The Myth of Anti-Intellectualism


Was Elena Kagan's tactful performance in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings proof of American anti-intellectualism, as Judith Warner has argued in the New York Times Magazine? I find it hard to believe Ms. Kagan really needed all that coaching. Had she raised so much money for Harvard Law School by talking down to prospective donors and impressing them with her scholarship?

What most people want in a judge, or legislator, is not necessarily the most brilliant or learned person, but the one who will support their values most effectively. Otherwise the higher the intellect, the greater the danger.In an extreme case, the legal theorist Carl Schmitt, and countless other stellar German academics, used their gifts in the Nazi cause. Writers around the world served Stalinism well into the 1950s. That's why so few people, rightly, list intelligence as the first qualification for the Presidency, as mentioned in a Times sidebar. If it had been up to America's most mentally powerful science advisor of the early Cold War, John von Neumann, we would have launched a preemptive nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. Fortunately, the less educated Harry Truman did not agree.

As David S. Brown notes of the publication of Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), cited approvingly by Warner, it was ironically published in the "golden age" of American academia's "physical expansion, influence, morale, and status," and Hofstadter himself "enjoyed its most exclusive privileges." After mixed reviews and despite the book's Pulitzer Prize, Hofstadter himself came to believe that it was a reflection of conflicts of his time rather than a successful historical argument. In reality people's (and especially Americans') attitudes toward any elite group -- politicians, lawyers, clerics -- have always been mixed. Our anti-Establishment tendencies have sometimes made life difficult for writers, but they have also helped open audiences for their new ideas.

Chris Mooney, writing recently in the Washington Post, gives a more nuanced account of American's relationship with intellectual authority. The people who question the scientific majority on issues like climate change actually tend to be better educated than average. He cites a 2009 Pew Research Center report revealing that 70 percent of the public believe scientists contribute "a lot" to societies well-being; members of the clergy scored only 40 percent, and business executives a mere 21 percent. "Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media" was Pew's press release headline. And this attitude is visible in the marketplace. Richard Feynman's QED, a popularly written but challenging book, has sold about 500,000 copies. (I'm happy to disclose I was the acquiring editor.) Feynman's anti-authoritarian stance is a better model for scientists, and writers, than others' laments for insufficient respect.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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