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Another Hofstadter fan

September 29, 2012 - Harry Eagar
A week ago, in a review of "America at 1750," (Book Review 251, September 22, 2012) I stated the obvious, that in this era of revived McCarthyism, it would be a good thing to re-read Richard Hofstadter, the popular historian of American liberty. Had I waited a week, I could have restated the obvious, as is my practice, because Michael Dirda, the Washington Post book editor, has come to a similar conclusion.

Dirda is a lot windier about it than I was, but his piece at Barnes & Noble.com might be a good starting point for anyone interested in Hofstadter but too busy to read a whole book.

Nut graf:

"While he doesn't seek to explain all of American history as the conflict between 'eggheads and fatheads' or between populist democrats and cultural elites (though it can sometimes sound that way), he does stress the pervasive influence on our culture of politically conservative evangelicals and the harm done to our children by a system of education that regularly favors personal development over intellectual challenge. As it happens, some recent books have been highlighting character and grit, rather than intelligence and knowledge, as the keys to success in life. But that argument is hardly new. In examining the self-help literature of the nineteenth century, Hofstadter underscores their recurrent focus on the supreme importance of willpower and moral fortitude, as well as their suspicion of genius, which was regarded as 'vain and frivolous.' "

Since I read "Anti-intellectualism in American Life" 40 years ago, I have often wondered whence it arose. Is there a simpler explanation that the one Hofstadter mined out of the history of (dumb) ideas? I believe there is.

While I more or less go along with all that Hofstadter thinks about it, I have a more direct, more universal and -- let's be frank -- more silly explanation.

Anti-intellectualism will be a propensity of any popular, democratizing and leveling social system, because of the "I'm just as good a man as he is" mindset. This will, of course, be multiplied in a Protestant milieu, but I think it works everywhere.

Most people are unwilling to admit they are not as smart as the average bear. As young teenagers, they may also think they are sharp enough to play second-base for the Yankees or be a fashion model, but 10 years later they are forced to acknowledge that they really aren't.

Curve balls and mirrors are reality checks.

But there is not such a clearcut reality check about intelligence (or wisdom, if the two are not the same). I do not believe Americans disdain intelligence so much as they disdain pointy-headed intellectuals who seem to claim they have more of it than they do.

English has no word for intelligentsia; we imported it from Russia, but other places (the Koran Belt, especially) where the masses are illiterate and oppressed also have it. In those places, people have a strong sense that being educated has a big effect on one's status, wealth, power and freedom. In places where everybody reads, there is no sharply-defined intelligent class; but there may be a lively sense that people who have more status, wealth, power and freedom have education credentials greater than the lowly, poor, feeble and constrained.

No wonder they resent it.

 
 

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