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Anti-intellectualism describes a sentiment of hostility towards, or mistrust of, intellectuals and intellectual pursuits. This may be expressed in various ways, such as attacks on the merits of science, education, art, or literature.


Political cartoonist Thomas Nast contrasts a scholar with a prize-fighter. His caricature encapsulates the popular view that sees reading and study as being in opposition to sport and athletic pursuits, although the bovine figure of the fighter is no less negative than that of the scholar.

Anti-intellectuals often perceive themselves as champions of the ordinary people and populism against elitism, especially academic elitism. These critics argue that highly educated people from an isolated social group tend to dominate political discourse and higher education (academia).

Anti-intellectualism can also be used as a term to criticize an educational system if it seems to place minimal emphasis on academic and intellectual accomplishment, or if a government has a tendency to formulate policies without consulting academic and scholarly study.

Expression[edit | edit source]

Anti-intellectualism will often be expressed within communities through declarations of Otherness, that is, intellectuals will be said to be 'not one of us'. Those who mistrust intellectuals will represent them as a danger to normality, insisting that they are outsiders with little empathy for the common people. This has historically resulted in intellectuals being painted as arrogant members of a different social grouping. In rural communities, for example, intellectuals may be viewed as "city slickers" who know little of the country and its ways. It is also common for communities to typecast intellectuals as foreigners or members of ethnic minorities, for instance as Asians. Along with this, intellectuals will often be said to be prone to mental instability, their critics insisting there is a medically proven connection between genius and madness. Communities where religious faith is strong may endeavor to link intellectuals with the promotion of atheism, while the sexual mores of intellectuals can be also placed in doubt in some cultures where they can be suspected of high promiscuity, homosexual tendencies, or lack of interest in sex at all.

Causes[edit | edit source]

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

Religion[edit | edit source]

Although a variety of religions promote intellectualism, there has also been a religious tendency in modern and classical times to harbor anti-intellectual sentiments [How to reference and link to summary or text]. This occurs primarily in fundamentalist groups within religions who perceive one or more contradictions in specific religious tenets. As stated before, this rejection is not necessarily the case with all religious groups, as many religious groups pride themselves on their scholarly, as well as religious, traditions. In fact, many early and contemporary philosophers consider/considered themselves religious including Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and others.

When religious doctrines include statements about natural or human history, the provenance of sacred texts (and other matters), such claims may be investigated by external scholarship. For example a claim about the age of a religious artifact may be scientifically tested, or a theodicy may be logically examined. If such an investigation is instigated, the outcome may therefore create conflict in relation to how an adherent to the doctrine perceives it as confirming or denying their belief.

However, religious anti-intellectualism is not confined to hostility against science: When movements such as bohemianism, avant-gardism and romanticism become major factors in the fine arts, religious believers may perceive 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. Some would argue, however, that this is just moral conservatism, which is distinct from anti-intellectualism, though the two positions are allied in many cases.

Authoritarian politics[edit | edit source]

Anti-intellectualism is often used by dictators or those seeking to establish dictatorships. Educated people as a social group have often been seen by totalitarian elements as a threat because of the tendency of intellectuals to question existing social norms and to dissent from established opinion. Thus, often violent anti-intellectual backlashes are common during the rise and rule of authoritarian political movements, such as Fascism, Stalinism and Theocratic rule. Moreover, because many intellectuals refuse to embrace nationalism, they are also commonly portrayed as unpatriotic and subversive.

The most extreme dictatorships, such as that of the Khmer Rouge, simply murdered anyone with more than a rudimentary education. Other expressions of anti-intellectualism range from the closure of public libraries and places of learning, to keeping intellectuals and scientists isolated from the world in an "ivory tower", to official declarations that intellectuals are prone to mental illness and enacting laws to have them placed under psychiatric care. In addition, intellectuals in countries ruled by authoritarian governments are often subject to popular condemnation and used as scapegoats to divert the anger of the public away from those in power. Anti-intellectualism is not necessarily violent, however, and not necessarily oppressive. Anti-intellectual attitudes can be held by any group, including non-violent ones, as well as by individuals who merely disfavor intellectualism and learning in general. According to Jorge Majfud, "this contempt that arises from a power installed in the social institutions and from the inferiority complex of its actors, is not a property of 'underdeveloped' countries. In fact, it is always the critical intellectuals, writers or artists who head the top-ten lists of the most stupid of the stupid in the country."[1]

Populism[edit | edit source]

Populism can be another major strain of anti-intellectualism. In this context, 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. American former president George W. Bush has been accused of appealing to this type of populism. [2] Those who argue from populist ideals will often assert that knowledge needs to be regulated by the people, claiming that educators need to work in line with policies made by stakeholders such as parent groups.

