"Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.' .... Isaac Asimov.

Commentary of the Day - March 9, 2012: Anti-Intellectualism in Presidential Politics.   Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

I began thinking about Richard Hofstadter in general and about his book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (l963) in particular, when Rick Santorum contemptuously called President Obama out as a "snob."  Why so?  Because, as Santorum put it, he  urged every young American to get a college education.  "What a snob!"  Santorum sneered -- and his followers ate up the political red meat.  No matter that a videotape indicates that what the President had in mind was  a year or more of post-high school education and, what Santorum failed to mention, is that his recommendations included a wide range of possibilities: community colleges, four-year colleges, as well as vocational training or apprenticeships.

Even Santorum would probably agree that some form of additional education or training has become increasingly important in 21st century America.  But on the campaign trail, a sound bite accusing an opponent of an egregious lapse is how the game is played.  Santorum, in short, knew how to push the right anti-intellectual button.

Which brings me to Richard Hofstadter (l916-1970), the eminent American historian, and one of the preeminent public intellectuals during the l950's.  "I write history," he once explained, "out of my engagement with the present."  Hofstadter was hardly an isolated egghead, a man who wrote more and more about less and less from his ivory tower on the Columbia University campus.  Instead, he filtered American history through the prism of the present.  In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, he wrote tellingly about early American evangelism and its conflict with the learned clergy.  Deep suspicions about "book larnin'" were present in our earliest history and Hofstadter follows the thread as it winds through the revolt, in the early 1890's, as a deeply suspicious provincialism contested with an urban ethos.  The result, in Hofstadter's words, was "a religious style shaped by a desire to strike back against everything modern -- the higher criticism, evolutionism, the social gospel, rational criticism of every kind."

With an addition here, an alteration there, Hofstadter could have been talking about Rick Santorum and those who shared space with him on the Republican debate platform.  Indeed, all the prominent markers in Hofstadter's definition of anti-intellectualism are reflected in Santorum's insistence that the sons and daughters of blue collar America should avoid "liberal education" at all costs.  It will, after all, turn them into (gulp!) liberals.  According to Santorum, the dangers of a of liberal education is that students will graduate as little Obamas.

But as a liberal arts graduate himself, Santorum knows full well that a "liberal education" has to do with  the subjects one studies: philosophy, history, literature, and the fine arts.  This curriculum was available  to those who were free rather than to those who were slaves.  We may all too neatly divide the political world between liberals and conservatives but these labels have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the liberal education Presdent Obama was talking about.

True, all true, but  Santorum couldn't give a fig.  He knows what happens when you heave broad, unsubstantiated claims at the people pundits call "the base."  They hoot, whistle, and jeer -- and clap until their hands turn red.  It is roughly the same thing that attaches itself to the word "theory" when it is coupled with Charles Darwin or evolution.  After all, to the folks in Santorum's crowd, a theory is just that -- a gossamer "theory," something that scientists would like to impose on the ordinary and God-fearing folks.  Scientists, of course, use the word "theory" in entirely different ways, having to do with the necessity of testing ideas again and again.

Popular culture is filled with efforts to take intellectuals down a peg.  The very term "egghead" is jam-packed with derision.  These people, so the argument goes, are both out-of-it and not-like-us.  With scientists, blue collar paranoia  (something that Hofstadter also wrote about) generates images of mad scientists cackling over their beakers.  Such people "invented" global warming out of whole cloth, even as the polar ice caps continue to melt.

In a teaching career that spanned some forty years I cannot remember a single instance where I wore partisan politics on my sleeve.  In the same way that students wondered if I were a Catholic when I taught a short story by James Joyce or Jewish when we read Malamud or Black (could that be?) when we took up James Baldwin, I focused on individual works of literature as empathetically as I could.  What later came to be known as "identity politics" took a back seat to the writers under discussion.

In something of the same spirit, I only commented on contemporary politics when the literature being read demanded that I pay attention -- and, even there, I worked hard to be even-handed.  My colleagues in the government department prided themselves on confounding students who tried to pin them down as Democrats or Republicans. What I did do, however, is urge those students who were of age to vote and those who were not to work on a political campaign of their choice.

Would I have dragged Santorum's crack about President Obama the snob into a class?  Probably not.  But the fact that I can link his sentiment to Hofstadter's long trail of anti-intellectual tears is one of the special joys of retirement.  Hofstadter was a public intellectual at a time when they were sorely needed.  With the likes of Senator Joseph McCarthy and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater claiming so much of the decade's oxygen, Hofstadter had his work cut out for him.  Like the other public intellectuals of his day, he was a  specialist in being a non-specialist.  Hofstadter could  take on wide ranges of our historical landscape and  bring its message to bear on the present moment. He was, in a word, engaged.  And I have no doubt that he would have given Santorum the dressing down  he so richly deserves. 

2012, Sanford Pinsker.
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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College (located in Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania). He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days and occasionally reviews manuscripts for publishers.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP wonders if Mr. Santorum is so dead set against higher education that he is willing to return his B.A. degree to Penn State, his M.B.A. to the University of Pittsburgh, and his law degree to Dickinson School of Law.  After all, in his opinion, having these degrees would characterize him as a "snob."  In addition since Santorum has railed against "government" schools, he has even more reason to return his degrees to these -- perish the thought -- state-supported institutions of higher education.  But Santorum aside, the IP is more disappointed in the fact that his challengers for the Republican nomination have let these attacks on education go largely unchallenged.  Are they also more in favor of ignorance than they are in educational opportunity.


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© 2012 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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