February 9, 2009


A New Day for Intellectuals: The election has opened the door to education and expertise, but academics will have to earn respect (ANDREW DELBANCO, 2/13/09, The Chronicle Review)

Hofstadter's book is a good place to start in considering both strategies and prospects. Although not published until 1963, it was conceived in the 1950s, when, even more than today, the term "egghead" was an image of dysfunction and disloyalty. Hofstadter regarded anti-intellectualism as a kind of antibody in the national bloodstream — sometimes dormant, sometimes active — that reacts to "high" culture with an inflammatory response. He traced this attitude to multiple sources: including, in particular, the religious evangelicalism that flares up periodically throughout American history in reaction to the perceived decline of piety and morals and, more generally, public resentment toward those who, claiming expertise and "excellence," seem to condescend toward unlettered or uncredentialed people as somehow inferior or unworthy of respect.

Lurking in Hofstadter's book was a cyclical theory of history that attempted to account for why those attitudes wax and wane. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, he wrote, "the intellectual had been in the main understood and respected," until that respect was swept away by a wave of philistinism. The titular chief of the reactionaries was Dwight D. Eisenhower, but the real ringleaders were "the unpalatable Nixon" and, of course, that avatar of "the vigilante mind," Joe McCarthy. By the time Hofstadter finished his work, he sensed that the pendulum was swinging back (or forth) again. John F. Kennedy was playing host to Nobel laureates at the White House, and Washington had once more "become hospitable to Harvard professors and ex-Rhodes scholars." Today there is reason to think we are living through another turn in the cycle. The philistines are out; the Harvard professors (Elena Kagan, Lawrence H. Summers, Cass R. Sunstein, et al.) are back in.

Yet is it really true that intellectuals go in and out of favor entirely for reasons of public irrationality? In fact, Eisenhower had his own brain trust — led by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who had studied with the French philosopher Henri Bergson and was a fluent reader of Ancient Greek. George W. Bush, too, turned to advisers with strong academic credentials. Paul D. Wolfowitz, his deputy defense secretary, was eminent enough in his University of Chicago days to earn a bit part in one of Saul Bellow's novels. Leon R. Kass, also of Chicago, advised Bush on issues of ethics and science, and Bush's second secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, once held the position of provost at Stanford University.

The deeper implication of Hofstadter's book is not so much that Americans oscillate between periods of antiand pro-intellectualism, but that they tend to harbor simultaneously an "ingrained distrust of eggheads" and "a genuine yearning for enlightenment and culture."

And why shouldn't the aspiration be mixed with wariness? After all, it wasn't long before Harvard professors (McGeorge Bundy) and Rhodes Scholars (Dean Rusk) were ironically renamed "the best and the brightest" in recognition of their sponsorship of the Vietnam War. And everyone knows what happened when the liberal intellectuals of JFK's and LBJ's administrations morphed into the neocons of W's: We got (among other things) another disastrous war.

Rather than telling ourselves a back-and-forth tale of virtue versus vigilantism, academics concerned with the life of the mind generally, and the academic humanities in particular, might be better served by looking inward and asking what we can do to earn public trust.

Such is the nature of the beat that Mr. Delbanco's own book, The Death of Satan, makes an accidentally compelling case for Americans to distrust intellectuals, even that intellectuals are literally un-American.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 9, 2009 10:06 AM
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