Anti-Intellectualism in America

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Susan Jacoby talks about the history of anti-intellectualism in America, and how it’s shaped post-WWII society. Her new book is The Age of American Unreason.

Event: Susan Jacoby will moderate a discussion with Alan Wolfe and Michael Kazin
Wednesday, April 19 at 6:30 pm
General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen
20 West 44th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenue)
For reservations, call (212) 504-2945

Weigh in: Do you think the USA is more anti-intellectual than other western countries? Can you name a concrete example of why or why not?


Susan Jacoby

Comments [56]

Nadine from Matawan, NJ

When one door closes, another opens. The short discussion on autism and vaccines begs for a program on the topic. I'd love to hear the behind the scenes for this topic now that Leonard has voiced his heartfelt situation with his son. Surely, this idea for a show has come up several times.

Mar. 20 2008 09:00 AM
pachumamma from nj

No difference in the rates of autism in vax'd kids vs. unvaxed kids?! Come on! If we could get some real, unbiased data on this that is not funded by big pharma or the govt (which owns many patents on vaccines)WE THE PEOPLE would revolt! I had seen so many vaccine damaged children prior to having kids that I vowed not to follow the masses blindly. My heart bleeds for parents of autistic children who are dealing with the disease itself and then getting assaulted by 'professionals' when they are told it's all in their heads. Please, devote an entire show to this issue. We are losing so many children to autism. p.s. it's not just the mercury.

Mar. 19 2008 11:52 AM

I am partial to the term "folks" because of what I take to be the word's use in many cultures, espec. Jewish and African American cultures. Every time I'm at work and type "folks" I feel I am doign my little bit to remind people of this type of root.
On the other hand, Wikipedia describes "folk" as being derived from proto- Germanic languags, and I am aware of its ties to the Nazis -- as in the volkswagon. Although the article I found also says that Hitler disliked the term.

Perhaps what is labeled as "anti-intellectualism" is mistrust and distaste for ambiguity and inconclusiveness. So America gets "The Decider." Not John Kerry the "flip-flopper".

What's really dangerous in this I think, is having a war going on now seems like it is being used to exacerbate that cultural pull for conclusiveness. Of course, on the winning side. Which would make McCain the next Decider, especially as he's all for the war 100% and 100 years, and he's damn sure we're winning. While Hillary or Obama want us out, and see and are willing to publically embrace more sides of the issue.

Mar. 18 2008 05:17 PM
Tiffany from New Jersey

As a mother of two small children, I recently struggled with the vaccination issue. As a Ph.D. scientist, I looked for unbaised information to make an informed decision. There is a paucity of information that is not either alarmist or financed by one interested party or another. While I applaud Jacoby's approach in her book and support a public capable of critical thinking, shame on her for her insensitivity and arrogance. I have a whole new respect for Leonard's professionalism.

Mar. 18 2008 05:16 PM
Karen O from Westchester County

Supposedly, in the good old days, education was a characteristic of upper classes. In recent generations, lack of education, lack of knowledge, lack of wisdom and lack of critical thinking seems to know no class distinction. Language is key to all of the above. Americans have never known the languages of other peoples, however we no longer have respect for our own language. Poor English now belongs to MD's and major news station broadcasters. Is that not a notable symptom of laziness? Is there anything in our culture and society that will light a fire under a desire to be a better educated and wiser people?. . . As the adult child of European intellectuals/WWII refugees who converted to the Christian faith as an adult, it is my intuitive observation that freedom of religion and the American passion for religion contributes vigorously to our anti-intellectual base, but so does our passion for free-market capitalism and the almighty dollar. Whatever is your passion, whatever blinds you, blindsides you to wisdom and the language of critical thought.

Mar. 18 2008 04:12 PM
hjs from 11211

i just bought this book. i hope to be inspired by it.

Mar. 18 2008 03:03 PM
Richard Perez from Bethpage NY

I think that critical thinking should be taught in schools but MUST be practiced everywhere. I think Karen makes a laudible point about it not happening as much as it should, but if we've lost a generation as some are suggesting, then there will be a positive feedback loop of ingorance from which we will never recover. Let's hope that the education system will be up to the challenge.

Mar. 18 2008 02:29 PM
Karen O from Westchester County

critical thinking is something learned at home and encouraged in school - ergo it doesn't happen enough in America - apparently, if one judges from political discourse. Witness this morning's Obama speech in which we are expected to confur that the manner in which, or the good manners with which, you or your pastor speaks with acquaintances, new or old, is key to beliefs that will contribute to policy formation or political debate.

