects the attitudes of self-styled "ordinary people" who take academic elitism and the pretensions of academics with a grain of salt. These critics argue that intellectuals often become too proud of their vocabulary and too fond of hearing their own voices.
Anti-intellectualism is also a term used to criticize an educational system's placing little emphasis on academic and intellectual accomplishment or a government's tendency to formulate policies without consultation with authoritative scholarly study on the issues in question. In both cases it would be said that more intellectual inquiry is necessary to achieve good results.
Anti-intellectual beliefs can come from a variety of factors. These include:
Although most religions have rich intellectual traditions, many often rely on arguments from authority and reject secular critical traditions. Evangelical or fundamentalist forms of religion are a frequent source of anti-intellectual statements. Syncretistic or mystical varieties of religion may also struggle with the definitions and distinctions of theology. Some religions have doctrines that affirm statements about natural or human history, the provenance of sacred texts, and other matters that may be investigated by outside scholarship; this can give rise to conflict. In a different cultural field, when bohemianism and romanticism become major factors in the arts, religious believers may believe these trends to be subversive of morality and call for censorship.
Corporate culture, which sometimes calls itself "pragmatism," is an occasional source of hostility to learning. The idea here is that education is a costly and useless distraction from the more important business of making money. Reading is a sort of solitary vice, according to this viewpoint; it does little to make a person more affable or conventional, and does not foster an aptitude for marketing. It is feared that intellectuals may acquire ethical and political ideas that may impede business or make its practices distasteful. Scientific and technological learning may be given a grudging respect; but the arts, literature, philosophy, and similar cultural pursuits are all wastes of time. Those who pursue them are supposed to inhabit an "ivory tower" of academia, full of grand plans whose practice is seen as impossibly flawed by practical people who know better.
According to this view, education should be a sort of apprenticeship, rather than being done on the model of classical education based on Greek and Latin grammar and literature. The educational philosophy of John Dewey, founded on these assumptions, has largely replaced classical education in the USA.
The educational system may serve as a powerful tool for forming the culture of a nation. In the English speaking world, particularly in the USA and England, the schools and universities have often been criticized for being overtaken by overtly anti-intellectual trends and hence not preparing the youth properly to be members of society who would be cultured, prepared for challenging jobs, and capable of independent thought.
In schools these may include lack of emphasis on effective teaching of mathematics and the sciences, which is by now somewhat proverbial, and the rewriting history curricula to de-emphasize facts in favor of political agendas of the editors, which may include political correctness, "minority narratives", or various types of liberal or Marxist thought. Such critics would say, for example, that not teaching kids multiplication tables in primary school and not making sure that they learn algebra by graduation is a blatant example of anti-intellectualism and malfeasance on the part of many schools. They would similarly criticize allowing students to graduate without learning the key facts about American national history, or without having read lots of Shakespeare.
In the realm of higher education concerns are generally twofold.
One type of criticism of colleges being anti-intellectual has to do with political biases within many branches of humanities in university departments. It is a widely-accepted fact that the majority of humanities professors in American colleges are politically liberal. Conservative critics say that the research and teaching done by many liberal professors lacks academic rigor and may amount to indoctrination of students with the professor's political views to the exclusion of careful inquiry. The fields that are criticized most often on these accounts are Women's Studies, ethnic studies, and history. However, there is no serious national debate about intellectualism of these fields of inquiry in American colleges because the educational establishment generally ignores such claims, sometimes calling the critics anti-intellectuals.
The other major concern deals with the perceived lack of general education in college curricula. The critics would say, for example, that college students ought to take more humanities classes, such as history or literature, along with the requirements of their major. Notably, the humanities requirements in American colleges are actually much greater than in many other countries, such as Russia or India where college instruction is focused almost entirely on professional, often technical, preparation. It may be argued that in these countries it is generally believed that high school education has given a student sufficient exposure to general education topics. No such confidence is usually shown by observers of the American school system.
The demands of youth culture
A major preserve of real, militant anti-intellectualism in today's America (as perhaps in many other countries) is a youth subculture often associated with those students who are more interested in social life and athletics than in their studies. Such subculture exists among students of all groups, although among Asian Americans it is reputedly much less pronounced. On the other hand, there exists much anecdotal evidence of anti-intellectualism among African American youth who may consider focusing on school studies a "white" thing. Needless to say, there are plenty of loafers and anti-intellectuals among white students also.
