Nicholas Kristof and Anti-Intellectualism in U.S. History

Democracy: it's America's gift to the world.

American intellectualism at its finest.

Pity the suffering American intellectual. I’m serious about that statement. Despite hosting the finest universities and producing some of the most ground-breaking scientific research in the world, the United States has always been a haven for an especially virulent strain of anti-intellectualism that never seems to go away. These days in particular, it seems as if we’re living in the “Age of Uncuriousness,” if not the “Age of Willful Ignorance.” Okay, neither of those phrases are catchy, but damn if they don’t describe the intellectual rabbit hole down which the U.S. has descended in the last 50 years. Heck, we even have a Tea Party that’s twice as nutty as the one Alice experienced.

America might very well be getting dumber. Recently it was host to a live-streamed debate between Bill Nye the Science guy and Ken Ham, a transplanted Aussie Christian fundamentalist, over whether evolution is real and whether the earth is 6,000 years, not a few billion years old as scientists maintain. Of course, that’s just one recent example of American numbskullery. There’s plenty of others. A Republican lawmaker in Utah, for example, thinks none too highly about human-caused climate change despite the scientific consensus, and wants to spew more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere “for the needs of the plants.” Also, Americans came close to electing this person as Vice-President.

But don’t despair, my deep-thinking compatriots, for Nicholas Kristof, opinionator for the New York Times, yearns for an America in which intellectuals once again reach out to influence the public sphere. In a recent piece lacking in some major self-awareness, Kristof laments the apparent retrenchment of academic intellectuals into their university fortresses writing important stuff in language that nobody outside of their arcane areas of expertise can understand. Yes, Kristof chides people like me – who hold PhDs but supposedly spend all of our time producing impenetrable jargon – for not making a more concerted effort to bless the general public with access to our rich well of refreshing wisdom.

First off, let me just say to Kristof in the most colloquial, non-jargony way possible, “up yours, buddy.” After all, what in Sam Hill else am I doing writing this blog if not trying to touch the proletarian rabble, King Midas style, with my priceless intellectual gold?! (Note to readers: I don’t actually think of you as proletarian rabble, at least not all of you…) You can click the above link to read Kristof’s piece for yourself, but among the most offending lines was as follows:

[I]t’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves…There are plenty of exceptions, of course, including in economics, history and some sciences, in professional schools like law and business, and, above all, in schools of public policy; for that matter, we have a law professor in the White House. But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.

Notice what Kristof doesn’t say in the above paragraph. He complains about the lack of public engagement by smart academics, but of course makes no mention of the fact that the neoliberal domination of the American economy has all but squelched any opportunities for paid public commentary by academic intellectuals. The dominant corporate culture in the U.S. is just fine with that, of course. After all, intellectuals ask questions and frequently challenge the status quo, which benefits financially from promoting anti-intellectualism. Keep people from thinking too hard and they won’t show up at your mansion’s gate wielding torches and pitchforks when you, I don’t know, crash the economy. This is why the Times employs opinionators like Kristoff and scribbling mush melon Tom Friedman instead of opening up its pages (and payroll) to those who might more vigorously challenge business-backed anti-intellectualism.

Nicholas Kristof occasionally writes some good material, but seriusly dude, knock off the academic-bashing.

Nicholas Kristof does write some good material, but seriously dude, let some academics write for the Times!

Over at his blog, political science professor, and all-around awesome guy Corey Robin not only lists the multitude of academics writing for public audiences, but he also explains Kristof’s obtuse lack of self-awareness:

The problem here is not that scholars don’t aspire to write for “The New Yorker.” It’s that it’s a rather selective place… If you’re flying so high up in the air—Kristof tends to look down on most situations from 30,000 feet above sea level—you’re not going to see much of anything… He doesn’t see the many [academic] men and women who are in fact writing for public audiences. Nor does he see the gatekeepers—even in our new age of blogs and little magazines—that prevent supply from meeting demand…The problem here…[is] the very material pressures and constraints young academics face, long before tenure. It’s the job market.  It’s the rise of adjuncts. It’s neoliberalism [my emphasis].

