31 May 2010


Here's a wonderful quote from Isaac Asimov:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
That was quoted in Newsweek magazine in January of 1980.   The situation doesn't appear to have improved in the past 30 years.

Quote found at Reddit, where someone recommended a book from 1966 by Richard Hofstadter: "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," the Amazon review of which offers this excerpt:
Unfortunately, America's practical culture has never embraced intellectuals. The intellectuals' education and expertise are viewed as a form of power or privilege. Intellectuals are seen as a small arrogant elite who are pretentious, conceited, snobbish. Geniuses' are described as eccentric, and their talents dismissed as mere cleverness. Their cultured view is seen as impractical, and their sophistication as ineffectual. Their emphasis on knowledge and education is viewed as subversive, and it threatens to produce social decadence.

Instead, the anti-intellectuals believe that the plain sense of the common man is altogether adequate and superior to formal knowledge and expertise from schools. The truths of the heart, experience, and old-fashioned principles of religion, character, instinct, and morality are more reliable guides to life than education. After all, we idolize the self-made man in America.

Hofstadter goes on to cite examples of anti-intellectualism from the nations founding to today. For example, the founding fathers were sages, scientists, and men of cultivation, yet the Federalists attacked the brilliant Thomas Jefferson by portraying the curiosity of his active mind as too trivial and ridiculous for important affairs...

Turning to education, Hofstadter points out that broad public education in the US was started not for developing the mind or the pride of learning for its own sake, but for its supposed political and economic benefits. Children were viewed not minds to be developed, but as citizens to be trained for a stable democracy.
Might be an interesting book.  Anyone read it?

TYWKIWDBI intends to remain a refuge for intellectuals.


  1. These days, I'd settle for common sense, unfortunately it has denigrated into outright ignorance. The fifties saw the brief rise of education and the sixties saw the end results, people finally began to connect the dots and realize how they were being led, lied to and abused.

    Ever since, free tuition in higher education exists only in memory. Libertarians and Republicans are doing everything in their power to challenge, demoralize and drive a stake through the remains of the public education system. They forget it was first instituted to raise and foster docile, compliant workers for their profit. In their own ignorance, they cannot fathom how they are now contributing to their own demise- in addition to that of everyone else.

  2. I guess I would disagree a bit.

    I don't think intellectuals are necessarily pretentious or elitist. Many are but I also can think of some I have met who are able to pursue their interests and professions and advance knowledge along with only a handful of people in the world without being pretentious or snobbish. I can’t think of very many Americans who hold someone’s intellectualism against them just because they are intellectuals.

    The problem arises when the only people who are deemed to be “intellectuals” are those who hold a very select set of ideas. That, I believe, is why you see some resentment toward intellectuals. Intellectuals devoted to alternative ideas are never acknowledged or given equal credit.

    Stan, you tickle me. Over the space of 20 years I have completed four university degrees and a professional certificate at four different universities. Only once, during the completion of my M.S., did the overwhelming majority of my professors NOT push what could only be described as leftist ideas. During the completion of my remaining degrees, almost all of the professors would insist that they were being “objective” and then proceed to advocate ideas that were quite leftist. I really did not care that a professor embraced certain ideas: the problem was (and remains) that greater than 90% of professors at major universities ALL THINK ALIKE. At no time did I ever have a professor even mention libertarian or conservative ideas in class without deriding them and making it quite clear that they expected us to believe what they said (regardless of whether there was evidence that supported their view).

    Now certainly, professors are not necessarily intellectuals but many can be. So, where is the diversity in thought? Obviously you are not troubled by this but I become quite uncomfortable when everyone starts to think alike. And that was my experience at four large universities (including one overseas).

    I support the fostering of intellectuals, think tanks, etc., across the spectrum of political thought and scientific pursuits. It’s important to find the truth, wherever if happens to be.

