U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Political Anti-Intellectualism And The Liberal Arts: Historical Considerations

Since anti-intellectualism has often been most effective in politics (e.g. with victims such as Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s, Eugene McCarthy in the 60s, and even Bill Clinton in the 90s), I’m not surprised to see a present-day application via the “professor” label.

With regard to the article, I’m not sure I agree—initially at least—with Charles Ogletree’s assertion that today’s manifestation in relation to President Barack Obama is a “thinly veiled” kind of racism (article’s phrase, Jack Stripling is the author). The problem I have with that line of thinking is that it’s nowhere in the recent history of anti-intellectualism—as a broad social phenomenon at least. All of the late twentieth-century political figures that were objects of anti-intellectualism were white. Indeed, if there’s any historical racism associated with political anti-intellectualism it’s in the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. was never derided precisely for his mental prowess. To carry Ogletree’s argument a bit further, it seems to me that if any “uppity” association occurs to racists in relation to Obama, it will be because of his newfound aggressiveness (i.e. bully pulpit), not his mental ability. The “professor” appellation is likely just straightforward anti-intellectualism on the part of some opposition that may be racists.

Returning to Stripling’s article, I do appreciate the thinking in this passage related to David S. Brown: It’s no surprise that the anti-intellectualism that Hofstadter wrote about has resonance among some Americans today, says Brown, a historian at Elizabethtown College. Higher education programs are increasingly moving toward the pre-professional variety, and students and parents are inclined to press colleges about how their programs will lead to jobs — not to intellectual growth, Brown says. In that context, the stereotypical liberal arts professor is ever more marginalized.

When I first read the InsideHigherEd article I thought that, with more people than ever in college and even more than ever in graduate school, this line of political strategy can’t be effective, long term, beyond a limited cohort of our citizenry. But I hadn’t directly linked today’s anti-intellectualism, as Brown did, to the ongoing vocationalism (read: devaluing of the liberal arts) that’s occurred in higher education—beginning after World War II but increasingly evident in the last 10-15 years. – TL

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ogletree’s claim seemed to me also at first an exaggeration, but on reflection, i’m not so sure. from a slightly broader perspective, at the turn of the century, when ‘the intellectual’ became a widely recognized and contested category, it was often the case that anti-intellectuals coded ‘intellectual’ as ‘Jew.’ This is specifically the case in the context of the Dreyfus affair, certainly, but in the whole first half of the 20th century, it seems to me clear that anti-intellectual rhetoric linked ‘intellectualism’ to gendered and racialized stereotypes in more or less veiled ways.

    from this perspective, the interesting question becomes the degree to which anti-intellectualism in US politics has *not* been antisemitic or otherwise racialized.

    of course, you could say that things work entirely differently when a black man is the target of anti-intellectual rhetoric. but even then, it seems to me that there is a plausible case to be made that european-style anti-intellectualism links well to jim crow era stereotypes of ‘uppity’ and ‘smart’ african americans. there is, for instance, a very similar technique of rendering the masculinity of the intellectual, to say the least, suspect. i remember reading some stuff on black modernism in this vein.

    one would want to look very closely at the images, as well as the rhetoric, being used against obama. that is, both words and images. but i wouldn’t rule out continuities here. in order to bring vocationalism into it, one might look at the contrasting treatments received by Du Bois and Washington.

  2. Very interesting post, Tim!

    All of the late twentieth-century political figures that were objects of anti-intellectualism were white. Indeed, if there’s any historical racism associated with political anti-intellectualism it’s in the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. was never derided precisely for his mental prowess.

    The key here may be that anti-intellectualism of a certain variety doesn’t depend on believing that the target is particularly smart. That is, deriding people as “professors” does not entail positing that they have particular mental prowess (only, perhaps, that they claim that they do).

    As the right-wing critique of the academy–which goes back very far, but in its modern form at least to Buckley’s God and Man at Yale–has begun to put affirmative action at its center over the last thirty or forty years, it makes perfect sense that right-wing populists would see an Ivy League-educated African American as the ultimate representative of the nightmare fantasy intellectual class. And that construct does not rely on any reassessment of the mental prowess of African Americans (indeed, a background assumption of mental inferiority adds to the sense that the status acquired by someone like Obama is undeserved).

    from this perspective, the interesting question becomes the degree to which anti-intellectualism in US politics has *not* been antisemitic or otherwise racialized.

