April 3, 2011

A DEFENSE OF “ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM:”

Part of the problem is that the American distrust of intellectualism is itself not the irrational thing that those sympathetic to intellectuals would like to think. Intellectuals killed by the millions in the 20th century, and it actually takes the sophisticated training of “education” to work yourself up into a state where you refuse to count that in the books. Intellectuals routinely declared things that aren’t true; catastrophically wrong predictions about the economy, catastrophically wrong pronouncements about foreign policy, and just generally numerous times where they’ve been wrong. Again, it takes a lot of training to ignore this fact. “Scientists” collectively were witnessed by the public flipflopping at a relatively high frequency on numerous topics; how many times did eggs go back and forth between being deadly and beneficial? Sure the media gets some blame here but the scientists played into it, each time confidently pronouncing that this time they had it for sure and it is imperative that everyone live the way they are saying (until tomorrow). Scientists have failed to resist politicization across the board, and the standards of what constitutes science continues to shift from a living, vibrant, thoughtful understanding of the purposes and ways of science to a scelerotic hide-bound form-over-substance version of science where papers are too often written to either explicitly attract grants or to confirm someone’s political beliefs… and regardless of whether this is 2% or 80% of the papers written today it’s nearly 100% of the papers that people hear about.

I simplify for rhetorical effect; my point is not that this is a literal description of the current state of the world but that it is far more true than it should be. Any accounting of “anti-intellectualism” that fails to take this into account and lays all the blame on “Americans” is too incomplete to formulate an action plan that will have any chance of success. It’s not a one-sided problem.

If you want to fix anti-intellectualism, you first need to fix intellectualism and return it to its roots of dispassionate exploration, commitment to truth over all else and bending processes to find truth rather than bending truth to fit (politicized) processes.

(Thanks to reader Jonathan Stafford for the link.) This is much like what Neal Stephenson said in In The Beginning Was The Command Line:

The twentieth century was one in which limits on state power were removed in order to let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abattoir. . . . We Americans are the only ones who didn’t get creamed at some point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and value systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals.

Indeed.

UPDATE: It seems I have the above Stephenson quote wrong. A reader emails:

You’ve several times quoted Stephenson as writing:

“The twentieth century was one in which limits on state power were removed in order to let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abattoir. . . . We Americans are the only ones who didn’t get creamed at some point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and value systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals.”

But every copy of “In the Beginning was the Command Line” I’ve been able to find does not contain this quote anywhere. I fact, the phrase “state power” does not appear anywhere in the text, not even once.

Following the link you provide (to Amazon.com), and using their ‘look inside the book feature’ turns up the following, and it’s the same in every version I’ve examined:

“But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that, during this century, intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abbatoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous as well.

We Americans are the only ones who didn’t get creamed at some point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and values systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals, and with anything like intellectualism, even to the point of not reading books any more, though we are literate. We seem much more comfortable with propagating those values to future generations nonverbally, through a process of being steeped in media.”

I’m confident you’ll want to correct this error, as it seems somewhere along the line someone’s twisted Stephenson’s words somewhat, and accuracy in quotations and references are important.

My copy of Command Line is at the office, but looking inside the book on Amazon this seems to be right. Further research reveals that the opening bit about state power is an introductory phrase from a law review article that somehow got put inside the quote, which is probably my error, though since I originally posted this in 2002, I’m not positive where I got it from then. But I’ll go back and correct the earlier posts as well. I don’t think the sense of the quote is wrong, but nonetheless I apologize for the error, and thank the reader (whose name isn’t in his/her email address) for the correction. To err is human, but to be corrected by anonymous readers is blogging!

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Santiago Valenzuela writes:

Thoughtful article, but I am always disturbed by conservative anti-intellectualism.

Particularly, what disturbs me, is that it equivocates intellectualism per se with a specific species of intellectualism (statism of various stripes.) Why have conservatives ceded the title of intellectual to their opponents, instead confidently putting their faith in their gut instincts, “common sense,” and other decidedly “non-intellectual” ways of deciding? While it may be superior to statism in this case, it doesn’t make it good.

So why not instead say “These intellectuals have failed. Our intellectuals have a better grasp of reality and how men must live in it”? Why a rejection of intellectualism per se? It troubles me, because I have a profound respect for rational thought and a systematic approach to the troubles humanity faces, and seeing people mock that because one crop of intellectuals chose their theoretical models over reality can’t bode well.

Well, anti-intellectualism can mean two things. One is opposition to intellectualism, but the other is opposition to self-described “intellectuals” — who, often as not, are more credentialed than educated, and frequently not particularly intellectual at all except in mannerisms and self-description. We should, I think, be more explicit about distinguishing between intellectuals, and activists who mimic the mannerisms of intellectuals.

MORE: Hanah Volokh emails:

I found your recent blog post on anti-intellectualism interesting, particularly the last comments from Santiago Valenzuela and your response to them. I also find conservative anti-intellectualism troubling, and I think it’s important to separate it into three separate points:

1. Left-wing intellectuals are wrong substantively.

2. Many people who claim to be intellectuals are actually not intellectuals at all, but activists.

3. Central planning is not the best way to run a government or economy, so intellectuals do not need to be running things.

Still, to understand why central planning is a bad idea, and what we should have instead, and to get at the answers to numerous substantive policy issues, intellectuals are crucially important.

You may also be interested in this recent Stanley Fish column that attempts to describe academic intellectualism to laymen. It is particularly helpful at identifying the difference between an intellectual and an activist (full disclosure: I was an attendee at the conference he describes).

Thanks!

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