, April 07, 2009
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The fit of intellectuals and intellectualism in American society (4.5*s)
As this book thoroughly shows, Americans have been and continue to be distrustful of intellectualism and intellectuals. Yet, that position lacks coherency and is not particularly healthy for a viable society in a very complicated world. Wasn’t America founded on enlightenment principles, emphasizing rationality, empowerment of the common man, and wide-ranging freedoms in terms of religion, political participation, speech, thought, and the like? That may be the theory, but the author ranges across American history to show that attitudes towards intellectuals and intellectualism by various segments of society, and in general, have often been ambivalent, dismissive, and at times overtly hostile. He examines in some detail such areas as religion, politics, education, and the business world to see the consequences of those suspicions.
The author distinguishes between intelligence and intellectualism. Intelligence involves being smart or skillful in a somewhat narrow sense – it is problem solving. An expert is in some ways a sharp problem solver, that is, being aware of most of the technical information that pertains to a topic or situation and able to utilize it. On the other hand, an intellectual’s approach is broader. He endeavors to see issues in a broad context and to think of them creatively and not be overly constrained by precedents. His task may be confined to interpretation, such as a Puritan minister, but he may be inclined, more problematically, to challenge the soundness or truthfulness of conventional values, wisdom, and ways of doing things. What the author does not overly emphasize, is that intellectuals can provoke considerable reaction when they undermine long-held beliefs of average people, or, often concomitantly, the authority and power of leaders of established institutions. Experts can be resented, but as life becomes more complicated they are tolerated better than those who question fundamental social, economic, or political organization.
Contrary to most intellectuals of the modern era being found in universities, the author regards the clergy of the New England Puritans in the 17th century and the Founding Fathers of the 18th, as being the first intellectuals of America. Because of their elitism, and thereby being in positions of relative leisure, they had the time to become the best educated men of their times. But their influence waned tremendously after the Revolution. Evangelical religions, which rose with western expansion, emphasized a direct, non-interpreted, relationship with God. Educated clergy were seen as doing no more than interfering with that relationship. Likewise in politics: beginning with Andrew Jackson, the common man assumed the dominant role in the political process. Gone were the days of elites dictating the selection of successors.
The author is especially concerned with the turn that high school education took towards a curriculum of “life adjustment” in the early 20th century. In lieu of a small number of intensely taught academic subjects, school reformers took a child-centric approach to education that emphasized teaching the child to function in society using mostly commonsense and what we would call networking. The business community hardly objected to that methodology. Businessmen want reliable workers, not thinkers. Businesses do need experts to some extent, but business owners do not tolerate intellectuals who question their motives and practices, thereby undermining their authority. The launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik in late 50s did force a re-examination of the lack of rigorous academics in high school, but the attitude persists that schools should not be breeding grounds for intellectuals to be.
Intellectuals, because of their inclination to question, often become dissenters, refusing to conform. As such, they get labeled as being radicals, bohemians, troublemakers, atheists, etc. It is just a small step to paint all intellectuals with those brushes regardless of any justification. That was precisely the tactic of Sen. Joe McCarthy in the early 50s, when he used the flimsiest of excuses to label intellectuals from many areas of life as communists. The McCarthy witch-hunt was the immediate backdrop and motivation for this book.
There does seem to be some room to apply slightly different interpretations to some historical developments outlined. For example, it is not surprising, in casting aside the British aristocracy, that a new America based on democratic participation would attempt to greatly limit the influence of elites – the intellectuals of the times. The question is whether the empowerment of the common man is equivalent to the spread of ignorance and disagreeable consequences. There is also the question of in what sense elites encourage anti-intellectualism, all the while trying to limit actual empowerment of the masses, as well as suppressing intellectuals - all to maintain their social standing as society’s decision makers. The author notes that it is ironic that modern intellectuals often come down on the side of the common man. Any induced anti-intellectualism in the masses is entirely likely to be a case of shooting oneself in the foot.
It’s easy to see why the book received a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for non-fiction. Anti-intellectualism gives a different perspective on historical developments that can obviously be viewed from other perspectives. It’s difficult to succinctly wrap up the book; it contains elements of anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, and anti-intellectuals. The author’s perceptiveness in describing all of this is far greater than this review may suggest.
One has to wonder how the author would view the intellectual development of society over the fifty years since he started this book. It goes without saying, that technological advances have enhanced the need for and the status of experts. But have we become wiser? Do we respect the fresh and hopefully helpful ideas of intellectuals? As was suggested earlier, intellectualism is played out in the context of power. If we remain substantially anti-intellectual, is that due to inherent, widespread ignorance or is it engendered by those with the resources to do so, namely those with control of media, education, and places of production? That is not a question that the author takes on. He does address in his wrap up the question of intellectuals being co-opted by joining centers of power, be they businesses, universities, or political parties. Can an intellectual work from within these institutions or must he remain outside as a critic to play his role, if he can? There is a lot to think about with this book, regardless of whether one is an intellectual.