    In the Fifties there was a lot of un-racialized anti-intellectualism. Certainly Adlai Stevenson was as WASPish as they come (and, to the best of my knowledge, the right never even posited him as a secret Jew, as some did in the case of FDR). Similarly, the scorn heaped on Dean Acheson by Joe McCarthy had no simple ethnic or racial dimension (unless one counts Irish Catholic hostility to WASPs). It did involve an important class and regional dimensions, so perhaps they were substitutes in this case.

  3. Eric: Well said on the Dreyfus Affair and the racial-ethnic coding of anti-intellectualism. But I’m going to hold to the thought, temporarily, that only “white” intellectuals can subjected to anti-intellectualism so far as American anti-intellectualism goes. For instance, Jews were excluded from aspects of the American academy for many years in the early 20th century (say until 1945, somewhat arbitrarily). And blacks and Hispanics and Asians were excluded broadly until the 1960s and early 1970s. But…

    Ben: I agree that anti-intellectualism may just be code for political opposition—i.e. you cannot engage in anti-intellectual activity, or hold to that line of thought, without political disagreement. But…

    Eric: As for B.T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, well, that’s qualitatively different than any conversation we’d have about M.L.K. Jr. With the former there’s the element of intra-racial anti-intellectualism, or reverse stigmatism (i.e. DuBois’s talented tenth idea/program). But here again we return to politics. The whites of the 1890s-1920s didn’t care about Washington’s intellectual capability because his program was explicitly anti-political. DuBois, however, should’ve been subjected to anti-intellectualism by “whites” (a moving target in the Progressive Era, Anglo-Saxon superiority, etc.) and blacks because DuBois’s talented tenth program offended the mainstream of both races. – TL

  4. The idea that African American intellectuals have not been subjected to (so-called) “anti-intellectual” attacks is a little baffling to me. On what evidence are you basing these claims?

    The first most obvious problem with this claim is that your references to “American anti-intellectualism” seem to equate “American” with “white.” What about black anti-intellectualism (or the manipulation of that trend by white politicians)? The quote from Clarence Thomas was only a glaring and recent example of such an anti-intellectualist attack from within African America, in his case playing on old “high yeller” stereotypes.

    But we can pick and choose from a whole slew of examples to make the same point. Most obvious might be Booker T. Washington’s and Marcus Garvey’s famous ridicules of “college-bred Negroes” but many others including John Hopkins-educated Kelly Miller and, yes, Du Bois were more than vocal in their skepticism about black college-bred elites too detached from “the world,” their heads “over-stuffed with Latin and Greek” (Talented Tenth theories notwithstanding). Du Bois’s attempts to promote university education while at the same time disparaging black intellectual pretense gets to the core of the cultural dynamics and social capital stakes at play regarding intellectualism in black communities, at least in the first half of the twentieth century. This is a long-existing and multi-layered history.

    As for the “racing” of anti-intellectualism vis a vis white fears of black people, there is also a long history. I don’t think you’re suggesting, Tim, that history hasn’t shown intense and often violently expressed white reactions to black intellect. There is abundant evidence of such reactions – and those as reactions to black intellect at all levels, from primary schools on up.

    My sense is that you’re saying something else: that somehow the anti-intellectualism that Hofstadter described (ie, the connotations of effeteness , conspiratorial danger, inauthenticity, or unAmericanness) does not resonate politically (among a white electorate) with the same force when applied against African American intellectuals instead of white intellectuals. Is that right?

    If so, I’m not sure I can agree with that either. Surely, the racial implications of anti-intellectual attacks are different when applied to people of different races. And it is a great point to ponder. But the force is still there. Calling Obama an intellectual as a strategy to delegitimize him politically may be an attempt to throw a twice-loaded punch: He’d suffer (the theory might go) in all ways that Stevenson and Carter and Clinton and Kerry (etc., etc.) did in the esteem of red-blooded Americans – emasculated and out-of-touch – AND – he’d subtly be cast as racially inauthentic – ie, as inauthentically black. This based on a notion of black authenticity subscribed to by both whites and blacks but not by all.