Mar. 18 2008 02:10 PM
Mark Patterson from Nyack, NY

Yes--condesceding folksiness and anti-intellectualism in politicians is offensive. But it is equally unnecessary from intellectuals who lump together Chrisitan fundamentalism with simplistic and literalist rejection of science.

Fundamentalist Christian faith (meaning faith in the fundamentals of Christ's life: his virgin birth and divinity, death, resurrection, and redemption of people who accept his sacrifice) does not mean literalism in interpreting every story in the scriptures. Jesus used a highly intellectual and often indirect bent in his teaching by parable and in his reflections on scripture. Many Christians from Aquinas to now, and not only Presbyterians and Catholics, embrace scientific inquiry and theory.

It should be obvious to all of us by now that folksiness, anti-intellectualism, AND showy displays of faith are all ploys by politicians to gain power in the minds of people who see themselves as honest and hard-working. The politicians' cynical advocacy for hating our enemies, going to war, and placing economic interest (ie. oil and the economy of material attainment) ahead of human civil interest and even ahead of ecological stewardship (THEIR JOBS!) are actions incompatible with Jesus' teachings.

The condescension implicit builds on itself and becomes a group cultural force until professed intellectuals commit similarly simplistic generalizations. It may just show how strongly we humans need to generalize.

Mar. 18 2008 02:02 PM from Westchester County

the elitism of Americans who are content to leave the mass of mechanics and barbers outside the mainstream of thinking America is an interesting contrast with the rest of the western world where your peasant and mechanic think and talk about what matters. shame on elitism; it is not synonymous with intellectual thoughtfulness

Mar. 18 2008 02:00 PM
Richard Perez from Bethpage NY

Rote learning will not be the magic fix for our math and science problem to which some are alluding. Problem solving through practice will help in the elucidation of concepts.
Majoring in education is not necessarily futile in that one should have a good idea as to how to present an idea in order to impart knowledge. These educators must be cognizant of the fact that some are more scientific in their thinking while others might be a little more abstract.

Mar. 18 2008 01:59 PM
hjs from 11211

our whole education system should be over hauled pre k-12. there's little to save of it and it will be our downfall,

india and china rising.

Mar. 18 2008 01:32 PM
Prof. Hurson from westchester

Two comments on Ms. Jacoby's remarks this morning. First - schools. Unless something is done about Teachers majoring in "Educational Theory" and being clueless about substance and depth of understanding in any given subject area, they cannot pass along or teach what they do not know. Most elementary teachers - grades 1-8, are about two pages ahead in the material they are "Teaching." Their lack of knowledge shuts down every child's natural curiousity because when in depth questions are asked in class that the teacher is clueless about, the child gets yelled at for not paying attention to the lesson at hand and learns not to ask.
The other problem in the schools is that teachers no longer spend time collecting and correcting homework - they barely give it. If a teacher is not looking at what students learned or missed, then the teacher is merely lecturing and not teaching.
Secondly, Parent role - many parents have no idea what their role is in their child's education. They don't know that they must read to or have their child read for 1/2 hour every day once the child learns how to read in order to improve that skill or else it's lost. They also haven't a clue that today a child needs to know their multiplication tables by the summer of second grade and that it's the parents' job - memorization is not done in schools. If these two key factors are done at home, any child would do better in school.

Mar. 18 2008 01:14 PM
Simon from Montreal

When Richard Dawkins spoke here in Montreal he said that while the greatest threat to rationality in America was religions fundamentalism, in Canada it seems to be extreme post-modernism.

Mar. 18 2008 01:05 PM
Elaine from Baltimore MD

Please, just because "Orthodox" Judaism uses the same word as "Orthodox Fundamentalist" Christianity does not equate the 2 meanings. There are plenty of Jewish scientists, physicists and "intellectuals" who are Orthodox & have no conflict with science or religion. The Jewish Bible was not meant to be understood as a history book or a science treatise, it was meant to bring ethical monotheism to the world, which I do not believe, precludes intellectualism. Perhaps Ms. Jacoby should read some books written by Maimonides.
Re Eva's comment: "So Europe gave us Sophocles, Dante, and that whole Age of Reason/Enlightenment inheritance...."
Big deal, Europe also gave us the Holocaust & Germany was highly regarded as the most cultured.

Mar. 18 2008 12:55 PM
Simon from Montreal

The greatest failure of the education system is not its failure to burn names and dates into children's minds, but its inability to convey the importance of rigorous rational thinking and to explain the nature of the scientific method. re: the comment about evolution as "only a theory" as if a scientific theory was the equivalent of "wild guess" rather than the highest level of explanation that science is able to achieve. Another language is not worth learning if it's utter gibberish. Ask yourself, if you ignore all the factual deficiencies, all the outlandish claims, and accept it on its face, does creationism even explain anything?

