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“”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."
“”Do I have proof? No. Do I have articles? No. [But] my mind is made up.
|—A Trump supporter, in an interview with Jordan Klepper|
Anti-intellectualism is, to put it simply, the glorification of stupidity and dismissal of intellectualism in favour of intuition (a.k.a. the "just think about it"). Intellectualism differs from simple intelligence (being smart), in that it requires rational thought and reasoning. Anti-intellectuals believe that science, expertise, and "book knowledge" are less valuable than "street smarts" and "common sense". They also believe that they don't have to read anything about a field of knowledge before dismissing it with their own "theories" and own "research".
In the United States, anti-intellectualism can be traced back to the Great Awakening of the 18th century.:68-69,74 A later wave of anti-intellectualism occurred during the Cold War (especially Red Scare), intellectuals often came under fire due to widely held belief that they were "the ones who flirted with Marxism, gave the benefit of the doubt to the Soviet Union, questioned the nuclear arms race, and generally advocated a secular society over an overtly religious one". Joseph McCarthy's persecution of academics made many Americans regard intellectuals as risks to national security. During the 1952 presidential campaign, Democrat Adlai Stevenson was dubbed an "egghead" by Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice presidential nominee Richard Nixon. This dichotomy of "everyman" versus a candidate cast as an elitist intellectual carried over into future elections. However, anti-intellectualism wasn't necessarily Republican versus Democrat nor right versus left issue. Many 1960s grassroots-based civil rights groups became populist.
The trend continued even after the end of the Cold War and remains prevalent in American society. An example is the 2000 presidential campaign, where a "dull brainiac" Al Gore stood against a George W. Bush who — let's face it — had no capacity to compete in the realm of facts and figures and instead chose to ridicule Gore's approach as "fuzzy math".
There are several sources of anti-intellectualism. In a corporate environment, many businesspeople consider "real world" experience superior to a formal liberal education, especially to the arts and humanities (despite the fact that those majors can provide solid soft skills for many corporate and creative industry positions). A good example of that is shown in Robert Kiyosaki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad self-help book, which contrasts stories of a PhD holder troubled by financial difficulties with a very pragmatically-oriented entrepreneur who has no formal higher education. While Kiyosaki's appeals for financial literacy and financial education are honorable, he has described PhD holders as people who are "poor, helpless, and desperate". Businesspeople's disdain for college education is partly caused by high tuition rates compared to prospective salaries (thus poor return on investment in financiers' lingo) when it comes to many American college courses. The dark side of this is that hucksters promise get rich quick schemes such as MLMs to people without skills or education.
Anti-intellectualism is notably prevalent among young Earth creationists who feel that the Bible is proof enough for their beliefs and empirical evidence simply does not matter (unless, of course, they find some that seems to support their ideas).
Anti-intellectualism also informs many political ideologies. Radical groups, especially the far right and far left, often take up the mantle of anti-intellectualism, since intellectuals often express skepticism towards dogmatic political philosophies. Populists (and especially false populists) enjoy dabbling in anti-intellectualism, seeing higher education as elitist. One of the most vicious anti-intellectuals was the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, who, during the Cambodian genocide, ordered the murder of people with glasses (since they were seen as academics). Anti-intellectualism is one possible response to the cognitive dissonance of a personal ideology conflicting with the findings of experts.
In his 2017 book The Death of Expertise, Professor Tom Nichols even makes the case that higher education itself contributes to anti-intellectualism, because American colleges and universities are "failing to provide to their students the basic knowledge and skills that form expertise" and "failing to provide the ability to recognize expertise and to engage productively with experts and other professionals in daily life" (emphasis his).
In the modern West, anti-intellectualism tends to be associated with the political right, such as the reactionary wing of the United States Republican Party, UKIP, the Liberal Party of Australia under Tony Abbott or some members of Stephen Harper's Conservative Party of Canada.
These anti-intellectual political movements are very rarely violent, but always stupid. Instead, they prefer to use the word "intellectual" as a snarl word or paint intellectuals and academics as "know-it-all liberals" or "elitists". Favorite conspiracy theories for wingnuts are that universities are "secularist" or "Marxist" recruiting centers, a claim that has little to no actual evidence to back it up. Ironically, openly right-wing "universities" (e.g. Liberty University and Bob Jones University) act exactly as wingnuts frequently describe normal universities, distorting the truth and not allowing dissent from their beliefs, in order to push a blatant partisan agenda. Also contrary to many people's preconceived notions, many members of the Puritan clergy were trained in the intellectual traditions of Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard universities.:60-61
One may notice that most anti-intellectuals have little problem with academics and experts who side with them. In fact, they often champion them and their credentials. You can tell who among your friends is anti-intellectual: if they list "University of Life"[note 1] or "School of Hard Knocks" in their Facebook pages and repost all sorts of stupid political memes.
