Anti-Intellectualism in American Life – Richard Hofstadter (1963)


“Different moments that are chronicled in this exhibition point up the tensions and ambiguities that characterize the role of the intellectual in a democratic society. For instance, is the American intellectual ultimately responsible to the public, or to the freedom of the intellect itself? Does the ‘engaged intellectual’ risk sacrificing their independence? Conversely, does distance from ‘the people’ necessarily imply a haughty – and anti-democratic – refusal to participate in the civic life of the community and the nation? Hofstadter, as we have seen, willingly participated in the radical social movements of the 1930s, but by the middle of the 1950s he had come to fear the ‘dark side’ of mass politics — especially the dangerous hostility towards intellectuals that often accompanied it. He had never regarded the average citizen with disdain; indeed, as this exhibition demonstrates, he was quite willing to intervene in public debate and to engage a broad audience. Hofstadter was nonetheless concerned with the degradation of the public sphere and with the growing contempt for reasoned debate during the McCarthy years. It is clear in hindsight that when he completed his 1963 work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, an ambitious study of the (often tenuous) social position of American intellectuals, the disconcerting experiences of the previous decade greatly informed it. Hofstadter began by acknowledging that the intellectuals in midcentury American society enjoyed an unprecedented level of privilege and power. No longer confined to the university lecture hall or the bohemian fringe, academicians were now enmeshed in the workings of big business, military research, and government policy. (Perhaps nothing symbolized this more than the 1961 appointment of Hofstadter’s colleague, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as Special Assistant and adviser to President John F. Kennedy). Paradoxically, Hofstadter argued, that coveted status was the very source of the intellectuals’ vulnerability: as their influence grew, so did popular resentment of ‘the experts.’ Demagogues, like the Republican Senator Joe McCarthy, could easily use this to their advantage, ‘arousing the fear of subversion’ with an appeal that blended anti-elitism with widespread anxieties relating to ethnic difference and outside influence over domestic affairs. …”
Anti-Intellectualism In American Life (1963)
W – Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, W – Richard Hofstadter
Commentary (Sep, 1963)
Is Anti-Intellectualism Ever Good for Democracy?
Columbia Journalism Review: The Tea Party is timeless
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YouTube: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963)

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