In a similar vein, the curiosity and objectivity of intellectuals about foreign countries and beliefs is portrayed as a lack of patriotism or moral clarity, and intellectuals are often held to be suspect of holding dangerously foreign, possibly subversive, opinions. An extreme form was embodied by Joseph McCarthy, the anti-Communist senator from Wisconsin.

Issues within the educational system[edit | edit source]

The educational system may serve as a powerful tool for forming the culture of a nation. In the English speaking world, particularly in the United States and United Kingdom, the schools and universities have often been criticized for being overtaken by overtly 'Intellectualist' 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 primary and secondary schools[edit | edit source]

Some commentators[3] believe that primary and secondary schools, at least in the United States, place too much emphasis on equality of outcome at the expense of individual intellectual achievement. In the view of such commentators, such emphasis leads to a Handicapper General mentality and the dumbing down of the curriculum.

The demands of youth culture[edit | edit source]

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 or athletics than in their studies. Such subcultures, often marked by cliques, exist among students of all groups. 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.[4]

The Frontline Special "Merchants of Cool(2/27/2001)" (script) suggests that advertising giants are creating an anti-intellectual, commodity-obsessed generation.

In colleges[edit | edit source]

In the realm of higher education concerns are generally threefold:

Political bias[edit | edit source]

One type of criticism is based upon the perception that university professors and other academics have increasingly inculcated their own political ideologies into pedagogical interactions and professional research at the cost of the quality, objectivity, and appropriateness of each. In the United States this claim is more often made by those individuals on the conservative side of the political spectrum against political liberals, as understood in a contemporary sense of the term as well as radicals and leftists. Whether this focus on the proverbial "ivory tower left" is deserved is the subject of much intense debate both within the Academy and various political spheres.

Generally, these criticisms are brought up against persons working within the field of the Humanities-especially a set of the Humanities falling under the large subdivision of the Social Sciences. Among the fields most contested are Women's Studies, Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies or Racial Studies. Whether such field-specific attention is deserved is, once again, the subject of much intense debate.

When the criticism of political bias is set in the context of American liberals vs. American conservatives, as it often is, the dialogue between the two sides can become rapidly polemical. One finds conservative critics called "anti-intellectuals" as they attempt to bring the charge of political bias against various liberals even as the accused liberals are charged with such things as "re-writing history" (Historical revisionism); the validity of each party's assertion must be recognized to vary from case to case.

Deficient programs[edit | edit source]

Another major concern centers on the perceived lack of general education in college curricula. Critics claim[attribution needed] , for example, that college students ought to take more humanities classes, such as history or literature, along with the requirements of their major. 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.

Lack of usefulness[edit | edit source]

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. This sort of antagonism is often exacerbated in universities when it comes to apportioning limited budgets and providing funding for professors and graduate students. While it is often more expensive to hire and fund technical and engineering departments (often due to demands for labs, resources, computers, etc.) a university's budget committee may see them as having greater practical importance over the liberal arts. Furthermore, grants and endowments to universities may come with stipulations requiring that the money go to programs that the benefactor views as useful.

Anti-intellectualism in the United States[edit | edit source]

19th Century culture[edit | edit source]

19th century popular culture is important in the history of American anti-intellectualism. In a period where the vast majority of the population led a rural life filled with manual labor and agriculture, a "bookish" education concerned with the classics was seen to be of little value. And yet it ought to be noted that Americans of that era were generally literate and, in fact, read Shakespeare much more than their present-day counterparts. [How to reference and link to summary or text] However, the ideal at the time was an individual technically skilled and successful in his trade and a productive member of society; studies of classics and Latin in colleges were generally derided.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

The 19th century predominantly valued the self-reliant and "self-made man," schooled by society and by experience, over the intellectual whose learning was acquired through books and formal study. In 1843, Bayard R. Hall wrote of frontier Indiana, that "(w)e always preferred an ignorant bad man to a talented one, and hence attempts were usually made to ruin the moral character of a smart candidate; since unhappily smartness and wickedness were supposed to be generally coupled, and incompetence and goodness." Still, there was a possibility for redemption if the "egghead" embraced common mores. A character of O. Henry noted that once a graduate of an East Coast college "gets over" his vanity, he makes just as good a cowboy as any other young man.

