Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 10, May 2001: "The many faces of anti-intellectualism"


"Universities should not subsidize intellectual curiosity." This oxymoronic statement was uttered by none other than then candidate for the governorship of California Ronald Reagan in the late 1960s. The astounding thing is not that somebody like Reagan would actually say something so outrageously stupid, but that this helped him win the election and usher a new era of official anti-intellectualism in America. This is continuing to this day. Witness the fact that the current president, George W. Bush, has run a campaign as the (Yale-educated!) champion of the everyday man against the “pointed-head” intellectualism of rival Al Gore.

Anti-intellectualism has always been a powerful undercurrent in American culture, and it will probably play a major role in our society for a long time to come. Regardless of how depressing such thoughts might be, the first rule to win a war is to know thy enemy; which is why I’d like to discuss the major types of anti-intellectualism and how they threaten the very existence of a liberal society.

Richard Hofstadter, in a classic book on anti-intellectualism, first described the phenomenon in its entirety, and what I succinctly propose here is an elaboration on his main categories and on the more recent work of D. Rigney. The first kind of anti-intellectualism can be termed “anti-rationalism.” This is the idea that rational thinking is both cold (as in lacking sensitivity) and amoral (which is apparently a bad thing, in some people’s mind not sufficiently distinct from im-moral). The perception that scientists and philosophers—the very paragons of rationalism—are cold and insensitive is as widespread as it is false. If you know any individual belonging to these professions, you surely realize that they can get as emotional as the guy next door. The idea that rationality and emotions, science and poetry, cannot mix is simply unfounded. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out in Unweaving the Rainbow, science simply expands your ability to experience awe and wonder, it does not constrain it. As for a-morality, this view is best summarized in the words of John Cotton (back in 1642): “The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan you bee.” I honestly never understood why God would not appreciate humor and culture. Then again, there is that story of Eve and Adam stealing the fruit of the tree of knowledge…

One can be anti-intellectual also by rejecting intellectualism because it is elitist. Anti-elitism is very peculiar to the American psyche, and it is virtually unknown in the rest of the universe. Most other people recognize that in matters of the intellect, as in any other human activity, there are people who do it better and others who are not quite as good. That does not—and should not—imply anything about the intrinsic worth (or lack thereof) of such people. Astonishingly, Americans don’t have any problem with elitism per se: just watch the adoring crowds at a basketball game and the recursive tendency to set up athletes as “role models” for our youth. The underlying assumption seems to be that everybody can become an Olympic athlete, but that the way to science and letters is only reserved to the lucky few. Ironically, the truth is quite the opposite: while the chances of making it in professional sports are almost nil, a country with a large system of public education and some of the best schools in the world can give the gift of intellectual pursuit to millions of people.

Suppose you are a mathematician and you are attending a cocktail party. Somebody approaches you for small talk and asks: what do you do? Chances are you’d rather answer that you are a traveling salesman than that you spend your time contemplating problems in set theory. This is because you are afraid of a third form of anti-intellectualism, unreflective instrumentalism. This is the idea that if something is not of immediate practical value it’s not worth pursuing. Hence, most of science and all of philosophy should be thrown out the window. The root of this attack on the pursuit of knowledge is to be found in capitalism at its worse. Andrew Carnegie, for example, once quipped that classical studies are a waste of “precious years trying to extract education from an ignorant past.” But the very idea of a liberal—not politically, but as opposed to practical—education is that it is far better to train somebody to think critically than to give her specific skills that will be out of date in a few years. Yet, captains of industry are not interested in your mental welfare; what they want is a bunch of mindless robots who are especially adept at carrying out whatever tasks will turn the highest profit for the stockholders. In this sense, intellectualism is a very subversive enterprise, which explains its persecution by rogues of the caliber of McCarthy and Reagan. I recently had the pleasure and honor of attending a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut. He asked the audience to remember one thing from his visit: start calling your TV “the tantrum” and for God’s sake, turn it off and start talking to each other. Or reading. The idea that intellectual pursuits are a lot of work and that it is far easier and more pleasurable to watch TV is the fourth kind of anti-intellectualism, unreflective hedonism. While I do not suggest to kill your TV, as some radical friends of mine would want you to do, do try to read a good book. I bet that the experience will be much more pleasurable than you thought. A novel by Vonnegut might be a good place to start.

We have met the enemy, and it is us, as Pogo concluded in the famous comic strip. The most pernicious kind of anti-intellectualism comes from other intellectuals. In recent years a movement called post-modernism (or decostructionism) has made headway in humanities departments throughout the US and has been given a sympathetic hearing by major media outlets. The idea is that knowledge is relative because it is a cultural construct. So, you are equally fine if you believe in evolution or creation, because these are both narratives “constructed” by pockets of our culture. Of course, if everything is relative and no theory has any particular claim to truth or reality, then why should anybody believe deconstructionists? Postmodernism has actually been imported in this country from France, and as philosopher Ted Honderich has remarked, one can think of it as “picking up an idea and running with it, possibly into a nearby brick wall or over a local cliff.”

What do we do about all this? Once again, the only available road is the long and tortuous path to education. But it should help knowing what we are dealing with before engaging in battle. Contrary to what a postmodernist might say, Napoleon really did loose at Waterloo, and it was because of poor intelligence on what the other side was doing.


Next Month: "God on the highway"

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2001