Mar. 18 2008 12:54 PM
Eric from Jersey City NJ

Leonard, I am so sorry and grieved to hear of your son's autism. Although Jacoby made plenty of good -- if obvious and familar -- points, her arrogance on this issue was chilling. Praise to you for pouncing on her immediately.

It also fits in with her airy comment that the nation's tone would be improved if everyone were Unitarian or Reform Jewish -- upper-class, pallid, whitebread religions that have zero appeal to the masses.

Mar. 18 2008 12:48 PM
Jeffrey Slott from East Elmhurst

I sometimes wonder just how ignorant the "masses" are in this country. Certainly Bush's re-election left me very discouraged. Yet even the author admits that it is gratifying to see Obama supporters show a relatively solid grasp of the political and economic issues at stake. And her book is a big seller. So what does these facts say about the anti-intellectualism supposedly rampant in this society. Has the internet really done that much damage?

Mar. 18 2008 12:47 PM
chestinee from Midtown

Here's some heresy - vaccination inhibits natural immunity...

Mar. 18 2008 12:45 PM
Mari Schindele

Like Leonard, I have a son on the autism spectrum (Asperger Syndrome). However, I also have a mother who is legally blind in one eye because of measles, and a family friend who is paralyzed from the neck down from polio. There is simply no scientific evidence that vaccines contribute to autism. The rate of autism continues to grow, long after thimerosol has been removed from vaccines. Pollution in the environment may be a cause, but to demonize vaccines exposes us all to the risk of contracting a devastating and life-changing illness.

Mar. 18 2008 12:43 PM
William Scruggs from Edison, NJ

It is the belief that it does not matter how well educated and how well informed the common man is that leads to the election of misinformed people to run the country.

Mar. 18 2008 12:43 PM
hjs from 11211

you should care only if your car mechanic plans on voting.

Reagan destroyed the education system in the country

Mar. 18 2008 12:40 PM
Brandon from Brooklyn

Susan Jacoby is a bit full of herself as she determines what intellectualism is defined as. What knowledge has become is far less text-based and more image oriented. Video isn't the great Satan nor the downfall of western intellectualism. Luddites will not save our brains.

Mar. 18 2008 12:39 PM
carly from queens

I think her distinction between the passive consumption of the world versus actively participating it is the real crux of the matter. The apparent death of curiosity, an unwillingness to listen to things that confront your preconceptions seems to be impoverishing American discourse.

Mar. 18 2008 12:39 PM

Yeah for Theresa. Scare parents in to not vaccinating their children. Bring back Smallpox!!!

Mar. 18 2008 12:38 PM

Gotta disagree on Tucker Carlson. Never found him say anything interesting or thoughtful. He's the classic dittohead for wingnut talking points.

Mar. 18 2008 12:38 PM
chestinee from Midtown

One of the big parts of American (or any) creativity is getting out of that pesky left lobe and perhaps living in one's body - i preferred learning history from the artists (even though they were all males, you would think)

linear thinking is only one mode, and not the only valuable mode of thinking. Time is only a construct we take really seriously so I don't have a problem with people who prefer to think of creationism and intelligent design - evolution is only a theory, too.

why can't we learn through multiple channels? If you speak more than one language, this is not so hard to imagine.

Mar. 18 2008 12:36 PM
Theresa from Briarcliff Manor, NY

I am weeping and cheering for you Leonard for defending the complex issue of vaccines. Bravo. My son is vaccine damaged as well and I get so tired of being characterized as a quack on the fringe just looking to blame something. I have read over 6 books on vaccines, some of it incredibly complex. My vaccinating-brethern read almost nothing, including my husband. To stay on the topic of your guest today, I would argue that those who vaccinate without questioning it are "fundamentalist" in their approach to medicine. They accept medical advice as fundamental and unquestionningly the final word of science; it's the scientific equivalent to "the word of God." Science is a learning process and the recommendations of 100 years ago are repudiated today. In our culture we have surrendered our questioning and we believe what we're told.

Mar. 18 2008 12:35 PM
Eric from B'klyn

Yes... I agree that there is a strain of anti-intellectualism which has been exacerbated by our political culture. Examples: the rejection of evolution; the 'debate' on global warming; bumper sticker political slogans.

Mar. 18 2008 12:34 PM
Emilya from Glen Cove, Long Island

This was an interesting discussion until the guest hit the autism nerve. Thank you Leonard for calling her on it. What gall of her to assume that parents who are devastated are not also educated. In my experience (sadly) parents of autistic children are more educated about this topic than some pediatricians and educators.