    For a wonderful book about education, I highly recommend “The Closing of the American Mind” by Bloom. Too often people make the mistake of thinking that it was some sort of conservative manifesto. It isn’t. He actually is quite liberal (in the original sense). Throughout the book, Bloom examines education and the development of intellectuals over the centuries. He addresses a variety of issues but what I appreciated most was his emphasis on the need for reason and evidence (not feelings and beliefs) and a true examination of alternatives and their resulting consequences. It isn’t an easy book to read. It isn’t difficult, it’s just dense – lots of material and ideas to absorb in every paragraph.

    I promise – you’ll like it.


    PS – One thought – with regard to the establishment of a broad public education in the U.S. – it makes sense that it didn’t happen for pride of learning. At the time, many children were needed at home on the farm or in the factories to help support their families. Only the very wealthy/elite were able to learn for the sake of learning. I suspect that families supported their children being educated only when they believed that education had the potential to lead to greater earnings or other benefits in the future. I really don’t believe it was because Americans in general were against learning or intellectualism per se. It was, perhaps, just a simple economic issue.

  3. Deana, it really depends on what you call "left" in a country so right of center that a thoroughly centrist President so beholden to the corporations and monetary institutions that financed him is openly proclaimed (and believed to be) a... Socialist! A country so smitten with the right that Republican policies from the likes of Eisenhower and Goldwater would not pass muster with their current lunatic right wing rantings- and all this after eight long years of nonstop, half literate incompetence from a rich kid deserter who completely bankrupted our country and never suffered anything more than a prolonged series of brain debilitating hangovers his entire life.

    Yeah, I could go on...

    Does it really surprise you that there are "leftists" in higher ed? Where else are they going to hide them, but in positions that yield no power. Name me one hundred, one thousand of these "leftist" educators who with their combined audience have as much sway as the self described "clown" Glen Beck who has freely professed he's only in it for the money? Fake tears, fake concern(s), and false accusations... true, master patriot extraordinaire!

    Yeah, I could definitely go on...

  4. Stan -

    Who are these people who are capable of “hiding” other people in academia?

    Seriously – what are the names of the people who are doing this horrible deed?

    No one.

    And for someone who purports to value intellectuals, you appear to have very little appreciation of the power of ideas, their purveyors, and those who teach those ideas to others.

    Ideas are everything. Their power is immeasurable. From the beginning of time, ideas are what have driven people to accomplish things great and small. Pick a topic. Any will do: science, religion, administration, logistics, defense, human relationships . . . there is no end to the subjects that have advanced over the millennia based on ideas and the efforts to pursue the knowledge necessary to support or refute those ideas.

    How have those ideas been conveyed? Mostly teachers and professors.

    Where did you go to school, Stan? I assume you have completed at least one degree, correct? Well, how many students were in your classes?

    One of the schools I graduated from is a large school in the mid-West and one of the top producers of Noble prize winners in the world (legitimate Noble prize winners I might add – not the meaningless Noble “peace” prizes). Classes ranged from small, 10 person graduate-level classes to classes held in auditoriums with almost 900 students. Over time, each professor has taught thousands and thousands of people. These professors have enormous power. Why? For two reasons:

    First (and this is the most important in my mind) they are responsible for shaping how and what the mostly young people will think. What they say in class will have a serious impact on what students believe about the world, what professions they pursue, and so forth.

    Second (and this is where the danger lies) the professors know that many of the students desperately want to do well. They want to get the best grades so they can get into additional academic programs or stand out in the job market. It’s a very subtle thing but the students are in the disadvantaged position – they need something. So they size up the professor and see what he or she is all about. Is the professor committed to teaching HOW to think or WHAT to think – there is a world of difference between the two. Too many professors think their job is to teach WHAT to think. Students quickly pick up on the fact that a certain professor supports only certain ideas and finds other ideas (regardless of facts, evidence, etc.) repugnant and worthy of disdain. So what happens? The students just parrot back to the professor whatever he or she says and voila! guess who gets an A?

