U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Critical, Conflicted, and Elitist Liberalism of Richard Hofstadter—And Why It Matters (Part 4)

Editor's Note

This entry concludes a four-part series covering the political and educational philosophy of Richard Hofstadter. Today’s post outlines Hofstadter’s educational thinking in relation to John Dewey, but also summarizes my sense of Hofstadter’s current relevance—clearly delineating and reiterating my differences with Livingston. Follow these links to parts one, two, and three. Enjoy! – TL

Hofstadter, circa 1970 (via Wikipedia)

The latter portions of Hofstadter’s assault on early and mid-twentieth-century educational tendencies also demonstrate, ironically, a run-of-the-mill reactionary liberalism. The general theme was that all Progressive Educators—from the earliest, most hopeful, and well-intentioned work of Dewey down to the saddest descendants of Dewey—was one of utopianism. They were all unrealistic.

Being somewhat kinder to Dewey, Hofstadter asserted only that a “covert utopianism” existed in the latter’s thought (p. 388). In any case, the charge of utopianism is the ultimate cavil among intellectual elites, especially those of the liberal variety who know their history. It says to the reformer: “You don’t get it”; “You’re not realistic.”; “You’re not dealing with the ground-level situation, which is either irremedial or permanent.”; and “You’re trying to change human nature.”

Here’s how Hofstadter framed Dewey’s lack of realism in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:

His utopianism was one of method: he believed that the old polarities and dualisms [child v. society, interest v. discipline, vocation v. culture, knowledge v. action] were not, so to speak, qualities in reality that must be resisted, minimized, managed, and confined; but were miscalculations derived from the false way of conceiving the world that had prevailed in the past. One could do better [Dewey believed] than merely resolve these polarities in various limited and inevitably unsatisfactory ways; in a higher synthesis one could overcome them altogether. (p. 387, 388)

This portrayal places Dewey in role of a Hegelian radical. The former is trying to revolutionize education, through method, in service of democracy. Hofstadter’s critical liberalism opposes the radicalism of Dewey’s educational program, in part because the synthesis became life adjustment education (i.e. too much home economics and shop class instead of the liberal arts). If the public education establishment gives in to the forces of life adjustment, then democracy is diminished because the talented will be underdeveloped. Accommodation to the less talented will be the death of our country.

Adding insult to injury, in relation to Hofstadter’s historical mind, Dewey then commits a crucial error with regard to history (an error also often attributed to philosophers). Dewey’s error relates to the idea of progress:

In this respect Dewey echoes an argument against the past which had been sounded by so many American thinkers before him. His language gives the impression that he saw the entire drama of human experience primarily as a source of errors that must be surmounted. To keep alive any current enterprise like education required that one enable it to peel off the residues of the past. “The present,” [Dewey] wrote in an uncommonly eloquent passage in Democracy and Education, “is not just something which comes after the past. …It is what life is in leaving the past behind (p. 388).

This move of criticism enables us to contextualize Hofstadter’s view of education in a general philosophy of history that is congenial to liberalism, however critical. The crux is Hofstadter’s anti-radicalism. That stance derives from his view of an unbroken streak of vice in humanity. In concert with Reinhold Niebuhr, Hofstadter believes that history shows our inability to surmount the past. This seems to require some form of realism in education—not utopianism nor near-utopianism.

And Hofstadter’s realism extends into politics generally. True democracy, it seems, relies too much on our better angels. Populism and life adjustment education show that accommodating the masses only serves to diminish our ideals. Liberal, representative democracy, then, appropriately buffers our fallen state of being. In education, the invocation of mental discipline in service of the liberal arts is sufficient develop the talent that can populate our elected officials and government appointees.