    Black intellectuals seem always to be vulnerable to white scorn in one of three ways: 1. For not being black enough (as people pretending to be white, not knowing their place, or thinking they’re better than white people); 2. As intellectual posers (ie, having the trappings of the intellectual but not true intellect or sophistication). This is reminiscent of the old stereotype of the black urban dandy (George Walker to Bert Williams); or 3. As dangerous subversives (Du Bois and Angela Davis are two examples which come immediately to mind).


  5. Oh, and one more thing regarding the Jewish intellectual issue:

    My sense is that exclusion of Jews was a reaction to Jewish intellectual dominance in the academy by the 1920s not something that was finally repulsed after the war. Some estimates have Jewish undergraduate enrollment at Columbia at around 40% by the late teens. At Harvard the Jewish population was 21.5% in 1922. They were often excluded from elite student clubs, of course, but not officially and concertedly by officials at many colleges until the 1920s (such as with Harvard’s famous quota debates during Lowell’s presidency). And this reactionary moment regarding Jewish intellectuals, by the way, was not unrelated to emerging ideas of “two kinds” of Jews – old bloods and new immigrants – which old blood Jews participated in. Walter Lippmann’s support for efforts at Harvard to manage the flow of the undesirable class of Jewish students is one example.

  6. James & Colleagues,

    I fear I have expressed myself badly, or at least in an incomplete way (a hazard of blogging, methinks). Let me try a partial reset that combines some elements from my post and comment.

    My tentative thinking centers, or builds on, on James’s point about “intellectual posers.” That is precisely what makes me think that anti-intellectualism has been coded white when it’s a “broad social phenomenon.” I have a hunch that when whites carry, or act on, anti-intellectual sentiments toward blacks they are generally being racists in that they just can’t concede larger intellectual points to their black (or white) opponents. My evidence is mostly anecdotal and secondary:

    (1) The objects of anti-intellectualism in Hofstadter’s book (based on memory, the book’s not in front of me) were all white, and so were the perpetrators. This might be a function of Hofstadter’s evidentiary choices rather than reality. Let’s say he was being fairly comprehensive. If so, I think it points toward the fact that anti-intellectual whites aim that sentiment at whites mostly in the social/political sphere. I’m not sure that subset can admit that blacks are intellectuals;

    (2) My reading in the Taylor Branch series on MLK, Jr. (again, based on memory, the book is not here at my desk) was that King was subjected to racism much, much more than anti-intellectualism. Again, this might be a function of Branch’s choices. If not, however, then it seems that racist whites who opposed King’s ends (or means) were only conceding him to be an agitator. In fact, didn’t they mostly call him a radical communist-type agitating revolutionary? They sought to dismiss him as a revolutionary so they wouldn’t have to truly reckon with the larger moral/philosophical points behind his actions;

    (3) Returning to the present, I think that Palin’s “professor” label points to another form of anti-intellectualism. Based on her past rhetoric (i.e. the 08 campaign and some of her political talks since), I think her professor jab is more about Obama’s urban politics and sensibility. I think Palin sees his urban style and political success as based in guile and cunning. She’s using “professor” label to imply that he’s tricked the masses into some kind of urban socialist scheme. Palin thinks Obama is a stylish poser, intellectually and politically, and is trying to expose him by using his intellect against him. In sum, Palin’s anti-intellectualism is political ideology, or demagoguery.

    None of this is to say that white-on-black and black-on-black anti-intellectualism have not occurred. I would never assert that. My sense thus far, however, is that in the twentieth-century anti-intellectualism, whenever it was evident as a broad social movement, was generally started by whites and aimed at whites. When I say generally I mean something like 95 percent of the time.

    But, apart from my points, it’s clear that anti-intellectualism involves a number of vectors and variables:

    1. It can be used against people, either individually (e.g. against Stevenson W.E.B. DuBois) or as a class (e.g. professors), or as against reason and the working out of public philosophy.

