Understanding Anti-Intellectualism in the U.S.
Written by: Edric Huang, Jenny Dorsey, Claire Mosteller, Emily Chen
Edited by: Lesley Tellez, Zandie Brockett, Hannah Seabright
Graphic by: Ian Farrell
Last Updated: 6/1/2021
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The concept of anti-intellectualism has changed and evolved over time, without one single definition. In historian Richard Hofstadter's groundbreaking book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963), anti-intellectualism is explained as “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life”.
Today, our working definition of anti-intellectualism in the United States is:
a social attitude that systematically undermines science-based facts, academic and institutional authorities, and the pursuit of theory and knowledge.
Anti-intellectualism is often misunderstood as mere hostility towards acquiring knowledge, or the byproduct of the lack of a formal education. However, this definition ignores how anti-intellectualism has been wielded by those with power, as a means to uphold the ideas and systems that benefit them, and thus enabling the continued expansion of these attitudes through society over time. This paper will:
Explain the three distinct types of anti-intellectualism, and how each has manifested in the United States;
Trace the history and evolution of anti-intellectualism in the United States as a method to protect existing social, economic, and political powers;
Examine how the political and corporate sectors of the United States wield anti-intellectualism for their own benefit;
Discuss the differences in constructive criticism versus anti-intellectualism;
Analyze strategies commonly deployed alongside anti-intellectualism to distract or delegitimize arguments;
Provide suggestions for combating anti-intellectualism and practicing continuous learning in your own spheres of influence.
Anti-intellectualism is a pervasive and popular mindset because it encourages us to cling to our most fervently held beliefs, with little or no supporting evidence. Simply advocating for more education is not enough; fully combating anti-intellectualism requires us to actively challenge our own assumptions with new perspectives and embrace the discomfort of recognizing how much we simply do not, and cannot, know.
Table of Contents
A look at the history of anti-intellectualism and its different manifestations in our society
Examining the use of anti-intellectualism to reinforce sociopolitical power structures
Understanding the purpose of criticisms of intellectualism in comparison to anti-intellectualism
Ways to combat anti-intellectualism in your own life, as well as tools to pinpoint anti-intellectualism in everyday conversation
Relevant resources to read and learn more about intellectualism
What is Anti-Intellectualism?
Today, we define American anti-intellectualism as a social attitude that systematically denigrates science-based facts, academic and institutional authorities, and the pursuit of theory and knowledge.
The foundation of our understanding comes from Richard Hofstadter's oft-cited Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), where this mindset is described as: “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”
It is important to note that anti-intellectualism is not so much a school of thought, but rather, a composite of related strategies to uphold certain ideas (and systems) put forward by those in power (e.g., creationism, or the belief that the universe and living organisms originated from divine creation). As such, its tactics are not confined to members of a certain group, although they may be more prevalent in some.
Anti-intellectualism is often associated with America’s current ideological right, conservative thinkers, and religious followers, yet progressives and liberals have also wielded anti-intellectualism to protect their own political power and social standing (including, ironically, perpetuating a non-existent correlation between intellect and class, and a paternalistic approach in addressing social change). This has contributed to intersectional divisions, going so far as to damage progressive and liberal movements, e.g., liberal entitlement and rhetoric denigrating the South as backwards and racist while overlooking the decades of work that Southerners have put into various civil rights issues.
In 1991, Professor Daniel Rigney built upon Hofstadter to name three distinct types of anti-intellectualism:
Religious anti-rationalism: rejection of reason, logic, and fact in favor of emotions, morals, and religious absolutes;
Populist anti-elitism: rejection of elite institutions as well as those categorized within the social and/or intellectual "elite" (e.g., professors, old-money politicians);
Unreflective instrumentalism: belief that the pursuit of theory and knowledge is unnecessary unless it can be wielded for practical means (e.g., profit).
Anti-intellectualism is not, contrary to popular belief, a result of a lack of education or hostility towards acquiring knowledge. Rather, anti-intellectualism distinguishes the concept of knowledge between intellect and intelligence, and heavily favors the latter. As Hofstadter describes, intelligence is utilizing ideas in a practical way, while intellect is about developing, challenging, and evolving the ideas themselves. He states: “Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole.”
Because the continued pursuit of intellectual knowledge necessitates a certain “discontent with dogmas” (Hofstadter), it often conflicts with and challenges widely accepted philosophies, societal structure, and the power dynamics of its time. As a result, anti-intellectualism is evoked as a way to halt the acquisition of new knowledge that would undermine groups with power and privilege, and does so by painting these new ideas as irrelevant to daily life, or simply false. (False information, in the form of fake news, also contributes to this phenomenon by perpetuating incorrect information that benefits people in power.) As described by writer Harold Rosenberg, acquiring knowledge challenges the status quo and those in power by “turning answers into questions.” Hofstadter posits it is the reason that anti-intellectualism has persisted over the course of United States history.
