July 21, 2012


Dreaming of a World With No Intellectuals (Russell Jacoby, Chronicle Review)

A new book, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats) (Encounter), by David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, affords an occasion to revisit the issue: Do contemporary American conservatives scapegoat intellectuals and teachers? If so, they can claim an all-American pedigree.

William F. Buckley Jr. began his career in 1951 with God and Man at Yale, which lambasted his professors for their godlessness and socialism. Past and present American intellectuals on the right generally disdain economic or social analyses of political dislocations. They attribute socialism's appeal, for example, not to the condition of society but to the influence of nefarious professors and subversive writers.

Or consider feminism. Have women entered the work force and--as some conservatives say--abandoned the family? Does that have to do with the realities of war, say, in which men leave their jobs and women replace them? Or with the imperative of supporting a family when one paycheck no longer suffices? "A superficial explanation through economic changes is to be avoided," wrote Richard M. Weaver in one of the ur-texts of American conservatism. "The economic cause is a cause that has a cause," he declared in his 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences. "The ultimate reason lies in the world picture, for once woman has been degraded in that picture--and putting her on a level with the male is more truly a degradation than an elevation--she is more at the mercy of economic circumstances."

To their suspicion of economic analyses of social issues, American conservatives add a suspicion of intellectuals as elitists. The aristocratic Buckley famously remarked that he would prefer to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. To Buckley, a random collection of Bostonians would prove wiser than liberal, overeducated professors. This position drew upon several features of an American ethos that prizes equality, no-nonsense religion, business, practicality, and self-help, all of which Richard Hofstadter analyzed in his classic work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963).

Buckley was hardly alone in deriding intellectuals as out-of-touch elitists, an attitude that can easily slide into a wholesale denunciation of knowledge and education itself. What does schooling bring aside from an undermining of Christian truths?

That mind-set came to a head in the 1925 Scopes trial, in which a Tennessee high-school teacher was charged with teaching evolution. William Jennings Bryan, the special prosecutor, saw the issue as religion versus the intellectuals, whom he dubbed a "scientific soviet." The "little irresponsible oligarchy of self-styled 'intellectuals,'" he said, forces science and rationalism on solid Christian folk. "Parents have a right to say that no teacher paid by their money shall rob their children of faith in God and send them back to their homes, skeptical, infidels, or agnostics, or atheists."

For Hofstadter, the Scopes trial "greatly quickened the pulse of anti-intellectualism. For the first time in the 20th century, intellectuals and experts were denounced as enemies." Hofstadter also noted--remember, he was writing in the early 1960s--that for many today, the evolution controversy is "as remote as the Homeric era."

No longer. Tennessee just passed a law protecting teachers who want to challenge evolution--and global warming. As one of the bill's supporters stated, the teaching of evolution was "extremely unbalanced." In other words, it was taught as true. The old battles are not over; indeed, the situation seems to be getting worse. For conservatives, conventional morality and religion are waning. Sexuality no longer seems contained or constrained. Men are marrying men. What's next? Interspecies marriage?

If the ills of modernity are intensifying, conservatives know why. They rarely mention hyperconsumerism or advertising or a rigidifying class structure--the byproducts of advanced capitalism. Rather, they dwell on the presumably corrosive ideas of the educated, especially the professoriate.

To put this as simply as possible, the difference between conservative thinkers is that they agree with Mr. Weaver that a "cause is a cause that has a cause."  On the other hand, intellectuals believe they can recreate reality such that the causes will have no other cause but the pure power of their own intellects.

Or, as we tried to explain our review of Richard Hofstadter's oft-cited but little read text:

[Mr.] Hofstadter has great difficulty defining intellectualism, but he does contrast it with intelligence:

    [I]ntelligence is an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, an 
    predictable range... Intelligence works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals, and 
    may be quick to shear away questions of thought that do not seem to help in reaching them.

    ... Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind. Whereas 
    intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, 
    theorizes, criticizes, imagines.

His fuzziness is such that while he acknowledges the American love affair with inventors and other men of practical intelligence, he quite mistakenly groups scientists generally into the category of Intellectuals.  In fact, there is a fairly simple definition of the term intellectual that will clear up much of the confusion:  an "intellectual" is someone who deals in pure ideas, that is ideas untested by reality.  The term "Intellectual" in turn has come to denote anyone who believes that these untested ideas should be tried out upon society.  Once we accept these fairly simple definitions, it becomes pretty obvious why America has an anti-intellectual tradition and why members of the American Left are so troubled by it.

As even his own feeble definition provides, it is the nature of "intellect" to oppose the existing order.  But in a democracy, it is the great public majority which determines that order in the first place; those who wish to "manipulate, re-order, adjust" are seeking to impose the ideas of an elite few on a system that has been founded, built and maintained by the many.  The very structure of the government bequeathed to us in the Constitution is intended to thwart just such manipulations.  The carefully wrought system of checks and balances was put in place in order to make it as difficult as possible to make the types of changes that Intellectuals tend to dream up.

It was Hofstadter's misfortune to be writing at a time when it mistakenly looked like this historic truth was changing. 
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Posted by at July 21, 2012 7:47 AM

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