    I think that is one of the reasons why I really liked Bloom’s book – he emphasizes the importance of teaching students HOW to think, HOW to come up with the answers. Stan, think of the power of that: few people are more powerful than those in academia. Don’t discount them.

    And I’m serious when I say this – you ought to give Dr. Bloom’s book a look, especially since you profess to support intellectuals. If that is true, you’d enjoy the book.

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  8. I think we've actually done this little dance before (complete with accompanying identity crisis).

    D- I don't discount the power of academia- nor do I discount the overwhelming corruption and compromise of ideals once those very students are thrust into the real world where politics and money often excludes the competent and idealistic for those who tow the party line ("Heck of a job, Brownie!")

    In the future, instead of talking past eachother as usual it would be a whole lot more constructive if we got specific. For instance, according to your theory, Congress should be overrun with "leftists." I know of... one Democratic Socialist (and no, it's not Obama). As for Bloom, I'll buy and read his book when you listen to a year of Mike Malloy- some think he's a leftist ideologue (he's very much a liberal, in the original sense).

  9. M -

    As I think you know by now, I was not talking to you in my post that was addressed to Stan.

    Stan -

    I am not "talking past" you and I don't get the impression at all that you are talking past me. When I converse with someone either online or in person, I just assume that we are talking to each other. I'm not sure what makes you think that. Did I not ask you some very specific, very direct questions in my last post (which you did not answer)?

    And I think it is quite clear that you DO discount the power of academia. Why else did you write,

    "Does it really surprise you that there are "leftists" in higher ed? Where else are they going to hide them, but in positions that yield no power."

    Did you not write that?

    Academia has tremendous power and they do wield it, frequently in ways that do not promote independent thought.

    I also am not sure what makes you think that my theory must mean I believe Congress is overrun by leftists. Who would EVER confuse Congress with intellectuals? Ha!!

    Seriously - my definition of intellectuals is pretty high. You don't get to be an intellectual if you are just run-of-the-mill smart. I don't believe those in Congress are stupid - I just don't think that most are intellectuals.

    Finally - as for Mr. Malloy. I am listening to him right now. It took a bit of work. He is apparently only broadcast in four cities (none of which I live in or any where near) and he is only available late at night, which is unfortunately when I am most likely to be working. But I'm not tonight and I'm giving him a shot. (I had to laugh, though. His CV includes a stint at Air America, which was in financial trouble from day one. Not much of a recommendation there!)

    Don't believe me? I'm listening to him via online streaming video. He has a black shirt on, which contrasts nicely with his silver hair and the very nice silver ring he wears on his right hand wedding finger.

    He just spent the last segment reading a lengthy letter from an elderly woman who claimed to have participated in attempting to break the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza. It was interesting. I think the woman was misquided but she obviously meant well. His show just ended for the night. I will tune in tomorrow.

    But what puzzles me is why you want me to listen to him for an entire year BEFORE you will even think of picking up Dr. Bloom's book. Let's see: Mr. Malloy broadcasts for what? 3 hours a night x 5 nights a week? That works out to around 700 hours of broadcast time per year. All of that before you will pick up a single book?

    Why are you so afraid of one book?

  10. D- I grew up with, amongst and deluged in conservative drivel- not to mention 12 years of Catholic schooling where most every male looked, thought and acted like Sean Hannity- and still do. Most times I not only know what they'll think about any given topic, I'll also know why- a place they would never, ever enter, a place of such fear and repression, most right wingers spend the entirety of their sorry lives denying... much to the detriment of everyone around them.

    And I'm not at all absorbed by intellectuals and their plight as you seem to be, unless they are suffering in the same jails and institutions that harbor the less advantaged in society throughout the world.

  11. Thanks, cpietran. That's twice in this blog I've made the same mistake. Fixed.

  12. Stan -

    You seem to have a bad habit of not answering very direct, straight-forward questions.

