U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Wasserman’s Great Books Arcadia and Anti-Intellectualisms Old and New, Part 2

[Note: Last week I began this essay by undermining Steve Wasserman’s assertion that there was a “golden age” of middlebrow intellectualism based on the great books idea. This week I argue against his characterization of the recent past and present state of American intellectual life. – TL]
III. The So-Called “New Anti-Intellectualism”

Wasserman asserts that a “new anti-intellectualism” has arisen since around 2000. In what fashion? For starters, he despairs that the old means of intellectual dissemination have been decimated: “Today, America’s traditional organs of popular criticism—newspapers, magazines, journals of opinion—have been all but overwhelmed by the digital onslaught: their circulations plummeting, their confidence eroded, their survival in doubt.” Without the old organs of circulation, Wasserman fears for the mental health of the populace.

The new means of dissemination privilege anti-intellectual modes. To underscore his point, Wasserman references the thinking of Leon Wieseltier:

The arrival of the Internet has proved no panacea. The vast canvas afforded by the Internet has done little to encourage thoughtful and serious criticism. Mostly it has provided a vast Democracy Wall on which any crackpot can post his or her manifesto. Bloggers bloviate and insults abound. Discourse coarsens. Information is abundant, wisdom scarce. It is a striking irony, as Leon Wieseltier has noted, that with the arrival of the Internet, “a medium of communication with no limitations of physical space, everything on it has to be in six hundred words.” The Internet, he said, is the first means of communication invented by humankind that privileges one’s first thoughts as one’s best thoughts. And he rightly observed that if “value is a function of scarcity,” then “what is most scarce in our culture is long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do not have obvious or easy answers.” Time is required to think through difficult questions. Patience is a condition of genuine intellection. The thinking mind, the creating mind, said Wieseltier, should not be rushed. “And where the mind is rushed and made frenetic, neither thought nor creativity will ensue. What you will most likely get is conformity and banality. Writing is not typed talking.”

And Wasserman drives home his point by bringing the discussion back to cultural criticism:

Nothing in the excitements made possible by the digital revolution banishes the need for the rigor such self-reckoning requires. It is, as Wieseltier says, the obligation of cultural criticism to bear down on what matters. Where is such criticism to be found today? We inhabit a remarkably arid cultural landscape, especially when compared with the ambitions of postwar America, ambitions which, to be sure, were often mocked by some of the country’s more prominent intellectuals.

All of this points to the notion that we live in an age of “The New Anti-Intellectualism.”

And, I believe, it’s just conservative pessimism. Since, at this time, it’s difficult to back up what I’m about to assert with much empirical evidence, the following is my sense of of the present state of affairs based on my own studies of anti-intellectualism in American history. My content are qualitative because, in part, no one (to my knowledge) has ever attempted to quantify historical trends in anti-intellectualism.

I think that Wasserman mistakes a heightened awareness, today, of long-running anti-intellectual strains with an actual, relative quantitative increase in anti-intellectualism. In other worlds, our ability to see and find ignorance and unreason are greater now than ever. But that doesn’t make it a relatively greater problem than it was in the 1960s, 1950s, 1930s, 1920s, or whenever. Anyone who studies the voices of unreason from America’s past will find them to be just as misinformed, uninformed, shrill, unempirical, and paranoid as they are today.

No one who studies reactions to the New Deal, McCarthyism, the John Birch Society, the counterculture, and assorted politicians will find those historical actors any more intellectual than today’s anti-intellectual elements. For example, I am currently reading D.J. Mulloy’s recent book, The World of the John Birch Society (Vanderbilt, 2014). That world, which Mulloy covers during the 1950s and 1960s, was dominated by a paranoid, suspicious, and conspiratorial sensibility that melded emotion and reason (unhealthily, I believe). No one was ever anti-communist enough. Pink and red-tinted glasses colored their worldview. Their shrillness, on that topic in particular, can be fairly compared with today’s most radical Tea Party adherents, who see everything as diabolically connected to a sinister Obama “plan” (e.g. the Twitter hashtag #thanksObama began, I think, by capturing that crowd but now makes fun of it). But I wouldn’t hazard an argument that the darker #thanksObama crowd is quantitatively worse or more prevalent or perverse than any hypothetical “#thanksEisenhower” crowd might have been.[1]