- Religious anti-intellectualism, in which emotion is taken to be warm, good and humane, while reason is taken to be cold, bad and robotic.
- Populist anti-intellectualism, in which skepticism is expressed about politicians with inherited wealth and elite educations.
- Unreflective instrumentalism, in which the value of learning is reduced to immediate material gain in the form of higher profits and higher salaries. In higher education this results in "suppression of ethics discussions, pressure for vocationalism in the humanities and social sciences, and advocacy of less autonomy in education."
What is anti-intellectualism
- Believing that academics or experts (even in their fields of expertise) aren't worth listening to because they lack "common sense" or are "out of touch".
- Believing academics are "others" and have little concern for the common people. (One must wonder why they are in academia, then.)
- Pushing conspiracy theories around places of higher education.
- Believing academics are "elitists."
- Believing academics promote "sinfulness" or moral degeneracy.
- Believing a college education will turn you away from God™, or somesuch.
- Going with your gut over the advice or studies performed by various experts, because you see it as superior.
- Not understanding or checking the arguments of experts before dismissing them.
What isn't anti-intellectualism
- Disagreeing with an expert in one topic when talking about another (make sure they are an expert in the right area).
- Disagreeing with an expert or experts while taking the research in the field seriously (that includes being able to understand the relevant parts). That includes disagreeing with the majority opinion of experts on a subject, so long as one has evidence and good reasons to back up one's position.
- Noticing a diploma mill, or pointing out argumentum ad verecundiam.
- Believing a specific expert is an idiot, particularly if they have a history of being fractally wrong.
Terms to know
When someone walks in with fancy pants, you'll want to know what their fashion is called — if only so you can better articulate why they're a dweeb.
Academics, a subcategory of experts, are people who have studied a particular field at university level for many years, becoming one of a small collection of people who are knowledgeable about one area.
Academics tend to write at length about topics they are interested in (and sometimes even contribute to topics no one cares about). One difference between academics and professors is that academics do not necessarily teach and are not necessarily associated with a particular university.
While most academic professionals are highly specialized, they often must be well-versed in other fields that supplement their own. For instance, physicists usually study very complicated mathematics; biologists, psychologists, and sociologists need to be fluent in statistical analysis; musicologists often study the French, German, and Italian languages in order to gain understanding of historical texts from Europe; and theologians who study the Christian religion often study the Greek and Hebrew languages in order to gain understanding of historical religious texts.
A professor is an expert who isn't listened to when it really matters, largely because nobody outside their specialty has a clue what they're talking about. As salaried thinkers, they conduct research, teach classes, write volumes of scientific articles, and often publish entire books. Other stereotypical characteristics of professors include: confusing and/or ignoring their graduate students, reliving the glory days of the 1960s after a single sniff of wine, and being closet Wikipedia editors. They are among the most educated 1% of the population and widen society's horizons. Yet, barely half are among the top 15% of earners (social injustice, you say… they'd agree). They commonly enjoy a lot of work autonomy, sabbaticals, and a nine-month work year (this supposedly compensates for the "low" salaries). They do a lot of associating and assisting in the course of their work (see below).
Terms of abuse
Want to hate book-learners? Read on!
The term "egghead" for intellectual first appeared in print in 1907 in the Saturday Evening Post, but it was not strictly a term of abuse. It became a pejorative following the 1952 US presidential election when it appeared as such in the libertarian magazine, The Freeman.:9-10
"Living in an ivory tower" is an expression used to indicate that someone is out of touch with common experience, usually due to spending much of their life in academia.
The term is also used contemptuously for any exclusive or esoteric field or event (Mensa meetings, art shows, physics lectures, etc.), particularly by anti-intellectuals, and is associated with various stereotypes about academics and intellectuals lacking common sense and basic life skills.
Academics are often accused of living in an "ivory tower", in which they interact with a simplified and therefore distorted model of reality as though it were the real world itself (i.e., they "eat the menu," or "mistake the map for the territory") and ignore the complexities and contradictions of the real world, or wrest attempts to implement theory-based real-world measures on their assumed authority.
Such accusations are most commonly levelled at academics working in fields where the general public may hold strong but often uninformed opinions: think criminology, gender studies, psychology, etc. Of course, academics come from all walks of life and do (unfortunately) have to live in the real world and work with other (unfortunately) real people.
