America’s Chronic Anti-Intellectualism

As a retired college professor who has thought about education all of my adult life  (and even written a book about it!), I have posted a number of blogs on the topic. This is one of my favorites from 2014.

Every now and again as we read good books there appear, as if by magic, words that express so well some of the loose, disjointed ideas we have in our own heads. In reading Richard Hofstadter’s remarkable work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life I came across such words. Indeed, I have come across such words numerous times, as readers of these blogs are aware! In any event, Hofstadter’s comments about anti-intellectualism within our educational system ring true: I have seen it first hand and am aware that it has grown considerably over the years as the schools have moved steadily toward a more “practical” system that develops the “whole child” or teaches them job skills, and downplays the importance of developing their minds.

As Hofstadter suggests, this attitude has been commonplace  in our culture since the Civil War; we could be caught, increasingly, worshipping at the shrine of The Great God Utility — expecting of our educational system what we expected of our religion, “that it be [undemanding], practical and pay dividends.”  Still, there were a few people, like this “small town Midwestern editor” quoted by Hofstadter who understood the need for intelligent citizens in our democracy:

“If the time shall ever come when this mighty fabric shall totter, when the beacon of joy that  now rises in pillars of fire . . . shall wax dim, the cause will be found in the ignorance of the people. If our union is still to continue . . .; if your fields are to be untrod by the hirelings of despotism; if long days of blessedness are to attend our country in her career of glory; if you would have the sun continue to shed his unclouded rays upon the faces of freemen, then EDUCATE ALL THE CHILDREN OF THE LAND. This alone startles the tyrant in his dreams of power, and rouses the slumbering energies of an oppressed people. It was intelligence that reared up the majestic columns of national glory; and this sound morality alone can prevent their crumbling to ashes.”

Aside from the fact that few editors today, Midwestern or not, have this man’s facility with words (or his love of hyperbole), he points out the necessary connection between educating young minds and the preservation of our republic, which we seem to have forgotten: education not as job training or increasing self-esteem, but as empowerment, the ability of citizens to use their minds and make wise choices. The Founders were banking on it. Our schools seem to have forgotten what they are supposed to do. As Hofstadter goes on to point out:

“But if we turn from the rhetoric of the past to the realities of the present, we are most struck by the volume of criticism suggesting that something very important has been missing from the American passion for education. A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference — underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else — the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of the academically gifted children. At times the schools in this country seem to be dominated by athletics, commercialism, and the standards of the mass media, and those extend upwards to a system of higher education whose worst failings were underlined by the bold president of the University of Oklahoma who hoped to develop a university of which the football team could be proud. Certainly some ultimate educational values seem forever to be eluding the Americans. . . . Americans would create a common-school system, but would balk at giving it adequate support.”

A page later, Hofstadter quotes the great education reformer, Horace Mann who predicted as far back as 1837:

“neglectful school committees, incompetent teachers, and an indifferent public, may go on degrading each other until the whole idea of free schools would be abandoned.”

In order to remedy this situation, Mann pushed hard to establish “normal schools” in Massachusetts on the Prussian model, which he saw first-hand. These schools were set up to train teachers, and they gradually spread in this country to become the “teachers colleges” that evolved into the state colleges which, in turn, morphed into the state universities we see everywhere.  The job of these state colleges and universities was, and still is, primarily to train teachers. As part of this process, teachers were to be “certified” to guarantee their competence. But this process, together with the starvation wages they are paid, has practically guaranteed that the poor quality of teachers that Mann pointed to in his day would persist. The process of “normalization” brought with it a huge bureaucracy, which has been aptly named “the Blob,” that has threatened to strangle the training of teachers and has turned many bright young people away from the profession, practically guaranteeing the very condition Mann determined to avoid. America now draws its teachers from the bottom third or bottom quarter of the college pool thanks in large part to the poor salaries they are paid and the “methods” courses they are required to take in order to be certified.

In any event, Mann’s words struck me not only as insightful, but as prophetic. In the end, the current condition of public schools in America comes down to the indifference of the public — their addiction to the extra-curricular coupled and the practical along with their refusal to pay teachers what they deserve —  not to mention a system of teacher training that tends, on the whole, to belittle intelligence and discourage those who would almost certainly make the best teachers.

3 thoughts on “America’s Chronic Anti-Intellectualism

  1. Hugh, the concept of anti-intellectualism seems to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we construct its inverse does that mean one is “pro-uneducated?” Warren Buffett, one of the richest people in the world said this about Barack Obama. “He is the best editor of information I have ever seen.” The current incumbent says “His gut is smarter than most experts.” Who believes this kind of BS?

    The scary part is when autocrat comes into power, he goes after the learned professors, then he goes after the media, then he goes after those who are not mainstream, etc. We cannot be exceptional if we fall in education levels. The last time I checked the US was 23rd in math and 27th in science in the world. It is likely worse now. Keith

    • Well said. And we know the president has the IQ of a toadstool. But the power-grabbers always go after the intellectuals and those who might get folks to see through the smokescreen they throw up!
      And the scores in the schools have been lowering for some time. Much of that problem is due to the teachers who get defensive and refuse to admit there is a problem — frequently by attacking “standardized tests.” Until we accept responsibility there will be no fix.

      • Hugh, I would expect a leader to want to be surrounded by the best and brightest minds. Obama’s director of DOE is a nuclear physicist, while Trump picked Texas Governor Rick Perry, who advocated eliminating the DOE in 2012. Governance is hard. One can be decisive with good advisors, yet it startles me that Trump believes his own BS that is gut is smarter than the experts’ brains. Keith

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