Commercial youth culture also generates a dizzying variety of fads. Keeping up with the trends is difficult, and their content is frequently criticised by cultural critics of many different persuasions for being simple-minded and pandering to unsophisticated appetites. Playing the game of popularity has been likened by blog writer Paul Graham to a full time job that leaves little time for intellectual interests.
Populism is another major strain of anti-intellectualism. Intellectuals are presented as elitists and tricksters whose knowledge and rhetorical skills are feared, not because they are useless, but because they may be used to hoodwink the ordinary people, who are conceived of as the "salt of the earth" and the source of virtue. In a similar vein, the curiosity and objectivity of intellectuals about foreign countries and beliefs is portrayed by populists as a lack of patriotism or moral clarity, and intellectuals are often held to be suspect of holding dangerously foreign, possibly subversive, opinions. This kind of anti-intellectualism is associated in the history of the United States with Joseph McCarthy, the anti-Communist senator from Wisconsin. William F. Buckley, Jr. once remarked that he'd rather be governed by the first hundred names in the phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University since he believed, not without reason, that there were many Communists in the educational establishment. (Buckley went to Yale.)
Anti-intellectualism in America
Anti-intellectualism is found in every nation on earth. Americans, among others, have been accused quite vocally of suffering from it, particularly by the liberal literati both in the USA and in Europe. Such accusations are particularly fueled by the existence of the political schism between the Republican and Democratic parties which prompts the less scrupulous contenders on both sides use it as a term of abuse for their opponents. By comparison societies in Europe and Asia are much more politically homogenous.
Historically, anti-intellectualism did play a prominent role in American culture. Some of it originated from the commonly held view among conservative Christians of old that education subverts morality and religious belief. The validity of this view, in fact, was well substantiated by the spread of atheism and Deism among the educated during the Enlightenment. Hence, for instance, the New England Puritan writer John Cotton wrote in 1642 that "The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee."
A much more important historical source of anti-intellectualism has been the 19th century popular culture. At the time when the vast majority of the population was involved in manual labor, bookish education, which at the time focused on classics, was seen to have little value. It should be noted that Americans of the era were generally very literate and, in fact, read Shakespeare much more than their present day counterparts. However, the ideal at the time was an individual skilled and successful in his trade and a productive member of society; studies of classics and Latin in colleges were generally derided in popular culture. Anti-intellectual folklore values the self-reliant and "self-made man," schooled by society and by experience, over the intellectual whose learning was acquired through books and formal study. A character of O'Henry has noted that once a graduate of an East Coast college gets over being vain, he makes just as good a cowboy as any other young man.
Today, Christian thinkers, who have less influence in society, no longer consider education in general evil, although they may object to some of its specific un-Christian aspects, e.g. alleged anti-religious or pro-abortion propaganda in schools and colleges. The once-plentiful industrial jobs have disappeared and have been replaced with low-wage service and specialty ones, which at most require a high school diploma. Statistics indicate that in the United States half the population has at least some college experience, however only one-third of the population graduates from college.
Perceived lack of "real life" usefulness, as well as, allegedly, academic rigor in humanities studies in the universities have contributed to much disdain for such studies, particularly among those who study, or have studied, technical subjects. This may be considered anti-intellectualism, or perhaps a "rival-intellectualism" inasmuch as people, who may think that intellectual pursuit of study of English literature is useless, may think that studying mechanical engineering, which is an intellectual activity of great complexity, is useful and good. A characteristic criticism, not necessarily valid by any means, of the study of humanities is that teaching students literature prepares them to become future professors of literature, and not much else.
The American educational system also serves as a significant wellspring of anti-intellectualism in its reputed failure to impart the necessary knowledge and skills to make informed decisions about the world to its students.
