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Anti-intellectualism in American Life

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There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
Isaac Asimov[1]

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter (1916–1970)[2] is a classic work on the subject of American intellectuals and their critics. Hofstadter was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize for this work in the category of non-fiction in 1964. He received his first Pulitzer for The Age of Reform[3] in 1956. The author wrote that he used the idea of anti-intellectualism as "a device for looking at various aspects, hardly the most appealing, of American culture."[2]:vii Nicholas Lemann, Pulitzer-Moore Professor of Journalism at Columbia, has written "When somebody mentions 'anti-intellectualism', Richard Hofstadter's book usually comes to mind as the place where the problem was defined."[4] The complex of ideas, moods and attitudes designated as anti-intellectual is for Hofstadter, "a resentment and suspicion of life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life."[5]

The short preface to the volume includes this evaluation of American social attitudes:[2]:vii

For all their bragging and hypersensitivity Americans are, if not the most self critical, at least the most anxiously self-conscious people in the world, forever concerned about the inadequacy of something or other — their national morality, their national culture, their national purpose. This very uncertainty has given their intellectuals a critical function of special interest.

Then quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson (from "Fate"):[6]:2[2]:viii

Let us honestly state the facts. Our America has a bad name for superficialness. Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it.

The modern reader may be surprised that Hofstadter does not argue that anti-intellectualism is inimical to the best qualities of American tradition, or that it represents a problem that might be resolved. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.,Wikipedia with quotes from Hofstadter, writes: The key to anti-intellectualism, in Hofstadter's view, lay in the continuing clash between "the elite upon whom culture depended for its transmission," and "the vulgarization of culture which [democratic] society constantly produces… Throughout most of our political history the intellectual has been for the most part either an outsider, a servant, or a scapegoat."[7]:299

In our time[edit]

The text of the book was published in the 1963, during the high times of the Kennedy administration. This historical account begins much further back in history and ends with the recovery from the red-baiting of McCarthyism. The book was inspired by the politics and the conditions of intellectual life in the 1950s. Before that time the term anti-intellectualism was rarely used. It was during that decade that the word "intellectual" became a term of abuse. Though much could be done to apply the analysis of this work to the situations we face today in politics, society, and academia, it is useful to bear in mind that the author's analysis stops just short of taking into account the turbulence of the later part of the 1960s and beyond.

It was the election of 1952 that dramatized the opposition of intellect and philistinism. Adlai Stevenson was a candidate whose style and type of mind appealed to intellectuals more effectively than others of recent memory. Eisenhower, on the other hand, represented an inarticulate form of conventionalism, weighted with his vice president and their McCarthyite supporters. The victory of Eisenhower "was taken by the intellectuals themselves and by their critics as a measure of their repudiation by America."[2]:4 Time Magazine reported, "there is a wide and unhealthy gap between American intellectuals and the people."[8]:100 The end of twenty years of rule by the Democratic Party was followed by the social decline of intellectuals and the rising influence of the businessperson. Now the intellectuals were a common scapegoat for everything unpleasant or immoral in American society while the private businesspeople was thought to be capable in the face of any difficulty. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. remarked, "Anti-intellectualism has long been the anti-Semitism of the businessman."[9]:164 Finally, in 1957, at the time the space race began, the national attitude disapproving intellectuals took on the appearance of "not just a disgrace, but a hazard to survival."[2]:5 But, anti-intellectualism in America began long before the 1950s. It is older than our American identity, and cyclical in its intensity.

The conflict between American intellectuals and their country has been documented by intellectuals themselves. Hofstadter's project showed, through anecdotal evidence, how intellectuals have been viewed by America. The term anti-intellectual, as a mood or attitude, had not been clearly defined. "As an idea it is not a single proposition but a complex of related propositions. As an attitude it is not usually found in pure form but in ambivalence — a pure and unalloyed dislike of intellect or intellectuals is uncommon."[2]:7 The author tells us it is the complex itself that interests him. The complexes designated as anti-intellectual are characterized by resentment of those living a life of intellectual detachment and suspicion of those who live it.