    Also, as I clearly stated before, Dr. Bloom is NOT a conservative. Jeez, Stan, look it up. It takes seconds.

    It is clear to me that you have no intention of being open to alternative ideas. You think you know everything. You won't even entertain the idea or suggestion that there just might be ideas out there that could change your understanding of the world. You don't want your safe, little bubble pierced.

    I made the effort last night to listen to Mr. Malloy's program as you suggested just as soon as I read your post. Every day, I make a point of reading or being exposed to different view points - I don't want to insulate myself from alternative viewpoints. The worse thing that can happen is that I learn something. I'm not afraid of that but clearly, some people are.

    Stan, I know this suggestion will fall on deaf ears. You are doing the equivalent of a child who puts his finger in his ears and sings "la-la-la-la" when he does not want to hear something. But there is another really fantastic book that addresses the development of the great ideas of Western civilization:

    From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present by Jacques Barzun

    Stan, Barzun was NOT a conservative. This book wound up being a NYT bestseller. Again, not an easy read - quite dense - but chock full of really wonderful discussions of the development of great Western ideas. I'm just sorry he didn't write something similar about Eastern ideas.

    Be afraid, Stan. Very afraid. It's a book!!!! Full of ideas!!!!

  13. D- I'm sure Mr. Bloom said many terrific and wonderful things in his book, but sadly I have only so many moments left in my life- so why would I spend it reading a book recommended by George Will (who actually believes he's the reincarnation of Thomas Jefferson), rebuked by Frank Zappa (speak of individuals) and lovingly praised by Noam Chomsky as "mind-bogglingly stupid." A book which is basically a clarion call to "independent," and yes, CONSERVATIVE ideals and thought in the age when the Left saw its short lived blip on the American political radar.

    I will put From Dawn To Decadence on my list of books to read, if and when I ever get the opportunity, thank you.

    You obviously think I tow the "Leftist" viewpoint all down the line- that's your sorry assumption, prejudiced and much mistaken. I don't give a rat's ass how many degrees a person holds or how many philosophers they can quote- I'll go for whoever speaks truth to power (whatever their financial background). And I'll take the intellectual clarity, courage and personal integrity of one Malcolm X to any host of 'great' theoretical armchair intellectuals and philosophers.

  14. Apologies for hoggin' your space Minnesota...

  15. If you two want to exchange emails, just post them here and I'll erase the messages a day later.

  16. I was just listening to Bill Hicks- dang, you may have just gotten the biggest laugh...

  17. Well, Stan, I see you get your information from Wikipedia.

    That is awesome.

    Go ahead and take your direction from Mr. Zappa. I mean, who doesn't think, "Now THERE was a man who loved truth and education!" when they listen to "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow?"

    Stan, completing a degree does NOT mean that one is an intellectual. In fact, I would argue that at times, some educational programs get in the way of that. But education IS important, as Hofstadter emphasized in the quotes that Minnesotatsen used in his original post.

    Lots of people are smart but few are intellectuals. That is ok. The point, I think, is for us normal, average people to be OPEN to ideas, regardless if they come from outside our own particular viewpoint.

    I have to say, though, that you appear to be one of the anti-intellectuals that Asimov and Hofstadter were discussing in the original post. Why did you find it necessary to belittle intellectuals and philosophers by referring to them as "great" in quotes and using the term "armchair" to describe them?

    And why do you consider online discussions as "hogging space"? I mean, isn't that the point of blogging? To discuss and share?

    Whatever. I can tell that this is a mute point with you. If you have anything more to add, I will check it out in a couple of weeks when I get back from vacation.

  18. At no time did I ever have a professor even mention libertarian or conservative ideas in class without deriding them and making it quite clear that they expected us to believe what they said (regardless of whether there was evidence that supported their view).

    Libertarian views and failed 'free market' theories are rife in academia, unfortunately.


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