Academia is by no means a utopia insulated from the real-world problems of other workplaces and is full of the paperwork, asshole colleagues, and general drudgery that one would find clogging up any other career path. While some academics, particularly humanities scholars, may spend a lot of time reading books, they live and work in the same reality as everyone else and are no more likely to reside in an ivory tower than an electrician or a hair-dresser.
The origin of the phrase can be traced to Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve's Pensées d'Août, à M. Villemain (but it does echo the Biblical Song of Solomon 7:4). Its original meaning is largely forgotten or overlooked. Since the early 20th century the phrase has primarily been used to describe academia and privileged people or institutions that are perceived to be so caught up in their worlds of elitist isolation that they lose touch with the everyday world.
Authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism
“”Let us admit the case of the conservative: if we once start thinking no one can guarantee what will 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.
Despite the connection between populism and anti-intellectualism, authoritarian regimes have frequently conducted purges against intellectuals. This is most likely because intellectuals are most likely to speak against the rationale behind such regimes and their policies. Despite this, there have been philosophers who have tried to legitimize fascist ideology for dictators (e.g., Giovanni Gentile for Benito Mussolini, and Ivan Ilyin for Vladimir Putin).
- Francisco Franco targeted intellectuals during the White Terror (1936-1945) that followed the Spanish Civil War.
- Khmer Rouge of Cambodia
- The Argentine military dictatorship (1966-1970) physically purged 'politically dangerous' academics in the Night of the Long Batons.
- The Cultural Revolution in China was explicitly anti-intellectual (referring to intellectuals as the "Stinking Old Ninth", burning books, and forcing educated people to perform hard labor in rural areas or to be killed.
- During the Armenian genocide, intellectuals were targeted for assassination by the Ottoman Empire.
- The Soviet NKVD under the direction of NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria and with Joseph Stalin's approval committed mass murder against Polish intelligentsia and military officers and at the Katyn massacre in 1940 during the Soviet occupation of Poland.
Bian Zhongyun (卞仲耘), first teacher to be killed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution
- My Struggles With Anti-Intellectualism, Paul Stoller
- America dumbs down, Maclean's
- How the 'Stupid Party' Created Donald Trump, The New York Times
- Not to be confused with the Grads of Life project, a project meant to provide young people with skills for jobs.
- A Cult of Ignorance by Isaac Asimov (January 21, 1980) Newsweek. Page 19.
- Trump supporters say the darndest things, part 5 by Bowertown Media (Dec 16, 2017)YouTube.
- Intellectualism Encyclopedia.com.
- Anti-intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter (1964) Alfred A. Knopf.
- "Anti-Intellectualism" by Keri Leigh Merritt. In: Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices, edited by Roger Chapman (1984) M. E. Sharpe. ISBN 9780765617613. Pages 27-28.
- You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a "Useless" Liberal Arts Education by George Anders (2017) Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 9780316548854. See interview with the author: Podcast #351: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education The Art of Manliness (October 26, 2017 • Last updated: September 29, 2021).
- 'Rich Dad Poor Dad' author Robert Kiyosaki appeals for financial literacy by Mai Yoshikawa (Jan 18, 2018) The Japan Times.
- Nichols, Tom. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. p. 72.
- A Brief History of Anti-intellectualism in American Media by Diane S. Claussen (May-June 2011) Academe. Pp. 8-13.
- Professor values Conservapedia (archived from March 6, 2021).
- egghead, n. Oxford English Dictionary.
- The Triumph of the Egghead by Louis Bromfield (December 1, 1952) The Freeman via Mises Institute (archived from 7 Mar 2022 20:16:51 UTC). Pp. 155-158.
- Ivory tower, The Phrase Finder
- ivory tower, n., Oxford English Dictionary.
- Ivory Tower by Mike Sutton (03-07-2020) Evidence and Refutation.
- Characters and events; popular essays in social and political philosophy. Volume 1 by John Dewey (1929) Henry Holt and Company.
- See the Wikipedia article on White Terror.
- 1966: La Noche de los Bastones Largos: Police repression at the Universidad de Buenos Aires by Daniel Schugurensky (March 23, 2006) University of Toronto.
- Mentes Cortas, bastones largos by Warren Ambrose (July 29, 1966) letter to The New York Times (archived from February 15, 1998).
- La noche de las bastones largos
- La Noche de los Bastones Largos
- The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus by Vahakn N Dadrian (2008) Berghahn Books. ISBN 1571816666. p. 221.
- Re-creating Armenia: America and the Memory of the Armenian Genocide. by David S. Blinka (2008) University of Wisconsin Press. Master's thesis. p. 31.
- The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians by Donald Bloxham (2009) Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199226881.
- See the Wikipedia article on Katyn massacre.
- See the Wikipedia article on Bian Zhongyun.