America’s Longstanding History of Anti-Intellectualism and the Current War on Reason

By Conor Lynch | 11 March 2015
Daily Kos

(Credit: carl & tracy gossett / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

College football is an American tradition, like apple pie and the right to bear arms. It is celebrated throughout the United States by many millions, and recently broke cable rating records; even surpassing the ratings of cable phenomenon, The Walking Dead. Thats right, Americans love football even more than they love zombies. And while zombies have shown to be extremely profitable, college football and sports in general are easily the most profitable forms of entertainment in America.

In fact, college football is so increasingly popular (and profitable), that many colleges around the United States have deemed it more important than that old and rather unprofitable venture of academics. While spending on instruction, research, and public service has either declined or stayed flat at most public colleges and universities, spending on athletics has generally increased over the past decade.

In a report done by the American Association of University Professors, it was revealed that from 2004 to 2011, community colleges around the nation decreased spending on academics, while athletic spending increased by about 35 percent per athlete. At public four year colleges, athletic spending increased by about 24.8 percent, while academic and instruction spending remained flat or declined. And while spending on things like research has also declined, it has been reported that many star athletes have subpar reading skills, some below the third grade level.

Admittedly, this seems worrisome for all of the politicians always talking about American exceptionalism, and how we need to increase standards in science and math, where we have been slipping for years and rank behind places like Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. But the popularity of college sports and falling academics in America is just one of the many examples that reveals the anti-intellectualist culture that has always been a part of of American life.

Recently on The Daily Show, former Fox News host, Mike Huckabee, who is expected to run for president, did a fine job in promoting this anti-intellectualism. While repeatedly using the term “Harvard faculty” as a derogative, he spoke of the disunity in America between the college educated and the average people: “There’s a real disconnect between people that live in the bubbles of New York, Washington, and Hollywood, versus the people who live in the land of the bubba’s…there’s a big difference between people who are well educated and people who are smart.”

This sort of distrust and belittling of intellectuals has been around since Americas inception. Today, it can be seen in schools around the country, where administrators choose to teach children “alternatives” to evolution, like the pseudo-scientific creationism, which asserts fictitiously that a divine entity created life on earth, and claims this to be “scientific.” It can also be seen in Washington, where powerful politicians like Jim Inhofe deny the science of climate change and claim that only God is powerful enough to change the climate, saying: “the hoax is that there are some people who are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful, they can change climate. Man can’t change climate.”

The Religious Hostility

Blame for why this hostility towards science, reason, and education exists in America usually falls on that of religion, or more specifically, Christianity. But as we shall later see, it is more of an aspect of the evangelical movement than it is Christianity as a whole. In fact, Puritanism played a very important role in developing education in America, and leaders of the movement in Massachusetts Bay, who had been educated at Cambridge and Oxford, held learning and intellectualism with great esteem. Additionally, some of the most prestigious Universities in the world, such as Yale and Harvard, were founded by the Puritans. The Professor of American history, Moses Coit Tyler, wrote about Puritan intellectualism: “In its inception, New England was not an agricultural community, nor a manufacturing community, nor a trading community: it was a thinking community; an arena and mart for ideas; its characteristic organ being not the hand, nor the heart, nor the pocket, but the brain.” Of course it was not all kosher in puritan New England, as the infamous Salem witch trials show. There was a great deal of dogma and intolerance, but at the same time, education and literacy were never really looked down upon; having an education was a good thing, and all ministers were learned and literate.

In the countryside’s, however, there began to form a schism during the mid-eighteenth century that would later be called “the great awakening.” Religious leaders began preaching with more zeal and emotion, and reaching out to the uneducated. Sermons, which had previously been dense and theological and prepared on paper, became exciting and emotional and completely unscripted. Emotion and faith in God became superior to intellect, and the goal of spreading religion and saving the souls of the uneducated and unreligious overcame that of education.

During the nineteenth century, evangelicalism took off and began spreading to the west and south. It was not so much that Christianity was spreading an anti-intellectual attitude as it was embracing it to convert the poor and uneducated. The Methodist and Baptist churches emphasized helping the poor and average people, and therefore grew rapidly in numbers. At the close of the American revolution, the three largest denominations were the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. But the evangelical movement divided these churches, and by 1850 the Methodists and Baptists, who had formed aggressive missionary tactics for the uneducated masses had become the leading Protestant denominations.

Towards the latter nineteenth century, wildly popular evangelist preachers like Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday were attracting tens of thousands of people to see their sermons. One only has to look at some of their quotes to see the general hostility towards intellectuals and education. “I have one rule about books,” said Moody, “I do not read any book, unless it will help me understand the book…I would rather have zeal without knowledge; and their is a good deal of knowledge without zeal.” Moody rose to prominence after the Civil War, and was endorsed by powerful individuals like President Grant.

His successor, Billy Sunday, was even more hostile and vitriolic towards education, saying: “thousands of college graduates are going as fast as they can straight to hell. If I had a million dollars I’d give $999,999 to the church and $1 to education…when the word of God says one thing and scholarship says another, scholarship can go to hell!” Sunday, who rose to prominence in the early twentieth century, faced the reality of modernity and the rapid advancements of science, which no doubt made him more belligerent than his predecessors. But this belligerence only made him more popular. Indeed, Sunday became a millionaire, and defended his wealth by putting a price on every soul he saved: “What I’m paid for my work makes it only about $2 a soul, and I get less proportionately for the number I convert than any other living evangelist.” His influence on America was widespread, and even individuals like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson gave him their blessings.