The book is not about disputes between intellectuals. Applying critical standards to other intellectuals is one of the most useful activities of the intellectual. Also, it is not about "highbrow" and "anti-rationalist" thinkers exemplified by Emerson, Nietzsche, or William James. Instead, Hofstadter stated, "I am centrally concerned with wide-spread social attitudes, with political behavior, and with middle-brow and low-brow responses, only incidentally with articulate theories."[2]:9 We are presented with a series of exhibits from the 1950s. These are some examples of the real assumptions of anti-intellectualism. Intellectuals, "are pretentious, conceited, effeminate, and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous and subversive."[2]:19

We see the term "highbrow" replaced by "Egghead: A person of spurious intellectual pretensions, often a professor or the protege of a professor…"[10]:48 Eisenhower reputedly said, "An intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows."[11] Another case is a chain-store president who contributed between $20,000 and $30,000 to the Eisenhower campaign, and subsequently nominated to be ambassador to Ceylon, a country with which he was entirely unfamiliar.[12] Disdain for pure research was evident in the testimony of Defense Secretary Charles E. Wilson in 1954, who said, "Pure research is what you do when you don't know what you are doing."[13]:26 Joseph R. McCarthy was praised by an editorial writer for the Freeman saying, "He possesses, it seems, a sort of animal negative-pole magnetism which repels alumni of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. We think we know what it is: This young man is constitutionally incapable of deference to social status."[14]:362 It was then believed that communism was spreading in all colleges, not only in the Ivy League. "Our Universities are the training grounds for the barbarians of the future, those who, in the guise of learning, shall come forth loaded with the pitchforks of ignorance and cynicism, and stab and destroy the remnants of human civilization."[15]:149


Intellect is usually understood to be unpopular. We begin with the difference between intellect and intelligence. The idea of intelligence is widely respected and people who are thought to have it, highly regarded. But the intellectual person may be looked upon with suspicion, and resentment; may be called unreliable, or immoral, or even subversive. The intellectual may even be accused of lacking intelligence. e.g., "I'd rather be intelligent than an intellectual."[2]:24 Intelligence, in the sense that one is regarded as having it, is popularly understood as a quality of a superior mind, one that typically characterizes some aspect of a narrowly focused and practical area of expertise. The intellect, in contrast represents a complex of qualities that include criticism, creativity, imagination and introspection: "Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines."[16]:145 With this difference in mind we can understand how a penetrating intelligence could be relatively nonintellectual and why among the clearly intellectual there may be a spectrum or range of intelligence. Not all academics are intellectuals. The intellectual can not be associated with an entire class of professionals. Intellect is an individual and not a class quality. It is often associated with professionals, such as lawyers, professors, clergymen, or journalists. Most professional work is non-intellectual in that it is technical, due to the intelligent application of ideas as tools to solve a problem. While for the intellect, the ideas themselves are what is most tempting. Hofstadter identifies two qualities that determine the intellectual's attitude toward ideas: playfulness and piety.

The intellectuals of past centuries have very often been friendly with theologians or been clerics themselves. The intellectual is like the introvert, attracted inwardly and fortified and fascinated by complexes of ideas. They are dedicated to a life of mind as in a religious commitment. It is understanding that the intellectual seeks. André MalrauxWikipedia asked how to live one's life in the best possible way and answers, "By converting as wide a range of experience as possible into conscious thought."[17] Locke's great essay begins, "It is the understanding that sets man above the rest of sensible beings, and gives him all the advantage and dominion which he has over them."[18]:1 Intellectuals have often taken up issues of morality and the common good in matters of theology, philosophy and law. "The thinker feels that he ought to be the special custodian of values like reason and justice…"[2]:29 We are reminded of cases of Zola speaking for Dreyfus and American intellectuals concerned with the fate of Sacco and Vanzetti.[2]:29 The intellectual class, of any class that might be called privileged, "has shown the most consistent concern for the well being of the classes which lie below it on the social scale."[2]:29 Further, the intellectual feels the world should apply his view of justice and order. From this conviction comes his true value to humanity and entails his "ability to do mischief."[2]:29

Because intellectuals are occasionally mischievous, piety is not sufficient to sustain their mental and social equipoise. An intellectual lives for the adventures brought by the study of ideas, but not just one idea. He must prevent himself from becoming obsessed, because it is in this way that intellect becomes consumed by fanaticism. According to Hofstadter, the intellectual function can be overwhelmed by an excess of piety expended within too contracted a frame of reference. Playfulness is his idea of the way to restore balance. The pursuit of truth is the business of the intellectual and every bit as exciting as the pursuit of happiness. The acquisition of truth is less than certain. "Truth captured loses its glamor; truths long known and widely believed have a way of turning false with time; easy truths are a bore, and too many of them become half-truths. Whatever the intellectual is too certain of, if he is healthily playful, he begins to find unsatisfactory."[2]:30 Thus playfulness is a remedy to zealotry. The zealot may be overcome by his piety. The intelligent professional may be concerned only with salable skills. The interest of an intellectual is not controlled by goals as such. "The element of play seems to be rooted in the ethos of the leisure class… The element of piety is reminiscent of the priestly inheritance of intellectuals."[2]:33