Continuing on Dewey in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter reveals his political and educational inclinations through the rhetorical weight given to certain criticisms and alternatives. In this case the topic is how education promotes democracy, and how democracy should support education. Here Hofstadter uses Dewey to forward critical realism (and liberalism)—a stance that excludes Marxism in education. The passage:

Dewey did not at any time fall victim to the delusion that the whole burden of social change could be put on the educational system. Direct instruction and exhortation, he remarked in Democracy and Education, could not in themselves bring about changes in mind and character; such changes would also require changes, of a type he did not clearly specify, in “industrial and political conditions.” But education could make a vital contribution: “We may produce in schools a projection in the type of society we should like to realize, and by forming minds in accord with gradually modify the larger and more recalcitrant features of adult society.” (pp. 378-379)

Hofstadter here separates Dewey from his seemingly more radical and delusional heirs. Schools could in no way effect rapid social reconstruction, Hofstadter emphasizes. Our schools cannot be a site for revolutionary change. The education establishment can only bring society to the cusp of larger changes. This proper view of the limitations of schooling, which Hofstadter sees Dewey as endorsing, justifies a liberal-but-less-than-radical view for education. This is because all change occurs, to Hofstadter, with the weight of history slowing it down. And Dewey himself agreed, in spite of his faulty view of historical change.

Despite his covertly utopian rhetoric in relation to methodological radicalism, Dewey was, to Hofstadter, ultimately an incremental liberal in terms education’s prospects for social change. This interpretation of Dewey enabled Hofstadter’s anti-radical views of education, as well as the latter’s scorn for the accommodations sought and given by Progressive educators. The life adjustment movement undermined republican democracy in our global, Cold War conflict with the Stalinists.

Why This Matters

If some of these arguments and topics sound familiar to long-time blog readers, it’s because we’ve been debating Hofstadter’s legacy since the founding of our medium. Andrew Hartman has been front-and-center in many of those endeavors. We’ve discussed Hofstadter in relation to education, the Cold War, liberalism, anti-radicalism, and the radical right.

My argument with Jim Livingston, however, and his challenge to reassess Hofstadter in light of Critical Theory, instigated this particular essay. Despite that my concern is not, at base, with refuting Livingston. He likes a scrum, and I provoked him. Jim challenged me to better articulate my severe doubts about Hofstadter’s place in our intellectual pantheon. Given the steady stream of references by cultural and political commentators to both Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (has any work felt more relevant in 2017?), the time seemed ripe for another Hofstadter meditation. I thank Jim for pushing me to clarify.

From this deep dive into Hofstadter’s thinking in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, it is relatively easy to discern strong strains of educational elitism and liberalism. We see furthermore that a proper reengagement, or “catching up,” with his thought can only serve as a cautionary tale for today’s left-leaning intellectuals and historians (which is precisely what Jesse Lemisch warned us about years ago). Even when you contextualize his work and thought, making corrections for today in light of the past, there’s little to carry forward in terms of a positive program.

Hofstadter is no proponent of democratic socialism. He’s no friend of the oppressed. He’s no friend of direct democracy.

Hofstadter is neither a near nor neo-Marxist. This is where Livingston and I clearly differ. Hofstadter’s analytic drift shows some affinities with Critical Theory, with his right to scrutinize all and reject all other seeming alternatives. But he seems to me, ultimately, to be more of a critical liberal than a Frankfurt School thinker. There are no radical or revolutionary solutions in Hofstadter’s thought. Capitalism, for instance, remains intact in his work as a bedrock paradigm in American life.

In terms of educational theory and practice, Hofstadter is no friend of the democratized classroom or student accommodation. In today’s terms, he qualifies as a proponent of ableism. His nostalgic view of nineteenth-century educational practices, and curricula, push him into an elitist, authoritarian frame.

Given these serious deficiencies, what use is Hofstadter as an exemplar for today’s progressive-minded historian?

There are only a few answers to this question, and none of them are political in the sense of actionable goals. Hofstadter would ask us to look to history for political, intellectual, and social trends. He would encourage us to be critical, because none of the apparent answers offered from the past will be untainted or offer optimism. Finally, he would push us to be eloquent. At that, Hofstadter was a profound success, hence the regular engagement by today’s thinkers. – TL

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