The related stereotype of the slow-witted naïf with a heart of gold, popular in 19th century stage shows, appears still in American culture, recently in the 1986 novel and 1994 motion picture Forrest Gump.

20th and 21st century culture[edit | edit source]

Right-wing currents[edit | edit source]

Conservative critiques of academia[edit | edit source]

Robert Warshow has put forth the hypothesis that the Communist Party became central to American intellectual life during the 1930s:

For most American intellectuals, the Communist movement of the 1930s was a crucial experience. In Europe, where the movement was at once more serious and more popular, it was still only one current in intellectual life; the Communists could never completely set the tone of thinking. . . . But in this country there was a time when virtually all intellectual vitality was derived in one way or another from the Communist party. If you were not somewhere within the party’s wide orbit, then you were likely to be in the opposition, which meant that much of your thought and energy had to be devoted to maintaining yourself in opposition.[5]

A more recent variant on this tendency is the so-called "academic freedom" movement, led by David Horowitz and his Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which claims the identity politics and left-wing views of certain academics are a means of indoctrinating university students with anti-American views[6].

Religious fundamentalism[edit | edit source]

Some modern American anti-intellectualism originates from the view held by some conservative Christians that the current form of public education subverts religious belief. The validity of this view was substantiated by the spread of atheism and Deism among the educated during the Enlightenment, and was deep-rooted even before that time. For instance, the New England writer and Puritan John Cotton wrote in 1642, "The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee." More recently, an anti-intellectual current is claimed by some in the works of Fundamentalist Christian cartoonist Jack Chick. In his anti-evolution tract Big Daddy? for example, he depicts the academic establishment as intolerant and elitist in their rejection of young earth creationism.[7]

Some Christians also object to what they perceive as "un-Christian" elements in public schools (K-12) and colleges and universities. Focal points for fundamentalist criticism are comprehensive sex education and evolution.

Left-wing currents[edit | edit source]

1960s student culture[edit | edit source]

Especially in the 1960s many student demonstrators[attribution needed] romanticized the impoverished populations of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta.[How to reference and link to summary or text] The lack of formal education in these regions was seen as a sort of freedom from "conformist" society that allowed one to lead a more genuine and worthy life.[How to reference and link to summary or text] The sanitized version of folk music that became popular on campus around this time is a related trend.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

The anti-war movement also despised the highly educated and objective Washington technocrat, epitomized by Robert McNamara, who was not moved by subjective, irrational emotions. McNamara was alleged to make decisions solely on numbers and probabilities and could not see individual lives or deaths as anything but statistics. The Vietnam body count was offered as an example of this objectivity.

Theodor Adorno, himself a Marxist, sharply criticised this trend in the '60s Left, which he called "actionism," defined as the belief that actions such as protests and strikes could change the political structure by themselves without being supported by solid theory and an organized program or party.

The intellectual as paid apologist for the status quo[edit | edit source]

Many on the left such as Noam Chomsky have claimed that the intellectual's status as a "professional thinker" requires the support of a member of the ruling class willing to fund them.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Therefore, most intellectuals, in order to maintain their profession, must assume a subservient posture towards the current power structure even when their ideas are outwardly "radical." These critics point out that many a tenured professor has called for revolution, but few have ever taken concrete steps to promote one. This has the effect of discrediting the idea of social change by associating it with hypocritical academics, thereby serving the status quo.

In return for their rhetorical services, so this theory goes, intellectuals are rewarded with the power to set themselves up as the social betters of the proletariat and are given a measure of control over how normal people live their lives. In addition, when government actions go awry, intellectuals provide rulers with a convenient scapegoat - those who were paid to promote the policy can easily be blamed for creating it.

Although not a leftist thinker, Eric Hoffer is closely associated with this view of intellectuals. He compared them to the scribes that directed the construction of the pyramids - seemingly authoritative figures, who were in reality servants to the Pharaoh.