During the 19th century most people received little of formal education, and it was widely held that such learning was an extravagance, unnecessary for success in the business of life. Emerson wrote of self-reliance in 1841, describing a desirable panoply of life, presumably without the benefit of higher education. A man might start a business, raise a family, run for Congress, and generally prove himself successful with the right attitude and sufficient effort. But, people become resentful of too much dependence on experts. By the middle of the 20th century, most men had no idea how the devices operated that produced their breakfasts. Society now required experts of all sorts to keep day-to-day life workable. "From the politician's point of view, experts were irritating enough in the time of F.D.R., when they seemed to have free access to the White House while the President kept the politicians at arms length. The situation has grown worse in the age of the cold war when matters of the highest public interest are susceptible to judgment only by specialists."[2]:36-37 And as we have long suspected, "There has always been in our national experience a type of mind which elevates hatred to a kind of creed; for this mind, group hatred take a place in politics similar to class struggle in some other modern societies."[2]:37 Like Masons, Catholics, Jews, people of color, immigrants, liquor interests, et al., the intelligentsia has had to take its place as scapegoat among the classes subjected to the ignorant fulminations of malcontents.[2]:37

Intellectuals, in general, are influential as either experts or as ideologues. "In both capacities they evoke profound, and, in a measure, legitimate, fears and resentments. Both intensify the prevalent sense of helplessness in our society, the expert by quickening the public's resentment of being the object of constant manipulation, the ideologue by arousing the fear of subversion and by heightening all the other grave psychic stresses that have come with modernity."[19] The intellectual regarded as an expert is given ground even by a frightened public. The ideological intellectual is another matter: this type of person is an object of scorn, suspicion, and resentment. The word intellectual first appeared in France during the Dreyfus affair. It was used by both sides of that conflict, by the right as a lowbrow epithet and by the intellectuals supporting Dreyfus as a badge of honor. William James responded to the Dreyfus Affair in a letter, "We 'intellectuals' in America must all work to keep our precious birthright of individualism, and freedom from these institutions [church, army, aristocracy, royalty]."[2]:39 The intellectual's vulnerability to the far right remained insignificant as long as its progressive ruminations and postures were in step with the general public, as it was during the Progressive era and through the course of F.D.R.'s New Deal. But, it was the fascination that a large part of the intellectual community shared for communism that caused ruptures in the public's willingness to abide with them in silence and gave their enemies on the far right an effective weapon.

It appeared to be the case that the attraction of communism during the 1930s was stronger among intellectuals than anywhere else in American society. In several huge media events such allegiance even led to espionage. In 1939, the names of about four hundred liberal intellectuals appeared attached to a letter, the substance of which denounced "the fantastic falsehood that the U.S.S.R. and the totalitarian states (fascist) are basically alike."[20] The letter was published in The Nation (as well as Soviet Russia Today) during the week that the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed. The intellectual community felt disarmed as a consequence of the menace of Stalinism, and did not feel well-positioned to resist the "Great Inquisition" of McCarthy. But, the truth is that the right-wing never truly cared about communism as anything other than a weapon to use for revenge. McCarthy and his followers "were trying to give satisfaction against liberals, New Dealers, reformers, internationalists, intellectuals, and finally even against a Republican administration that failed to reverse liberal policies."[2]:41 That Great Inquisition is best understood by examining the other interests of its followers: animosity toward Franklin D. Roosevelt and his reforms, antipathy towards the United Nations, anti-Semitism, racism, opposition to the federal income tax, fear of being poisoned through fluoridation, etc."[2]:42 "Twenty years of treason"[21] was the catchphrase McCarthy had devised in 1953 to show contempt for the previous Democratic administrations.

