Section One: Anti-Intellectualism

Forms of Anti-intellectualism

The first component of the problem is reducible to a widespread anti-intellectual sentiment that characterizes the American public at large (in contrast, for example, with the situation in most European countries). The roots of anti-intellectualism in America run deep and have been the object of several studies. The following is based on the work of Richard Hofstadter and of Daniel Rigney, who have written extensively and thoughtfully on the topic.

There are essentially five forms of anti-intellectualism, which I shall briefly discuss in turn. First, anti-rationalism, which is connected to religious fundamentalism. This is the idea that reason is cold and dull, and that skeptical inquiry threatens authority (usually, of the Church). At the base of this kind of anti-intellectualism is a fear of moral relativism, which in turn really is the fear that one’s absolute morals are no better than anyone else’s.

Second, anti-elitism, the idea that intellectual activities are undemocratic. This is a populist political ideology, rooted in the American concept of democracy, which is much broader than the European one. In Europe, people living in democracies have little problem accepting the idea of intellectual hierarchies based on knowledge and skill (notice that Americans also accept hierarchies, but mostly based on power and money).

Third, unreflective instrumentalism, the concept that thought has no value unless it is of practical importance, which yields a disdain for theoretical inquiry and for intellectual pursuit per se. This attitude is rooted in rampant capitalism, where the Protestant work ethics and material success are more esteemed than esoterica. Fourth, unreflective hedonism, that is to say, to think requires hard work, so why bother? The mass media and entertainment industries are the chief catalysts of this kind of attitude. Most news media essentially provide “pre-interpreted” information, discouraging independent and complex thinking and leaning instead toward superficial sound bites. To paraphrase social commentator Neil Postman, we are a nation that is amusing itself to death.

Finally, we have that recent and very special form of anti-intellectualism known as post-modernism or deconstructionism (recently imported in the US chiefly from France, with its American exponents pushing it far beyond its original scope). This is the idea that all knowledge is relative, that different cultural traditions are equivalent, and that therefore science should not enjoy any privileged status as a particularly effective method of inquiry. The bizarre thing about this type of anti-intellectualism is that it originates from within academia, being pushed by the so-called academic left, and flourishing within humanities and social sciences departments throughout the country.

Perhaps the best critique of post-modernism ever published was the hoax perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal in 1996. He managed to get a paper entitled “Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity” into a major post-modernist journal, Social Text. The problem was that Sokal had made up the entire text of the manuscript out of a senseless sequence of phrases spiced up with impressive-sounding terms borrowed from mathematical theory and quantum mechanics. While a social critique of science is absolutely necessary because science is a human and therefore social activity, the problem with post-modernists seems to be that they literally don’t know what they are talking about.

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