As Robin observes, Kristof and his ilk complain about academics’ lack of public engagement while tacitly supporting the neoliberal power structure that disdains any intellectual challenge to the Walmartization of American culture. By the way, let me really step off of my academic pedestal for a moment and cite Wikipedia’s fairly succinct definition of neoliberalism as “a political philosophy whose advocates support economic liberalizations, free trade and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and enhancing the role of the private sector in modern society.” That’s right, neoliberalism is, in fact, conservatism, and for decades it’s been shredding safety nets, decimating wages, crashing economies, and generally advocating profit maximization as both the means and end of American life.

One of neoliberalism’s (and conservatism’s) most tried-and-true strategies has been to stoke America’s long predisposition towards anti-intellectualism as a way of inhibiting legitimate challenges to its power. The historian Richard Hofstadter examined this American suspicion towards excessive smarts is his 1963 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Hofstadter defined anti-intellectualism as “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”* He noted that business has always had an antagonistic history towards intellectualism, given that “intellect is always potentially threatening to any institutional apparatus or to fixed centers of power.”* But Hofstadter also observed that the relationship between business and intellectualism isn’t inherently antagonistic – heck, plenty of business people are intellectuals! But he traced corporate power’s nonetheless very real resentment of “eggheads” back to America’s industrial era, which cemented business leaders as the supreme power players in U.S. culture.

I'm not sure what exactly this guy is trying to say, but go 'Murica!

I’m not sure what exactly this guy is trying to say, but go ‘Murica!

Hofstadter qualified that anti-intellectualism has by no means been limited to business, but the influence of corporate anti-intellectualism has been outsized because “business is the most powerful and pervasive interest in American life.”* He argued that a historical proclivity towards practicality has manifested in both American civic and religious life and contributed to business’s general antipathy towards intellectualism. The combined notions of self-help and up-by-the-boot-straps advancement have historically been the ideological drivers of the American economic spirit. Beset with “ample land and resources,” Americans long ago “set a premium upon technical knowledge and inventiveness” that could exploit the nation’s resources.* The rise of America as an industrial power in the mid-19th century also gave rise to a notion, rooted in the old reverence for “practicality,” that bred “disdain for all contemplation which could not be transformed into practical intelligence.”*  

Therein lies the historical origins of the recent strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture. To the country’s reigning corporate and financial elites, contemplation that examines society from deep and critical angles seems impractical in a business sense because it doesn’t invoke an immediate profit incentive. Moreover, this contemplation might also threaten the neoliberal culture that views “business” as interchangeable with “America.” If you’ve ever lamented over the excesses of American materialism, it’s because in the U.S., materialism has long symbolized practicality and profit, while contemplation has often been viewed as flowery at best, outright hostile to material gain at worst.  

Anti-intellectualism, then, continually foils academics looking to apply their abilities as paid members of the public media sphere. Corporate interests, for example, have provided the hiding-in-plain-sight Astroturf support for the anti-intellectual Tea Party since day-one. The same pro-corporate, anti-intellectual culture also discourages would-be college intellectuals from studying the humanities and seeking “majors that employers do not value.” And the same culture has resulted in the Walmartization of the American university, in which the majority of academic intellectuals are stuck in adjunct positions that pay a pittance for their labor.

It’s no wonder, then, as Corey Robin notes, that academics’ thoughts don’t populate the opinion pages: they’re too busy trying to pay the bills in a culture that, Nicholas Kristof’s claims notwithstanding, doesn’t value their work. The reigning American cultural notion holds that contemplation is often bad for business, and until that notion is dispelled, people like Kristof have no right to complain about “self-marginalized” intellectuals.

* See Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage, 1963), 7, 233, 237-39.

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  1. Jarret, the more I read your blog, the more afraid I am of one day returning to my native land with my newborn child for a visit. While he is a plebeian, I’d still like for him to not be a moran if possible.

  2. Ah, well, to be fair, I tend to be a bit of a pessimist on some levels, especially in the heat of writing. But nonetheless, the first step towards fixing injustice in society is complaining about it!

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