It is an axiom among intellectuals that America is an anti-intellectual culture. And among the so-called anti-intellectuals, the idea is part and parcel of the ‘coastal elitism’ or “cosmopolitan bias” that, as another axiom goes, so many people despise.
We never think hard about whether it is in fact true that American culture is anti-intellectual. There is something suspiciously self-serving about the idea. What does it mean to call America anti-intellectual anyhow? It is a difficult issue to discuss since we don’t exactly know what anti-intellectualism is—at least, not enough to test it. The idea stretches quite far. Does it connote a mistrust of academics? Disrespect for august academic institutions? Rejection of “high culture”? Resistance to learning (or “reason”) in general? Well, all of the above, I guess.
Instead of giving a positive definition, maybe we can define it negatively. What is America not? From the perspective of Americans, there are plentiful stereotypes about France and Germany as countries teeming with everyday sophisticates. Yet citizens of those countries are quick to disabuse us of those images. Countries that are progressive on issues like climate change don’t have their policies because the citizens are read up on the latest climate science.
If we get straight on what we mean by ‘anti-intellectual’, maybe the issue becomes empirical, a question of the right polling questions or education statistics. But I’m not optimistic about that approach (in part for the reasons I’ll discuss here). It is also boring and unreflective. Let’s set that aside and look at it from another perspective.
In my experience, nearly everyone is open to critical thought in some form. People listen to and provide arguments all the time—whether about sports, conspiracy theories, biblical interpretation, or politics. People are even willing to discuss philosophy if the conversation is approached in the right way: i.e. not with “Here is some philosophy you should know” but “Here is an idea. What do you think?”
People make claims and defend them with reasons (Plato said so). People like to learn (Aristotle said so). And people want to think of themselves as knowledgeable (Hobbes said so). You are welcome to challenge these claims. I’m aware that they have exceptions. Perhaps quite a few. But if I—and, ya know, Aristotle—are right, the charge of anti-intellectualism takes on a different tone. Really what we mean is that the hoi polloi aren’t interested in the right stuff. And what is the right stuff? Well, it is the stuff we tradition-described intellectuals say it is. People learn, make arguments, and cite evidence, but seemingly not about what really matters (to the intellectuals).
Maybe the right stuff actually is the right stuff. I don’t mean to debate that issue. I instead want to point out the divisive political role a concept like ‘anti-intellectual’ has. It inherently stratifies culture. We should ask first why there aren’t more people interested in the right stuff.
Here is a radical suggestion: we haven’t made it interesting. We haven’t communicated its importance in a compelling way. Instead of propping ourselves up by diminishing others, let’s look at our own shortcomings. If people generally want to learn, why don’t they want to learn about the stuff we think about?
Some academic philosophers complain that no one listens to them. It is assumed that the fault lies with the people. “If they would get educated and open their minds, maybe then they’d appreciate my book about the exemplar theory of concepts.” We think the public has little to no appetite for philosophy. That is a mistake. Or if it isn’t a mistake, the fault doesn’t lie with the people. It is more so that the public doesn’t care about the esoteric work that happens in university philosophy departments. Even within those departments, colleagues struggle to show engaged interest in each other’s work, mainly because the work is so highly specialized that it is nearly impossible to get a handle on even the basics quickly and easily. We often do a terrible job of talking about our work to the uninitiated.
There are other issues at work too. Academic philosophical projects tend to have little impact on daily life. If an academic philosopher’s work involves demanding that everyone change their behavior, either it won’t go over well or it will be stripped of practical import and treated as an abstract puzzle. (It is remarkable how many philosophers are willing to talk about animal ethics until it comes time to eat differently. Then you witness some impressive mental gymnastics.)
It is also an issue of attitude and politics. Even if the topic is fairly exoteric, the elites want it to be known that they are the elites. There is a vague expectation that people should kneel before our expertise. This isn’t true of all, but the reputation exists. So it affects all. Plus the field is constructed out of these sorts of power relations.
Here is the essence of my claim: stop using anti-intellectualism as a reason to disengage. The concept induces nihilism. Resist it. Instead, take anti-intellectualism as an indictment of your field and your work. A bit of pride comes along with calling our culture anti-intellectual. We are the hoi oligoi. Instead, take pride in improving culture, not in sitting at the top of it. If your work is important to a vibrant culture and too few people care, then it is time to be more imaginative and creative in the tactics you use to persuade people to care.
Anti-intellectualism, if it exists, is chiefly the failure of the intellectuals.
Calling someone anti-intellectual justifies not starting a conversation. It justifies a self-estimation of superiority. It doesn’t only sell our fellow citizen short, but, contrary to our self-supposed superiority, it sells ourselves short. It shows our own failure to make certain topics interesting, compelling, and convincing. An intellectual culture has teachers, people who pull others up into the world of ideas. How good of a teacher are you if you only speak to those who are already in your world? Is it fair to expect others to be instinctually interested in what you do and how you do it? Is it fair to expect others to instill interest in your work on your behalf?
Maybe you aren’t as convincing as you think. Retreating to charges of anti-intellectualism means refusing self-reflection, self-criticism, and a drive to improve—the very attributes of an intellectual culture that we claim to champion. Charging anti-intellectualism is unnuanced, self-aggrandizing, and lazy—the very attributes of anti-intellectualism we claim to denounce. We need to improve. (See Part I for that argument.)
So how do we change our approach? I suggest a change to our conception of public philosophy and a change to the attitude we take towards it.