In the media[edit | edit source]

In the US 2000 Presidential Election, the media (particularly late night comics) portrayed Candidate Al Gore as a boring "brainiac" who spoke in a monotonous voice and jabbered on about numbers and figures that no one could understand. His supposed "claim to have invented the Internet"[8] was widely ridiculed. It was the classic stereotype of a pompous, out-of-touch intellectual, and this perception arguably hurt Gore in the election. In the years since, debate between the left and right in America has often centered on the relation of the intellectual class to the public as a whole.

Conservative commentators such as Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh commonly argue that conservative politicians, particularly Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, have been attacked by media as being "incompetent" - this can be understood as an accusation of intellectual snobbery by the media. O'Reilly in particular is well known for having a hostile attitude towards what he calls the "Ivy League Elite." The word "intellectual" itself has been used as an insult by many on the right.

Both O'Reilly and Limbaugh, as well as other conservative hosts such as Tucker Carlson and Joe Scarborough, are frequently accused of having anti-intellectual atmospheres on their shows, evidenced by their frequent interruption of guests who try to put forward complex arguments. Scarborough once commented that, "If my guest is allowed to speak uninterrupted for more than 15 seconds, then I'm not doing my job."[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Sensationalism[edit | edit source]

Some analysts feel the lack of intellectual content is representative of the media's propensity, in the service of higher ratings, to promote argument and spectacle rather than informed debate. Among those analysts, scholars such as Noam Chomsky believe that this soundbite atmosphere of the media inherently promotes pro-establishment views and aids in the manufacture of consent.

There is a strong feeling on both sides of the political divide that corporate news focuses too much on soundbites and headlines, and not enough on in-depth reporting. Researchers have noticed a trend in the amount of coverage newspapers and broadcast networks devote to various subjects: World events and political coverage are receiving a declining percentage of print space and airtime, while crimes, sex scandals, and celebrity intrigue take up more and more space.[How to reference and link to summary or text]. See also: Junk food news.

Anti-intellectualism in the Soviet Union[edit | edit source]

In the Soviet Union, within the first decade after the Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks generally scorned and suspected the educated as potential traitors to the cause of the proletariat. Both the core of the Communist Party and people who became local activists and officials in government and industry often lacked at least formal education and disdained those who had it. Lenin once called the intelligentsia, particularly those who opposed him, "rotten" and "shit".[9] The boast, roughly translated as "we ain't completed no academies" ("мы академиев не кончали") became a byword for the new ruling elite. Former members of propertied classes were classified as Lishentsy and their children were denied access to education. In 1922 a large group of Russian intellectuals was exiled on the so-called Philosophers' ships.

Later on, the Soviet government came to see education as important and dedicated great resources to literacy on the one hand, and higher and professional education on the other. However, as a matter of social policy, the government sought to promote the working class over an intellectual elite. Accordingly, industrial workers often received greater salaries than university-trained professionals such as teachers, doctors, and engineers. Moreover, workers were covertly inculcated with the notion that only manual labor creates real value in the economy, whereas educated people just sit around writing papers.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

It must be stressed, however, that the anti-intellectualism of the Soviet political elite was closely associated with the fact that the Russian academic milieu, as a part of the tsarist state apparatus, had been hostile to the 1917 Bolshevik takeover almost by definition; however, when dealing with practical issues such as economic and scientific management, the early Soviet regime had to resort to such "bourgeois experts", therefore the tense relationship between the Communist Party elite and non-Party educated people. It was only during the early 1930s that Stalin attempted to replace the old intelligentsia with a new, Party-approved group. Such favouring of partinost - that is to say, a partisan stance towards all matters intellectual - over formal scholarship, no matter how crude such partisan stance happened to be - in the end amounted to a clear anti-intellectual stance.

The Soviet treatment of certain sciences is an example of anti-intellectualism - the pseudoscientific theories of Lysenkoism and Japhetic theory gained prominence between the 1930s and the 1950s for political reasons rather than the normal scientific process. They caused significant damage to Soviet biology and linguistics before they were abandoned in the 1950s.

Anti-intellectualism in Asia - China, Cambodia and Iran[edit | edit source]

Asian anti-intellectualism has deep roots. Even the Tao Te Ching advises rulers to keep their subjects with a "full belly and an empty mind" and that "ignorance is better than knowledge" among the people. Additionally, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, even was one of the most prominent to show anti-intellectualism by distrusting scholars and forcing the educated into labor, and burning texts written by historians or by Confucian scholars.

