Anti-intellectualism In and Out of Academe

Written with Michael Brown

Mike: I have to admit that I’m not comfortable saying that there is an anti-intellectual tendency in American life. Intellectuals have always been a minority, and their work has always appealed primarily to specialists. So claiming that some present condition is due in part to such a tendency doesn’t quite get to the most general obstacles to critical thinking, creativity, and the like. Randy Martin’s recent book, Under New Management, provides a slightly less pessimistic account of changes in higher education than what you seem to be saying, though I must admit that I am torn.


Mary: I don’t think that intellectuals are necessarily aligned with a specific political ideology, and the anti-intellectualism I have seen is evident from folks on both the right and the left. There is a strong knee-jerk reaction to higher education in general, academics, and intellectual work. The language of academia is off-putting to so many in American society, and I find that difficult to understand. I know that this tendency is part of our national identity and part of a strong attraction to so-called bold leadership and quick decision-making. In other countries, academics play more of a major role in public conversations. They write widely read op-ed pieces and they appear on TV and radio news programs. But in the United States, most of our talking heads are not academics.

In addition, when academics engage with folks outside of academia, they are not rewarded by their universities. This type of work is not given credit within the university, and many academics themselves dismiss this work. Those I know who write op-ed pieces and are quoted in the media are often marginalized in their departments. There is jealousy and a dismissive attitude toward public engagement. It is not seen as the legitimate work of an academic. Junior faculty members are advised to limit their level of public engagement and to focus their energy on scholarship that will help them get tenure.


Mike: When I think of intellectual work, I don’t think of particular content so much as an approach, one that respects complexity and the presence of different values. The anti-intellectual tendency you are talking about is certainly part of American culture, and has been for a long time. But we need to consider what it consists of and why it seems so durable an attitude. What is its appeal?

Mary: I find it difficult to see anti-intellectualism as a singular point of view. It is more of a disposition—a down-to-earth, grass-roots type of attitude. The problem I encounter is when folks dismiss anything coming from the academy simply because it’s coming from an academic. As a society, we say that education is important and that access is worthwhile, but then we ridicule folks for pursuing Ph.D.’s, telling them that they are wasting their time and money. Instead, we should view the pursuit of a Ph.D. as the development of an important intellectual resource that can improve society.

Mike: It is true that academics are seen by some as snobs. And academia itself is also seen by many conservatives as a hot-bed of leftist radicalism, no doubt a holdover from the 60s, though by no means true of universities then or now. It is certainly true that universities in general make more room for liberal thinking than many other institutional settings. But they remain fairly conservative, and their faculties are far more politically diverse than is indicated by prevailing stereotypes.

Universities make room for liberal thinking when they value a willingness to doubt, understand the importance of analysis, and take account of the idea of society as a collective fact. This creates a space that makes possible an idea of justice as fairness, expressing one essential feature of the very idea of a university. That feature has to do with the emphasis on reason, so that conversation is possible across moral and religious lines, in contrast with the sort of faith that demands adherence to a point of view beyond any possible doubt.

In other words, the idea that universities represent the left is only true if reason itself is said to represent the left.

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