Saturday, September 13, 2008

Anti-Intellectualism in American (and Canadian) Life

I first read Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life a few years ago. My initial interest in the book stemmed from the fact that Hofstadter had accused Dewey of having unwittingly promulgated anti-intellectual trends in education. However, Hofstadter’s book has been on my mind lately because there is an epidemic of anti-intellectual discourse in the current American and Canadian election campaigns.

In the opening pages of the book, Hofstadter offers the following definition of anti-intellectualism:

“The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual is a resentment and suspicion of the life of he mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.” (Hofstadter, pg. 7)

Readers of this blog who have been observing the American election probably already know that anti-intellectual rhetoric is playing a significant role in the campaign. For example, after the Obama campaign pointed out the number of houses McCain owned, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers offered the following statement: “"In terms of who's an elitist, I think people have made a judgment that John McCain is not an arugula-eating, pointy headed professor-type based on his life story." Notably, Hofstadter’s analysis informs us that this particular pattern of attack has a long history. During the campaign of 1800, attacks against Jefferson focused on his allegedly dangerous intellectual tendencies. Contemporary commentators argued that Jefferson’s “shewy talents” and dangerously French “theoretic learning” made him unfit for the presidency. Historian Charles Lerche commented on the effectiveness of this particular aspect of the campaign against Jefferson:

"Another persistent avenue of attack upon Jefferson was the charge that as a man given to abstract speculation he was automatically disqualified from holding the office of President. This was a shrewd strike, for the average American was (and is) profoundly suspicious of formal learning in politics, particularly when it is of a theoretical or speculative nature."

More than 200 years later, we are apparently in the “information age” and are participants in the “knowledge economy.” Yet despite this seeming valorization of knowledge, the anti-intellectual card is still just as powerful as ever, and politicians do not hesitate to play it.

Now, some American readers might be tempted to think that the Canadian political scene is too civilized to permit the brazen use of the anti-intellectual strategy. However, a recent web campaign by the Conservative Party of Canada has arguably gone farther down this road than any previous American efforts. Stéphane Dion, the current leader of the Liberal party of Canada, is a former professor at the Université de Montreal. Determined to use this fact to their advantage, the Conservative party has created a parody website, the main interface of which features “Professor Dion” standing in front of a blackboard, looking puzzled. The “Bio,” which is titled “From Professor to Weak Leader,” utilizes every available element of the anti-intellectual strategy. The text of the site reads as follows:

Dion has an unusual propensity to combine politics and pets. He named a turtle after the communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. After the Liberals lost the 2006 election he bought a dog that he named after the environmental treaty, Kyoto, that he promised to implement as Environment Minister but failed to deliver on. He even once taught a parrot to say “ideology”.

Mr. Dion graduated from Université Laval with a B.A. in 1977 and an M.A. in 1979, both in political science. In 1986 he received his doctorate in sociology from the Institut d'études politiques in Paris.

Dion is especially proud of his educational background. He claimed in July 2008 that, if elected Prime Minister, he would be the first Prime Minister to hold a Ph.D. In fact Canada’s longest serving Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, had a doctorate from Harvard University.

Professor Dion lectured at the Université de Moncton in 1984. He left Moncton after a few months, complaining that it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, and went to the Université de Montréal where he taught from 1984 to 1996.

The various conclusions which we are meant to draw from this “bio” are (a) that Dion has dangerous radical tendencies, (b) that he is eccentric, (c) that he is unduly proud of his educational background, (d) that despite his intellectual pretensions, he is ignorant of Canadian history, and (e) that he is a snobby intellectual who would never be content with a small town like Moncton.

As an academic, I have to admit that these anti-intellectual attacks infuriate me. As an educator, however, I try to think somewhat more constructively; I wonder whether there is anything we can do to lessen the effectiveness of anti-intellectualism. In School and Society, Dewey spoke of knowledge becoming liquid, and he suggested that “a distinctively learned class is henceforth out of the question.” Needless to say, the continued potency of the anti-intellectual strategy indicates that this prophecy has not been entirely fulfilled. Perhaps this points to a need on the part of educators to redouble our efforts to demystify and to circulate our work. At any rate, I would certainly be interested to hear others’ thoughts about anti-intellectualism and what we can do about it.


Barbara Stengel said...

As I am reading your interesting post, David, I am pondering the Sarah Palin interview on ABC. It seems that many of her comments reinforce the strain of anti-intellectualism you cite. And I very much appreciate the thoughtfulness with which you respect and unpack what does seem to be anti-intellectualism. The important question is whether it´s anti-intelligence or anti-intellectualism? The former is decidedly not Deweyan, but the latter might be.

Cherilyn Keall said...

I remember being very disappointed by the campaign against Dion. I was excited about the prospect of having a well-educated PM.

Barbara, I think that's an important distinction you draw between anti-intelligence and anti-intellectualism. I hadn't thought about that before, but now I shall.