A number of Asian countries have experienced degrees of anti-intellectualism in the 20th century.

In Cambodia, a country where few people have access to formal education (the literacy rate is about 50% as of 2004), the Khmer Rouge regime (1975–1979) was generally disdainful of intellectuals and saw many as enemies or traitors (see also: Democratic Kampuchea). In some sectors, anyone who wore glasses was shot by Khmer guards, as glasses were seen as a mark of education and intellectualism.

The revolutionary regime in the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran also displayed a streak of anti-intellectualism in its policies. Besides the emigration of many well-educated, western-trained, intellectuals in the wake of the revolution (Brain drain), the government decreed in 1980 that all universities are to be closed until the curricula are "purified" from the corrupt Pahlavi legacy. The ban on secular high education persisted until 1982. Also, the repressive attitude of the regime toward Iranian intelligentsia is well known (a highly publicized case of intellectual repression was the execution of the poet Said Soltanpour in 1981).

Anti-intellectualism in Italy[edit | edit source]

A form of anti-intellectualism, which began as a philosophical perspective championed notably by Giovanni Gentile's rather intellectual & epistemological rendering of Italian Fascism (and too being a form of the view adhered to by many Italian Futurists), displayed itself in a way that was quite distinct from the consideration of most other conceptions of anti-intellectualism as a position. This 'anti-intellectualism' of Gentile's was pro-erudition, and therefore in favor of the sciences, philosophy & all quintessentially "intellectual" fields, including favoring positions of authority for thinkers, i.e. the thinker as a profession, and even sought & struggled for them to be included in the social sphere as well. It was, however, how he construed the term "intellectual", which was to him to mean one who uses the intellect abstractly in the passive tense and who does not apply intellectual pursuits to active praxis, that made his idea of anti-intellectualism fundamentally different from those who outright opposed the academics. Rather, Gentile was a pedagogue and academic himself who espoused others who were the same.

However the term "intellectualism" represented to Gentile an abhorrent support for objectifying ideas as they shouldn't be, in ways which fixed thought as object & ceased to make intellect flourish but instead stagnate. Gentile saw a system of "concrete thinking" as something definitely of another quality than what was to him "abstract thought". This was something which he opposed as having no real connection to intelligence but rather saw a separation from active intelligence in it (by abstracting what are living processes of thinking and so labeling and killing them). This view was very much parallel to his philosophical system of Actual Idealism.[10]

The reliance of logic on too many a posteriori held principles external to the matter-at-hand was Gentile's criteria for (decadent) intellectualism. This left his philosophy as an intellectualized kind of Occam's razor toward intellectualism.

Giovanni Gentile summed up & reiterated his strong support for erudite endeavors & the use of study and literature as central to his ideals for how society should be composed, all the while opposing what he named "intellectualism" many times throughout his career, as for an example below:

…Fascism combats … not intelligence but intellectualism … which is … a sickness of the intellect … not a consequence of its abuse, because the intellect cannot be used too much … it derives from the false belief that one can segregate oneself from life…
— Giovanni Gentile, speech at Congress of Fascist Culture in Bologna, 30 March 1925

This form of philosophical anti-intellectualism that Gentile posited became the mainstay of Fascist ideology which would later be taken and interpreted even by follow Fascist contemporaries in entirely different manners than held to in the original philosophy of Gentile.

Anti-intellectualism in the classical world[edit | edit source]

The Roman statesman Cato the Elder's public career displayed many traits that today would be considered anti-intellectual. He vehemently opposed the introduction of Greek cultural ideals and models into the Roman republic, believing them to be subversive of traditional plainspokenness and rugged military values. He urged the Roman Senate to pass its decree against the newly imported Bacchanalian mysteries, which it did in the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus in 186 BC. He urged the deportation of three Athenian philosophers, Carneades, Diogenes the Stoic, and Critolaus, who had been sent to Rome as ambassadors from Athens, on the grounds that he believed the opinions they expressed were dangerous. The Emperor Augustus also exiled many philosophers.

However, rulers in the ancient and classical worlds were generally intolerant of anyone who disagreed with them. Anti-intellectualism as hostility by self-identified "common" people, or those that claim to speak for them, against a perceived class of cultural elites is generally considered a modern phenomenon.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Further Reading[edit | edit source]

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