Mar. 18 2008 12:34 PM
Lora from Manhattan

I'm a fan of Jacoby's but disagree with her take on the NEA report on Americans' lack of interest in reading. I believe the NEA study only studied people who read literature. The millions who read newspapers, non-fiction, and web-based journals and blogs were not accounted for -- a big hole in any organization's study of our collective reading habits and, by extension, intellectual curiosity. i

Mar. 18 2008 12:32 PM
J.C. from Minneapolis

I will 2nd John's comment above (#4). Yes, America has an unfortunate problem with looking down on people who know too much, but, having lived in Europe, I will say that Europeans are not necessarily "smarter" than Americans are.
I haven't read the book, but I'd be curious of the author thinks if intellectuals are partly to blame for this anti-intellectualism problem because they've acquired an arrogant reputation. I ask because it seems that many people equate intelligence with arrogance, fair or unfair as it might be.
I also would caution against reading too much into int'l exams of school students, since on some of these exams you find that the U.S. exam takers are all students where the other countries' exam takers are only those students who were good enough to get into the tougher academic tracks. The devil's in the details sometimes, but that's a whole other debate.

Mar. 18 2008 12:32 PM
cmundi from nyc

It is unfortunate about LL's personal experience with autism, but "BORED" is right. he made her point in that the public likes a simple explanation to something that has many possible causes. the vaccine theory fits into a nice sound bite and also flames the fear factor in parents.

Mar. 18 2008 12:32 PM from Westchester County

Americans will not "hear" this any more than an alcoholic will be able to see his condition until it causes him/her enough pain. Thank you to this author and to WNYC for writing and speaking about these unwelcome truths... For a counterpoint thought, however, as the parent of another one of the one in 150 children with a form of autism, the upside of the information age is that "the people" have more tools to argue against corruption... For another counterpoint thought re United States intellectual history, the continental European and Russian parts of the world, inhabited by politically critical-thinking classes, are the cultures that have given rise to maniacal dictators who bring hell to earth. This is intellectual Conservative America's justification for our love of ignorant, hyperbolic, rhetorical political discourse. Thank you again!

Mar. 18 2008 12:31 PM
Kay from Westchester

9/11: Bush said we would go after "the folks" that did this.

Mar. 18 2008 12:30 PM
Peter from New York

It's unfortunate that even proponents of science phrase their attitudes in terms of belief, turning the question of whether one "believes" in evolution into a litmus test of sorts.

As a scientist, I don't believe in evolution. Then again, I don't believe in gravity, either. (In the sense that I don't think that the current equations describing the force that keeps us from floating off into space are the final word.)

The beauty of science is that you don't have to believe much, except perhaps that the scientific method is the best way of making sense of the world. Belief in evolution isn't necessary; skepticism is a virtue. I have no doubt that our current understanding of evolution will change in the future, and that's a great thing, an opportunity for exciting research.

The point that everybody seems to miss is not that evolution is correct but that creationism (including intelligent design) is wrong. Maybe there will be a scientific revolution that replaces evolution by something else altogether, but if this happens, this something else will be just as offensive to creationists as evolution.

Mar. 18 2008 12:29 PM
hjs from 11211

too bad LL didn't talk to jerry lewis that way.

Mar. 18 2008 12:29 PM
cag from Brooklyn, NY

Thanks for standing up and speaking out on the autism example. It touched a nerve with me also.

Mar. 18 2008 12:26 PM
bk from nyc

whow - very interesting to hear LL argument to the guest's simplification of such a serious issue while denouncing simplification.
I was very interested to hear what she was saying about vaccines & autism having heard this debate so often. I was sold. then LL made the opposing point - quite powerfully!
glad to hear him punch a hole in her simplification.

signed, a motherless 50 year old (no connection to the issue)

Mar. 18 2008 12:25 PM
Brad from Bronx

I agree. The term folks has always bothered me.

Mar. 18 2008 12:25 PM

"folks" vs. "friends"
John McCain is NOT my friend (and isn't whether you like him or not), and every time he says it, it creeps me out.

"folks" has the advantage of being gender neutral, though I agree it's downputting.

Mar. 18 2008 12:25 PM
critique of the enlightenment from new york city

What might be particularly dangerous about the anti-intellectualist tendency in this country is that rationalism itself is never critiqued. Which is to say the oversimplification of rationalists like Susan Jacoby is never challenged. In countries like Germany this kind of oversimplification has been challenged long ago (primarily because of the holocaust and the struggle they had to have with the destructive effacing tendency of rationalism). I am thinking primarily of Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment though I doubt Jacoby has read it.