In 1925, the conflict between scientific education and religion exploded with the Scopes Trial, revealing the anti-intellectualist culture that to this day infects much of the country. John Scopes, a high school substitute teacher, was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which prohibited public school teachers from denying the Biblical account of man’s origin, or teaching evolution. The prosecutor in the case, William Jennings Bryan, who was a three time presidential candidate, had previously said, “All the ills from which America suffers can be traced back to the teaching of evolution. It would be better to destroy every other book ever written, and save just the first three verses of Genesis.” To fundamentalist evangelicals, there was no doubt that evolution was directly opposed to what their teachings suggested, and was a threat to their religion and children.

Today, many look back on this as an unfortunate chapter in Americas history, but the reality is that to this day, schools around the country are still ambivalent towards evolution and science in general. One only has to look at a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013 to see the remaining hostility. According to the poll, 64% of white evangelicals and 33% of all adults do not believe in evolution.

The Political Hostility

In the political sphere, America was actually founded by some of the most influential intellectuals in history. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton; they were all children of the enlightenment, and the constitution reflects this. But after the first few decades of governing, as the country expanded westward, so did the hostility towards intellectuals.

John Quincy Adams was the last of the “gentlemen” presidents with an impressive education and a platform promoting education and European culture. In 1828, Adams was steamrolled by Andrew Jackson, who was the complete opposite and can certainly be labeled the first “anti-intellectual” president. As a hardly literate war hero, he was wonderfully populist, and fought Adams as if he were part of the old aristocracy of England. He embraced the practical hard working side of America, and refuted attempts by eastern intellectuals to “europeanize” their country.

As the century moved on, America became increasingly industrialized, and after the Civil War came one of the most corrupted times in American political history, what Mark Twain rightly coined the gilded age. Uneducated businessmen rose to be the tycoons of industry, which further increased the very American belief that education is impractical, elitist, and morally decedent. Corruption in American politics was arguably at its peak  when anti-intellectualism was also at its highest. Businessmen bribing politicians became widespread in post-civil war America, and the more undistinguished and uneducated a politician was, the more electable.

Only when the progressive movement came in the early twentieth century, lead by the rough-riding Harvard educated Theodore Roosevelt, did intellectuals and “experts” once again become prominent and important in American life. The new deal accelerated this, and with the increasingly complicated political world, intellectuals became crucial to running the government.

Contemporary Anti-Intellectualism

But the innate hostility towards experts, academics and education in general, has remained strong to this day. In the 1980’s, Jerry Falwell and the “moral majority” began their counterrevolution against the political system that had become increasingly secular. Falwell and his followers, like Pat Robertson, wanted Christianity to once again play an important role in Americas political structure, and increased the influence of the religious right. Ronald Reagan brought back the strong distrust of the intellectual world, and since then, many politicians have become increasingly hostile towards any evidence that might be contrary to their ideological beliefs.

Arguably the two biggest subjects today that reveal the ongoing  animosity towards the intellectual world and much of the population at large comes in climate change and evolution. Climate change denial is a movement rooted in both religion and industry. Leaders on the religious right, like the aforementioned Jim Inhofe call it a hoax, and cite biblical passages (curiously like the charlatan preachers of old), while extractive industries inject hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the propaganda. Once again, it is the distrust of experts, this time climate scientists, that fuels doubt. Many believe it is simply a liberal hoax with ulterior motives, and that 99 percent of experts are lying. It is the same with evolution, which has been proven science for more than a century. Today, rather than outright denying the reality of evolution, they have created an “alternative” in creationism. Schools all around the country teach their children this unscientific theory as if it were proven fact, and politicians like Scott Walker have to avoid the very question of evolution, for fear of being labeled some kind of intellectual.

But it goes much further than just certain scientific topics; it is the general skepticism of experts and education that creates such hostility in this country. President Obama was continuously labeled “professorial” when he ran for president, as if this was a bad thing, just like Huckabee used the term “Harvard faculty” as a negative. To many Americans, Obama was too intelligent and academic to be their leader, and they would have preferred an emotional and populist politician, or to be accurate, a demagogue. Americans crave personality, not intellect or expertise. And as many politicians continue to show everyday, anti-intellectualism is not a thing of the past, it is deeply rooted in American society, and to many, it is the prime example of Americas exceptionalism.

What ultimately fuels this distrust of intellectuals and education is insecurity. This is natural; for many uneducated individuals, intellectualism is foreign and elitist and even aristocratic. Today, our culture reflects the hostility towards learning. In high schools around the country, athletes are glorified, while intellectual students are called “nerds” or “geeks.” And while our international academic standings continue to sink, spending on athletics increases, while academics and instruction get snubbed. In many states, the war on public teachers continues, while a poll in Oklahoma revealed that a measly 2.8 percent of public school students in the state could pass the citizen test. Scientific issues, like climate change and evolution, are denied by significant percentages of the American population, and staying informed about what is happening in the world has become a thing of the past.

In contemporary America, it is more important than ever to examine our anti-intellectualist history, and fight the longstanding stereotypes that culture has placed on rational, thinking individuals. In a globalized world, hostility towards learning can only make America unexceptional, and we all know how very important exceptionalism is to American’s today.

*Richard Hofstadter’s book Anti-Intellectualism In American Life was an invaluable resource for writing this essay and I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

Conor J. Lynch is a writer living in New York City. He has written previously for openDemocracy, The Richard Dawkins Foundation, and regularly blogs on Daily Kos about politics, economics, and science. Follow him @dilgentbureauct.

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