The First World War was followed by cultural shocks. Modernism of all sorts began to appear in religion, in literature, and art, racial equality, and changing moral values. The nation began to encounter alternative interpretations of common understandings from the news reports of the Scopes trial, the titillation of Freudian ideas, Marxism, and the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes. Intellectuals, now viewed as ideologists, were called upon for explanations. It often happens, even today, that the messenger is blamed for any undesirable consequences entailed by their message. "The American, so ill at ease in this strange, threatening, and seemingly gratuitous world of ideology, suspects the intellectual for being at home in it. The intellectual is even suspected of having called it into being — and in a certain sense he has."[2]:44

Primitives and evangelists[edit]

To a certain extent those who are suspicious of intellectuals and suppose them to be a possible threat to society are correct. Thoughts can be dangerous. The philosopher John Dewey wrote, "If we once start thinking, no one can guarantee what would be the outcome, except that many objects, ends and institutions will be surely doomed. Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place."[22]:16 Intellectuals often focus on some state of being thought to be oppressive or suspected of fraudulence, and make it an object of study, denunciation or even ridicule. It is not surprising then that those who have been exposed to the intensity of such examinations should have naturally cultivated their own mythology as to what it is about intellect that oppresses them. We consider the typical talking points of the anti-intellectualist case.

Arguments against the intellect are as follows, "Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice and the purely theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism."[2]:45-46 Once belief in the sentiments take hold in the popular mind, the acceptance of intellect and intellectuals becomes untenable. Anti-intellectualism may be discovered in the background of our religious history. The Church of England domesticated and assimilated large parts of the evangelical movement through the dominance of its presence. This did not, and could not have happened in America, where many of the most ardent evangelists eventually fled. American evangelicals soon overwhelmed the more traditional British churches. Primitivism, as a religious influence, lies somewhere between Christianity and Paganism. This belief in values that are simple and unsophisticated made its way into American thinking early on. In Primativism, "there is a persistent preference for the wisdom of intuition, which is deemed to be natural or God-given, over rationality which is cultivated and artificial."[23]


  1. "A Cult of Ignorance" by Isaac Asimov (21 January 1980) Newsweek. Page 19.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 2.23 Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter (1963) Alfred A. Knopf.
  3. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. by Richard Hofstadter (1955) Knopf.
  4. [ The Tea Party is timeless: Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism In American Life reviewed] by Nicholas Lemann (September/October 2014) Columbia Journalism Review.
  5. The Historical Development of Anti-Intellectualism in American Society: Implications for the Schooling of African Americans Robert D. Cross (Winter, 1990) The Journal of Negro Education 59(1): 19-28.
  6. The Conduct of Life by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1860) Smith, Elder & Co. Chapter 1: Fate.
  7. Richard Hofstadter by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1969) Pastmasters: Some Essays on American Historians, edited by Marcus Cunliffe & Robin W. Winks. Pages 278-315.
  8. "The Changing Role of the Public Intellectual" by John Patrick Ddggins (2003) In: The Public Intellectual: Between Philosophy and Politics, edited by Arthur M. Melzer et al. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 0742508153.
  9. "The Highbrow in American Politics" by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1953) Partisan Review 20(2):156-165.
  10. Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War by K. A. Cuordileone (2004) Routledge. ISBN 0415926009.
  11. An intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows. BrainyQuote.
  12. Nomination of Maxwell H. Gluck To Be Ambassador to Ceylon by Judy Norrell (August 26, 1957) Congressional Record Page A7017.
  13. First American Into Space by Robert Silverberg (2008) Brownstone Books. ISBN 1434468224.
  14. "The Sources of the Radical Right" by Seymour Martin Lipset (2017) The Radical Right, edited by Daniel Bell. Routledge. 3rd edition ISBN 1138538108. Pages 307-372.
  15. "Natural Law and the Campus" by Jack Schwartzman (December 3, 1951) The Freeman 2(5):148-152.
  16. "Problems of the Negro Woman Intellectual: Liberated from Pall of Mediocrity" by Ponchitta Pierce (August 1966) Ebony. Pages 144-149.
  17. "A Letter from New York" by Ralph Ellison (December 10, 2019) The Paris Review.
  18. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (1689). Ward, Lock & Co.
  19. Practicing Public Scholarship by Christopher P. Long (2018) Practicing Public Scholarship 1(1):1-8. doi:10.25335/M5/PPJ.1.1-1.
  20. To All Active Supporters of Democracy and Peace: The text of an Open Letter calling for greater unity of the anti-fascist forces and strengthening of the front against aggression through closer cooperation with the Soviet Union, released on August 14 by 400 leading Americans. (September 1939) Soviet Russia Today 8(5):24-25, 28.
  21. '20 Years of Treason' Charged (Feb. 6, 1954) The New York Times.
  22. John Dewey: Dictionary of Education, edited by Ralph B. Winn (1959) Philosophical Library. Quote is from the definition of 'Conservativism'.
  23. Hindrances of the Mind: The Scandal of Evangelical Thinking by Rick Wade (May 27, 2003) Probe for Answers.