Not only does Wasserman overestimate today’s anti-intellectualism, he also underestimates the new and revised venues for intellectual engagement. His scorn is especially directed at the venue in which you are reading this criticism: a blog on the internet.To be sure, Wasserman is not alone in arguing, with Nicholas Carr and many others, that the internet is making is stupid. There is some professional consensus (Carr cites the work of neuroscientist Michael Merzenich) that the internet is changing the way we read (i.e. more skimming v. deep reading of long-form writing) and increasing one’s ability to be distracted (i.e. decreased concentration and focus).

Wieseltier laments the new “600-word” information economy of the internet. But has he forgotten that many paper editorials and columns, distributed by journalism syndicates, carefully abided by 500 and 750 word limits?  And what of letters to the editor, which were often limited to 200-300 words? It’s not as if character counting developed in a journalistic vacuum.

Also, what of “the new (long-form) journalism” that has arisen with the internet? While some paper means of dissemination (newspapers and magazines) have failed and diminished, others have adapted and are thriving. The Nation, Salon, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, The American Conservative, The New Yorker, and Dissent have adapted. Many newspapers are successfully navigating the new terrain, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others. The New York Review of Books offers a high-quality blog. Though not without controversy, The New Republic is in the midst of changing its ways. Slate was one of the first to created a respectable, online-only magazine. Crooked Timber is a blog that has offered some of the best discussions around. Among newest players, what of N+1, Aeon, and one of my personal favorite, Jacobin?

The journalism landscape has most certainly changed, but I don’t think anyone can definitively argue that it’s entirely diminished. The business has adapted to new technology and changed consumer habits. And reading on electronic devices is not without its hazards. But can anyone definitively say that we’re less smart, or stupid?

Cognitive science appears to be mixed, or at least inconclusive, on this question. A 2013 article in Psychology Today adds a distinction that is useful for both us and Wasserman. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic forwarded a useful distinction in that piece :

Life has become more complex but we hardly ever notice it because technology has made complexity simpler than ever. Psychologists explain this dichotomy in terms of two distinct aspects of human intellect, namely fluid and crystallized intelligence (after Raymond Cattell’s 1940s model of IQ). Fluid intelligence refers to the ability to acquire and process information. In computers, this would be the processing speed and RAM capacity — the more you have, the faster and more effortlessly you can multi-task, and the higher the quantity and complexity of stuff you can handle. …Evidence suggests that — in humans — fluid intelligence has been increasing for decades (what psychologists refer to as the Flynn effect). The average child from 1950 would be handicapped by today’s standard IQ tests, and the average child today would be gifted by 1950s standards…

The second aspect of intellect — crystallized IQ — refers not to our ability to gather info but what we actually know; in simple terms, crystallized intelligence means knowledge. Unsurprisingly, with all the knowledge of the world being now outsourced, crowdsourced, and cloudsourced, the individual storage of information is minimal (at least in comparison). Humans today are like most smartphones and tablets – their ability to solve problems depends not on the knowledge they can store but on their capacity to connect to a place where they can retrieve the answer to find a solution. This is what some have labelled the “hyper-link” economy… the only knowledge we need to have is the knowledge of where to find stuff. Notice that the traditional meaning of crystallized IQ referred to knowledge stored “inside our head” (this probably peaked with Leonardo, Voltaire and the encyclopaedists). Luckily, we have not yet seen research evidence that we are becoming more stupid from a crystallised IQ perspective… but one wonders whether we really need to see the research evidence.

Given the distinction between fluid and crystalized intelligence, is it really useful to argue that today’s digital natives are less intelligent? Or worse, that we live in a new anti-intellectual age? We’re different–more distracted, less focused, and less encyclopedic in our memory capabilities—but we’re not necessarily anti-intellectual. – TL



[1] The JBS began by arguing about Dwight’s brother Milton, but eventually argued that Dwight was also weak on communism. D.J. Mulloy, The World of the John Birch Society: Conspiracy, Conservatism, and the Cold War (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014), 16-17.