The term "anti-intellectualism" emerged in the United States in the early decades of the 20th century, appearing in 1911 in the then well-known (if now largely forgotten) radical John Spargo’s Sidelights on Contemporary Socialism. Spargo argued passionately that the revolution needed to be guided by the proletariat, not only by a bunch of blithely theorizing intellectuals who undeservedly claimed ownership of a socialist movement over which they had no rightful claim. Yet Spargo also acknowledged that the proletariat could not truly understand its condition without well-equipped intellectual guides. In contrast to the poseurs or, "unsuccessful ‘intellectuals,’" fomenting anti-intellectualism — the "lawyers without clients, authors without publishers, professors without chairs, ministers without pulpits, and so on" — the true intellectuals knew their standing was best used to throw in their lot with the working class. (Spargo’s proletariat acknowledged its need to rely upon theoreticians to both facilitate and market its revolution.)
This was no laughing matter in the 1910s: As the Second International stood poised to take over a fairly sizable chunk of the globe in the name of the workers’ dictatorship, the question of who would be the heirs apparent to the new classless society — indeed, the very definition of the revolutionary vanguard — loomed heavily upon those who sought to overthrow the architects of the world’s current political malaise. Anti-intellectualism in America represented a retrograde position that marked one as insufficiently sympathetic to the working class; it pitted workers against brainpower; it offered a poorly conceived position with immediate and devastating consequences.
Whereas a mere century ago it was primarily revolutionaries aligned with the proletariat who decried anti-intellectualism, today it is largely intellectuals themselves who cry out against the cultural opprobrium cast upon those holding expensive degrees from institutions with massive endowments managed like hedge funds. Paul Krugman, distinguished professor at the City University of New York (where he reportedly teaches one graduate seminar per year in exchange for a lavish salary), waxes apocalyptic in an op-ed for the Daily Worker — sorry, make that The New York Times — following the 2016 presidential election, warning of dark forces in American life, including "anti-intellectualism" and "hostility toward ‘elites.’" Dean Aldemaro Romero Jr., also of CUNY, strikes a similarly portentous tone: "It is time for those of us involved in higher education in this country to recognize that there is a long shadow being cast on our institutions." It is just so hard to look down from our ivory towers at the stampeding masses discarding our scholarship like it is wanton opinion; discrediting our peer-reviewed articles as though they were drunken scrawls on bar napkins; spitting out the word "professor" with the same vitriol one uses to snarl an especially vile slur. O, we cry out in the wilderness, the humanity!
Over time, it has become impossible to imagine doing intellectual work without the backdrop of anti-intellectualism challenging our authority at every turn. Never mind that the definition of an "intellectual" shifts with the rapidity of an arctic ice floe, expanding and receding as the human race becomes imperiled by those who look increasingly to ill-informed politicians for the wisdom that was once jealously guarded by the professorial class.
Sometimes the intellectual is one who aspires to the world of ideas, unmolested by the banal workaday concerns of those toiling in the muck and mire; other times we are guardians of elite knowledge eschewing the temptations of reality TV; here the intellectual is dedicated to big ideas; there they are simply those who recognize the imprimatur of science as a profound defense against the stupidity of those who put politics above knowledge. Yet the one thing that no one disputes, the one irreducible truth of intellectual culture, is that anti-intellectualism represents a grave threat — perhaps the gravest threat — to the continuing of life in a warming world overburdened with problems (global climate change; ISIS; neo-fascism) that cannot be solved without cultivating a penchant for big ideas.
The humanities feel this most acutely. It is not only the threat of the STEM fields favoring practical knowledge and "implementation" that makes us cry out against the philistines who see intellectuals as archaic reminders of a millennia-old liberal-arts education now under siege. It is also the very principle of ideas having value on their own merit, regardless of whether they can be assessed or turned into profits or draw fat grants into the neoliberal academy, that impels us to turn to the language of "crisis" to evaluate our position. Administrators rattle our cages, asking us to pursue "excellence" and hawk our majors like used-car salespeople, even as politicians and pundits question whether taxpayer dollars should be apportioned to departments more concerned with dismantling gender categories than assisting students in their quest to develop the next killer app.
Generally, academics acknowledge the significance of nerds, wonks, and geeks to the march of civilization. Some labor over the question of what defines an intellectual, and what value society does, or should, place upon this rarified assemblage. Others consider the nerdy pursuits that place those whose passion is largely in their own heads in a position of moral authority. In either case, the peculiar moment in which we find ourselves, one tortured by relentless assaults against the brainiacs in our midst, is defined through the persistence of intellectuals in carving new and unique spaces to push against the practical, the timely, and the immediate.
The language of anti-intellectualism has a strange power over those who believe in knowledge for its own sake. Anti-intellectualism cuts to the heart of our contemporary culture wars, jamming the work of those who seem most invested in pulling the nation out of its counterproductive malaise. Like Republican obstructionism, anti-intellectualism fails to consider ideas on their own merits, stubbornly declaring in advance that regardless of their individual value, intellectuals do not even deserve a fair hearing.
Of course Richard Hofstadter remains that rare prophet whose prognostications half a century ago continue to hold remarkable staying power within an academy that tends to move on to the next big idea with the alacrity of New York’s fashion week. The term "anti-intellectual" has appeared in The New York Times more than 650 times since 1885; over 75 percent of those usages have occurred since 1964, the year Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. For nearly 100 years individuals were rarely described as anti-intellectual in the United States, but for the subsequent 50 years, anti-intellectualism has become an indispensable interpretive lens through which to make sense of the contemporary world.
We might find value in returning to John Spargo’s century-old book as we consider our place as intellectuals in this mixed-up world. The intellectuals Spargo defends were desperately seeking to connect with workers; they were indistinguishable from the uneducated masses save for the particular role they played in articulating its goals. The intellectuals were listening to the voices of a rising proletariat, and were valuable in direct proportion to their alignment with the working-class women and men anxiously fighting against bureaucrats, billionaires, and bosses. As much as anti-intellectualism hurts, its chief impact is on those whose boots in the streets bring about radical social change, not the wounded feelings of those within the ivory tower who wish to do their work without exposure to the unsavory aroma of disrespect.
If we are doing our job, we should be opening ourselves constantly to critique and frustration, because we are challenging those who sit comfortably in seats of power. Those of us who fancy ourselves intellectuals have a particular responsibility to make our work legible even as it exposes us to ever-expanding avenues of disrespect. If we occasionally find ourselves valorized in spite of being stubborn little nettles tearing insistently at the social fabric, so be it. But our position in society cannot be abdicated whenever we feel our work is not recognized as intrinsically connected to the common good. We will continue to do the work we believe matters, and eliciting irritation and fomenting frustration are the surest ways to guarantee that we, too, do not end up bemoaning our lot as professors without chairs and authors without publishers.
Aaron S. Lecklider is an associate professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. A version of this essay appeared in The Year’s Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons, published this year by Indiana University Press and edited by Jonathan P. Eburne and Benjamin Schreier.