Abuse of the term for political reasons
In the English-speaking countries accusation of anti-intellectualism are often made in discourse between political opponents. For example, in the USA the liberals may claim that conservative beliefs about foreign affairs or economics stem from "ignorance," poor education, and "lack of awareness" of the substantive issues involved, and as such are anti-intellectual. A quintessential example of this is the title of a book by Michael Moore, a famous American liberal filmmaker: Stupid White Men (the book criticizes American corporate and government leaders). The conservatives generally counter by claiming exactly the same thing about the liberals. For example, in an argument about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one may imagine the pro-Palestinian side accuses the opponent of ignorance of the great suffering of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Meanwhile, the pro-Israeli side would probably respond by calling the other ignorant of the long history of Palestinian terrorism constituting an existential threat to Israel which the Israelis may need to counteract by military means. It should be appreciated, however, that political doctrines and policies, whether liberal or conservatives, are developed by highly educated individuals well-versed in their fields of inquiry. The divergent views usually come either from different interpretations of the same facts where there is no clear objective way to ascertain validity of a belief, e.g. will lower taxes help the economy, or from a politically-motivated lack of desire to try to find out the truth about the situation, e.g. are teaching methods in school optimal. Calling political opponents fools is generally frowned upon, but is nonetheless practiced widely.
Anti-intellectualism in the former Soviet Union
In the Soviet Union within the first decade after the Revolution of 1917 the Bolsheviks generally scorned and suspected the educated as potential traitors to the cause of the proletariat. Whereas the core of the Communist Party was well-educated, the people who became local activists and officials in government and industry often lacked education and disdained those who had it. Lenin once called the intelligentsia, perhaps particularly those who opposed him, "rotten" and "shit". The boast, roughly translated as "we ain’t completed no academies" ("my akademiev ne konchali") became a byword for the new ruling elite.
Later on, the Soviet government realized the importance of education and dedicated great resources to literacy, on the one hand, and higher and professional education, on the other. However, as a matter of social policy, the government sought to promote the working class over an intellectual Úlite. Accordingly, industrial workers often received greater salaries than university-trained professionals such as teachers, doctors, and engineers. Moreover, workers were covertly inculcated with the notion that only the manual labor creates real value in the economy, whereas the educated people just sit around writing papers. Some critics have seen this policy as anti-intellectual.
Anti-intellectualism in Maoist China and Cambodia
In Maoist China during the Cultural Revolution, a revolutionary transformation of all aspects of life, including education, was attempted. University education in particular was moved away from the generation of highly specialized experts, who were seen as constituting a self-interested class divorced from the rest of society, and into the service of the masses. Training programs were accelerated and connected to the practical needs of productive work and socialist development. Some universities were closed for several years during the transformation. At the same time, primary and secondary education were greatly expanded in rural China, and urban students were encouraged or required to spend some time in the countryside, both to teach the peasants and to learn from them. Critics have charged that the practice of curtailing and transforming university education was and sending students to the countryside was anti-intellectual. In the view of the Chinese government, however, state-funded education should be made to serve first and foremost the needs of the society at large. A poor country with a mostly rural population, it argued, had more need of general, practical education for many than of highly specialized education for a few.
In Cambodia, a country in which few people have access to formal education (the literacy rate is about 50% as of 2004), the Khmer Rouge regime (1975–1979) was generally disdainful of intellectuals and saw many as enemies or traitors. See also Khmer Rouge and Democratic Kampuchea.
Anti-intellectualism in other countries
There are, no doubt, many instances of anti-intellectualism and anti-intellectual subcultures in many other countries. People knowledgeable about these may want to add them to this article.
A loaded term?
Not surprisingly, intellectuals commonly use allegations of anti-intellectualism as a charge against their critics. Critics of certain intellectuals in turn argue that "anti-intellectualism" is itself a loaded term. The term "intellectual" implies knowledge, wisdom, and intelligence, and thus to be called "anti-intellectual" can often be perceived as meaning that one favours ignorance or stupidity.
Sometimes criticism of intellectuals can take the form of a specific critique of an intellectual's specific field of study or theory. Not all "intellectual" theories are correct, and thus an intellectual's beliefs can be disputed without necessarily being against the larger concept of intellectual study.
- Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter: ISBN 0394703170
- Hinton, William. Hundred Day War: The Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University. New York: New York UP, 1972. ISBN 0853452814.