    2. It can be an intraracial phenomenon (per James’s comment, DuBois vs. Washington, etc.).

    3. It can be political, either liberally or conservatively. For example, liberal political anti-intellectualism could involve instances of advocating for political action based on sentiment alone (i.e. something must be done to help those people, damn your cold, calculating heart!). Conservative political anti-intellectualism can be seen when progressive social ideas are opposed, or characterized, as social engineering.

    4. It can be a ploy to oppose science , or religion versus science.


  7. [cont.]

    I bring up these points only to show how many kinds of anti-intellectualism we may be talking about, or dealing with, in relating to race.

    On Jewish intellectual life in the U.S. from the 1890s to the 1920s, this might be too difficult to tease out in relation to racism/ethnocentrism and anti-intellectualism for this post. “Whiteness” was something different in the 1900-20 era than it would be in the 1920s going forward (and from the 1940s going forward). We might need a separate USIH post that starts with historical knowledge from someone like Harold Wechsler, John Higham, or David Hollinger.

    Preliminary to that separate write-up, I will concede that there are many factors at work in the American Jewish population at the turn of the century (immigrant wave differences—meaning early vs. later from Eastern Europe, reaction in the academy, social presence, public knowledge of Jews, etc.). James is absolutely right to point out that anti-Semitism in the academy that became evident in the 1920s was a reaction to the rise and success of Jews, at places like Columbia, as undergrads in the 1910s.

    But it has been my sense (perhaps wrongly) that the 1900-20 rising Jewish cohort hadn’t quite made it to intellectual prominence—to the recognizable-to-the-public elite intellectual class—to warrant any explicit anti-intellectualism phenomenon in the 1920s or before. They were still, for instance, being excluded in many cases from graduate programs—from entrance into the upper echelons of U.S. intellectual life. In sum, I think that the anti-intellectualism of the Progressive Era is still predominantly coded as “white,” at least as against Anglo-Saxon Progressive whiteness and their social engineering/public policy initiatives. Again, I’ll have to dig up my old histories to confirm my sense about the public prominence of Jewish intellectuals in America at the turn of the century.

    At the very least, anti-intellectualism’s connections to Jewishness involve many different factors than European anti-intellectualism as evident in the Dreyfus Affair.

    I apologize to James, especially, for any confusion caused by my post and subsequent comment. I’m working out some of my thinking here on anti-intellectualism. This process began well before my 2008 talk on the subject in Grand Rapids, and has progressed in the context of my work on Mortimer J. Adler and his fight in the twentieth-century against anti-rationalism via his great books project. And then we now have the added confusion of these recent political applications. – TL

  8. Thanks for these thoughtful remarks, Tim. I agree with you about multiple anti-intellectualisms. A capital point. I always thought Hofstadter was somewhat narrow. He concedes the point in the opening pages of Anti-Intellectualism (if my memory serves) by offering a catalog of different meanings of “anti-intellectualism.” But his examples end up being drawn almost entirely from the hostility to intellectuals variety even though he makes broader claims about hostility to intellectualism (again, if I’m remembering the book clearly enough).

    Once we make this shift (to target intellectuals instead of intellectualism), then we can’t make claims about, say, the tension between rationalism and faith, or between the body and the mind, or even between different modes of pedagogy.

    We also might have to concede an implicit tautology with regards to race, ethnicity and class: Is it possible that “95%” of “mainstream” American anti-intellectualism targeted whites because 95% of known “intellectuals” (to a mainstream American audience) were white?

    To become an “intellectual” as recognized by society at large (whatever that might mean), doesn’t one have to have access to certain sources of political and social power, whether those be the academy, publishing institutions, or the media?

    Interesting stuff, Tim.

    One more thing, finally, if anyone besides Tim and me are reading this far into the thread:

    I’m the one who owes a public apology. My first post was, on second glance, a bit aggressive, perhaps in tone even dismissive. I apologize to Tim for that. My long response to you was a sign of engagement with your own thoughtful posts, not meant to be derisive or hostile.


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