Mar. 18 2008 12:24 PM
hjs from 11211

dates should not be taught in history classes only the big picture issues and how that affects one today.

Mar. 18 2008 12:24 PM
michael winslow from INWOOD

Of course creationism is non-sense.

Everyone with a brain knows it's a nice fairy tale.

Humans came from bacteria.

We are apart of the eb and flow of the earth.

Mar. 18 2008 12:23 PM
Ken Campbell from Harlem

This is nothing new. We forget the simplistic rants of the past in the romantic reimagining of our past. I am reminded of the Yeats quote from 1916, "The best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity." Nothing has changed.

Mar. 18 2008 12:23 PM

Leonard owes this women an apology. Actually she owes him a thank you. He makes her point.

Mar. 18 2008 12:23 PM
David from NYC

The a-i sentiment that was so prevalent where I grew up is a big part of why I moved to NYC.

Mar. 18 2008 12:22 PM
j from nyc

drew gilpin faust on fresh air w/ terry gross did a fascinating historical perspective on why the south, in particular, is adverse to the idea of evolution, and here's the link:

Republic of Suffering' Author Drew Gilpin Faust

'..."For those Americans who lived in and through the Civil War, the texture of the experience ... was the presence of death," she writes. "At war's end this shared suffering would override persisting differences about the meanings of race, citizenship, and nationhood to establish sacrifice and its memorialization as the ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite."

Faust is the president of Harvard University, where she also holds the Lincoln Professorship in History."

Mar. 18 2008 12:21 PM
Kay from Westchester

We'll continue our conversation after you rip her a new one? Jesus....

Mar. 18 2008 12:21 PM
hjs from 11211

watch out Susan !

Mar. 18 2008 12:20 PM

For me, the education failure was history. (I was a science major, so my own interests & gifts probably enabled me to overcome the education shortfalls.) History was names, dates, battles. Memorize, pass, forget. Though I got high marks in history tests, I was a history mororn. Only a half century later, when I finally have the time to read history, do I discover how fascinating it is and how bereft my life was in making judgements with no knowledge of history.

Mar. 18 2008 12:20 PM
hjs from 11211

there is a war on science in this land.

stem cells, evolution, sex ed, science in school cut back, global climate change, stereotype 'nerd' image. just a few examples

Mar. 18 2008 12:08 PM
John from Manhattan

Here we go. This topic brings out my slightly conservative side, which is usually in remission. Yes, there is a continuing strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture and particularly politics - and also in every other country on the planet. I am sure there will be the usual comments on this page about how terrible America is, how dumb we are, etc. - but spend some time talking with an "average" person in Germany, France, Vietnam, South Africa, et al (as I have), and you will find just as many goofy, bizarre, shallow, and anti-intellectual viewpoints as you do here. America is not the most "intellectual" country, but it is far from the most "anti-intellectual."

Mar. 18 2008 11:45 AM
stu in nyc from nyc

Regarding your use of the picture from the "Hee Haw" tv show - "Hee Haw" is only one of a handful of television programs that have had a profound and lasting influence on American culture. Skits such as "The Cornfield," "Pickin’ and Grinnin’," "Pfft You Was Gone" (the skit in the picture), and "Gloom, Despair and Agony On Me" have become known universally and are woven into the American comedic fabric. So is it really a cornerstone of anti-intellectualism?

Mar. 18 2008 11:09 AM
Liz from Savannah, GA

We have relatives and friends in The Netherlands. One teaches P.E. in a Dutch college, and he is more conversant in historical and cultural matters (both European and American) than are many college-education Americans we have known (we're both academics). He told us his education was quite similar to that of his peers (those who also teach physical education), leading us to believe the Dutch value the arts and letters more highly than do many Americans.

Mar. 18 2008 09:30 AM
eva from spiritually? Newark

First "concrete" example: You have to go to Spain to find a life-sized statue of the autodidactic genius Woody Allen. In California, don't ask too many people what autodidact means.
Second: Even when Greece seemed at its poorest in the 70's, you could find peasants with strong, fairly informed opinions on classical art and literature, and this still holds. After WWII, Greece, like much of Europe, had little left but its culture, and you gotta nurture your assets, whatever they are.
So Europe gave us Sophocles, Dante, and that whole Age of Reason/Enlightenment inheritance. We gave them The Marshall Plan and Disneyland(okay, and Roth and Allen and Nina Simone, etc.) Everybody brings something different to the table. But there's more opportunity to make money here (and more natural resources) and we gotta make the money so we can buy all the "classy" cognac that the French wouldn't be caught dead drinking.

Mar. 18 2008 04:24 AM

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