Anti-intellectualism: Causes

I found this in an unlikely source. A spiritual site. It is the paragraph on ‘pragmatism’ (or at least practicality) that caught my eye. It is not that there is anything wrong with ‘pragmatism’; pragmatism is needed to address all sorts of work related tasks. But pragmatism is rarely ideological neutral. It is what pragmatists position as the ‘impractical’ or ‘useless’ that is problematic. In the Digital Humanities there is en element of pragmatism, but this pragmatism must never position as ‘useless’ the very humanistic values, cognitive capacities, criticism, and reflection that are at the very core of the Digital Humanities. In other words, the field must never be dominated by pragmatists. We need more that one hand clapping.

(Orsom Wells ‘ The trial’. Modern corporate conformity through ‘practicality’ is one form of Anti-intellectualism).

Anti-intellectualism – Causes

Anti-intellectual beliefs can come from a variety of sources. These include:

Anti-intellectualism – Religion

Although most religions have rich intellectual traditions, many often rely on arguments from authorities that are not independently verifiable, along with a somewhat common tendency to reject secular critical traditions. Evangelical or fundamentalist forms of religious beliefs can be a source of anti-intellectual statements, though not all such groups are anti-intellectual and many pride themselves on their intellectual traditions. Syncretistic or mystical varieties of religious beliefs may also struggle with the definitions and distinctions of theology. Some religions have doctrines that affirm statements about natural or human history, the provenance of sacred texts, and other matters that may be investigated by outside scholarship; this can give rise to conflict. In a different cultural field, when bohemianism and romanticism become major factors in the fine arts, religious believers may believe these trends to be subversive of morality and call for censorship. This has been a fairly common theme in socio-cultural trends in the Americas and Europe since the time of the Reformation, as an example. However this is not a sign of anti-intellectualism. It is a sign of moral conservatism, which is distinctly different from anti-intellectualism, though the two concepts may be allied in some cases.

Anti-intellectualism – Corporate culture

Corporate culture in modern times has demonstrated a general preference for ‘pragmatism’, and this is an occasional source of hostility toward learning. The idea here is that education is a costly and useless distraction from the more important business of making money. Reading and writing are solitary ventures, and according to this viewpoint these activities do little to make a person more affable or conventional, and does not foster an aptitude for marketing or acumen for investment in profitable ventures. It is feared that intellectuals may acquire ethical and political ideas that may impede business or make its practices distasteful. This viewpoint tends to be commonly found in populations that utilise capitalism as their form of economic activity. Scientific and technological learning may be given a grudging respect; but the arts, literature, philosophy, and similar cultural pursuits are all considered a waste of time at best and subversive at worst. Those who pursue them are supposed to inhabit an ‘ivory tower’ of academia, full of grand plans whose practice is seen as impossibly flawed by their critics.

According to this view, education should be a sort of apprenticeship, rather than being done on the model of classical education based on Greek and Latin grammar and literature. The educational philosophy of John Dewey, founded on these assumptions, has had some influence on education in the USA, although it must be said that Dewey was also a philosopher and an atheist – two qualities guaranteed to raise suspicions among anti-intellectuals.

Anti-intellectualism – Educational system

The educational system may serve as a powerful tool for forming the culture of a nation. In the English speaking world, particularly in the USA and England, the schools and universities have often been criticised for being overtaken by overtly anti-intellectual trends and hence not preparing the youth properly to be members of society who would be cultured, prepared for challenging jobs, and capable of independent thought.

In schools these may include lack of emphasis on effective teaching of mathematics and the sciences, which is by now somewhat proverbial, and the rewriting history curricula to de-emphasise facts in favour of political agendas of the editors, which may include political correctness or ‘minority narratives’ or a nationalist agenda. Such critics would say, for example, that not teaching students multiplication tables in primary school and not making sure that they learn algebra by graduation is a blatant example of anti-intellectualism and malfeasance on the part of many schools. They would similarly criticise allowing students to graduate without learning the key facts about their country’s national history, or without having read any Shakespeare.

Many critics of anti-intellectualism would also suggest the push to teach creationism (or Intelligent Design) over evolution is an example of anti-intellectualism.

A major preserve of real, though hardly militant or even self-aware anti-intellectualism in the contemporary world is a youth subculture often associated with those students who are more interested in social life and athletics than in their studies. Such subcultures exist among students of all groups, although among Asians it is reputedly much less pronounced (as it is only more pronounced by groups or discourses in Asia, not by Asians overseas). On the other hand, there exists much anecdotal evidence of anti-intellectualism among African American youth who may consider focusing on school studies a ‘white’ attribute. Needless to say, there are plenty of anti-intellectual white students also, especially among the rural contingent and the children of the leisure class.

Commercial youth culture also generates a dizzying variety of fads. Keeping up with the trends is difficult, and their content is frequently criticised by cultural critics of many different persuasions for being simple-minded and pandering to unsophisticated appetites. Pursuing popularity has been likened by blog writer Paul Graham to a full time job that leaves little time for intellectual interests.

In the realm of higher education concerns are generally threefold:

One type of criticism is based upon perceived political biases within some branches of humanities and social science departments. Some believe that humanities professors in American colleges tend toward political liberalism. Conservative critics contend the research and teaching done by perceived liberal professors lacks academic rigor and may amount to indoctrination of students, while liberal critics charge that indoctrination is what conservatives have traditionally used in the humanities to support the status quo. Among the fields most contested are Women’s Studies, culture studies, and history. Conservative critics are sometimes called anti-intellectuals, while liberal reformers are often charged with ‘re-writing history’; the fairness or each party’s assertion must be recognized to vary from case to case.

Another major concern centers around the perceived lack of general education in college curricula. Critics claim, for example, that college students ought to take more humanities classes, such as history or literature, along with the requirements of their major. Allegedly, there is also a deficiency of academic rigor in the university liberal arts programs that are available to students, stemming from the aforementioned political bias, which is said to lead professors to concentrate on trendy and controversial subjects to the neglect of what is considered legitimate art and literature.

Notably, the humanities requirements in American colleges are actually much greater than in many other countries, such as Russia or India where college instruction is focused almost entirely on professional, often technical, preparation. It may be argued that in these countries it is generally believed high school education has given a student sufficient exposure to general education topics.

A third line of criticism, sometimes seeming to contradict the second, is the absence of ‘real life’ usefulness from the study of humanities. This has also contributed to anti-intellectualism, particularly among those who study, or have studied, technical subjects. This is sometimes considered more of a ‘rival-intellectualism’ rather than true anti-intellectualism, inasmuch as people who have received university-level technical training have themselves engaged in an intellectual activity of great complexity. An old joke among engineers, encapsulating this viewpoint, is that teaching students literature prepares them to become future professors of literature, and not much else.

Anti-intellectualism – Populism

Populism is another major strain of anti-intellectualism. Intellectuals are presented as elitists and tricksters whose knowledge and rhetorical skills are feared, not because they are useless, but because they may be used to hoodwink the ordinary people, who are conceived of as the ‘salt of the earth’ and the source of virtue.

In a similar vein, the curiosity and objectivity of intellectuals about foreign countries and beliefs is portrayed by populists as a lack of patriotism or moral clarity, and intellectuals are often held to be suspect of holding dangerously foreign, possibly subversive, opinions. This kind of anti-intellectualism is common in the United States and in an extreme form was embodied by Joseph McCarthy, the fanatically anti-Communist senator from Wisconsin (link).



Leave a Reply