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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."
Isaac Asimov[1]
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[2]

Anti-intellectualism is, to put it simply, the glorification of stupidity and dissing of intelligence in favour of intuition (aka the "just think about it"). 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".


In the United States, anti-intellectualism can be traced to the 1950s. 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 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".[3]

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[3] (despite the fact that those majors can provide solid soft skills for many corporate and creative industry positions[4]). A good example of that is shown in Robert T. 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.[5] 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".[6] 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.


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 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 Coalition 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, 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.

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.

Three types[edit]

Synthesizing the work of Richard Hofstadter and Dabiel J. Rigney, Diane S. Claussen describes three types of anti-intellectualism:[7]

What is anti-intellectualism[edit]

  • 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[edit]

  • 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 you have evidence and good reasons to back up your 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[edit]

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 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 60s 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[edit]

Want to hate book-learners? Read on!

"Ivory tower"[edit]

"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.[8]

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 rest 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, ass-hole colleagues and general drudgery that you 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 is in the Biblical Song of Solomon (7:4), but its original meaning is largely forgotten or overlooked. Since the early twentieth century the phrase has primarily been used to describe academia and privileged people or institutions which are perceived to be so caught up in their worlds of elitist isolation that they lose touch with the everyday world.

"Liberal academia"[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Political views of academics

Many academics — but not all or nearly all — are liberal. This has been used as "proof" that they are wrong — almost always by conservatives.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Not to be confused with the Grads of Life project, a project meant to provide young people with talents jobs.


  3. 3.0 3.1 MERRITT, Keri Leigb. Anti-Intellectualism [online]. In: Chapman, Roger (ed.). Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices. Armonk, NY; London : M. E. Sharpe, c2010. ISBN 978-0-7656-1761-3, pp. 27-28. Google Books preview.
  4. ANDERS, George. You Can Do Anything : The Surprising Power of a "Useless" Liberal Arts Education. New York, NY; Boston, MA; London : Little, Brown and Company, 2017. 352 pp. ISBN 9780316548854. Google Books preview. See interview with the author: Podcast #351: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education [online]. The Art of Manliness. 2017-10-26, updated 2020-01-04 [cit. 2020-06-24].
  5. TIWARI, Soumya. Books of The Months — March, April and May 2020 [online]. 2020-05-25 [cit. 2020-06-24].
  6. YOSHIKAWA, Mai. 'Rich Dad Poor Dad' author Robert Kiyosaki appeals for financial literacy [online]. The Japan Times. 2020-01-18 [cit. 2020-06-24].
  7. Diane S. Claussen. "A Brief History of Anti-intellectualism in American Media." Academe. May-June 2011. Pp. 8-13.
  8. Ivory tower, The Phrase Finder