Anti-Intellectualism: A Continuing American Legacy
[I first posted this on the Academe blog in January.]
One of the most influential books on my own vision of academia and American life is Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Though I have serious reservations about parts of it, I return to the book again and again. Not surprisingly, I thought of it once more, today, when I read Patricia Williams’ article in The Guardian, “Anti-Intellectualism Is Taking Over the US.” It’s almost three years old, but worth reading if you (like me) have not previously seen it. Williams writes:
There are a number of factors at play in the current rash of controversies. One is a rather stunning sense of privilege, the confident sense of superiority that allows someone to pass sweeping judgment on a body of work without having done any study at all. After the Chronicle of Higher Education published an item highlighting the dissertations of five young PhD candidates in African-American studies at Northwestern University, Chronicle blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote that the mere titles of the dissertations were sufficient cause to eliminate all black studies classes. Riley hadn’t read the dissertations; they’re not even published yet. When questioned about this, she argued that as “a journalist… it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them,” adding: “there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery.” Riley tried to justify her view with a cliched, culture-wars-style plaint about the humanities and higher education: “Such is the state of academic research these days…. The publication topics become more and more irrelevant and partisan. No one reads them.” This is not mere arrogance; it is the same cocooned “white ghetto” narrow-mindedness that allows someone like Michael Hicks to be in charge of a major American school system yet not know “Rosa Clark’s” correct name.
He meant, of course, “Rosa Parks.” That anyone in the United States, to say nothing of someone with responsibilities for education, would make a mistake on that name is beyond belief.
Belief trumps inquiry for many Americans. It always has. Many of the opponents of American institutions of education are people believe they are secure in their knowledge–but who have never tried to put it to the test. When challenged, they lash out against the structures facilitating the challenge: schools and colleges. The difference, today, is that they are increasingly in charge of those schools and colleges rather than simply railing against them from the outside.