While anti-intellectual rhetoric and tactics are more commonly witnessed from those who hold dominant identities in the U.S., it is not confined to any one group, identity, or ideology. Similarly, claims that any one identity has a particular disposition towards anti-intellectualism ignores the complex power dynamics and intersectional identities within that group. For example, negative stereotypes of Black Americans as being anti-intellectual because “success in school [is] fundamentally foreign to [the] conception of authentic Blackness” have been consistently disproven as a vast overgeneralization lacking real data or historical examples.
The Hypocrisy of Anti-Intellectualism
The great paradox of anti-intellectualism is that it often requires holding contradicting positions. (Hence why we characterize it as related stratagems, but not as a cohesive ideology.)
First, anti-rationalism rejects science in favor of feelings and morals, which are based on lived experiences or teachings constructed by lived experiences, e.g., the Bible.
However, when certain lived experiences are incongruent with the dominant group’s ideals, the reality of the marginalized group’s lived experiences is rejected in the name of scientific proof. For example, when trans individuals question the absolute correlation of sex assigned at birth with gender identity, some used psuedo-science to characterize them as having a “psychological disorder.”
When additional scientific evidence surfaces to complicate the issue, such as when researchers suggest that gender identity may be genetic, anti-elitism is triggered to discredit the scientists, researchers, and experts of the field. Often, their intentions come under question.
Finally, when modern science cannot conclusively explain every aspect of the issue — in this case, gender identity is complex and not fully understood — unreflective instrumentalism pronounces existing nebulous research as useless, contradictory (which it very well may be), and unnecessary in pursuing due to a lack of tangible profit or gain. In effect, unreflective instrumentalism purportedly takes a “pragmatic” approach by only assigning worth to ideas “that actually matter” to the dominant group.
The Evolution of Anti-Intellectualism in the U.S.
History demonstrates that anti-intellectualism is no mistake, accident, or a result of individual or historical bias. While its form may change depending on circumstances of the time, anti-intellectualism is, as Hofstadter points out, fundamentally American.
Hofstadter traces the roots of anti-intellectualism to the evangelical Protestantism of America’s first European settlers and their subsequent influence on the ‘American Dream.’ Since the eighteenth century, as evangelicalism emerged in contrast to the Catholic Church and Church of England, anti-education rhetoric became a common response in institutionalized evangelical settings. “I do not read any book,” said influential evangelist preacher Dwight Moody, “unless it will help me to understand [the Bible].”
This form of evangelical Protestantism continued to breed religious anti-rationalism over the course of the next 200 years. It was further polarized upon the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), which vehemently contradicted creationist ideologies. (In fact, the Butler Act of 1925 made it illegal to teach evolution in Tennessee public schools and universities. This was not overturned until 1967.) To this day, such fundamentalist forms of faith endure: in 2015, the Pew Research Center found that nearly a quarter of Americans belong to white evangelical churches and 42% of Americans are creationists.
For our “Founding Fathers,” the fervor of evangelicalism enabled the ideals of egalitarianism and freedom in their “new” world. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington espoused masculine ideals of the “self-made” man: a type of rugged industrialist who came to America with nothing, but through hard work, tenacity, and a little luck, could become a tycoon. He did not need an education to succeed, "because he made himself." In contrast, Enlightened intellectuals were characterized as effeminate and ineffectual.
In America, the Founding Fathers and the 'self-made' rugged industrialists began to characterize intellect as “a marker of difference.” Hofstadter takes Thomas Jefferson’s election as a clear example: Federalist leaders and the clergy mocked his intellect as one that “might entitle him to the Professorship of a college,” but also as utterly incompatible with presidential and military duties. To be intellectual was to lack faith and the energy of action — and by extension morals and conviction — all of which they deemed religion and successful businesses to be built upon.
The establishment of universities amplified the distrust of intellect. As liberal arts education deviated from business activities and the cost of college stratified intellectualism into a class-based pursuit, working class individuals became increasingly alienated and antagonistic towards the intellectuals hiding behind “ivory towers” without producing anything “useful” for society.
Philosopher Allan Bloom (later, in the 1980s) went as far as to render the university a failed establishment: “Students in our best universities do not believe in anything … The great questions — God, freedom, and immortality...hardly touch the young. And the universities, which should encourage the quest for the clarification of such questions, are the very source of the doctrine which makes that quest appear futile.”
The rise of the Efficiency Movement from the 1890s through the 1930s (sometimes also referred to as Taylorism per influences from Frederick W. Taylor) also reinforced a hard distinction between intellect and practical business. In Taylor’s quest to improve economic efficiency and labor productivity, he arbitrarily separated general workers from those who were deemed to have potential to become managers. The former is a thinker, the latter is a doer. In his own words: “one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron [a worker] is that he shall be so stupid and phlegmatic that he...resembles in his mental make up the ox.”
By the 1960s, this divide between intellect and intelligence evolved into a culture war between the New Left and the first wave of neoconservatism. Irving Kristol, known as the godfather of neoconservatism, claimed this culture war to be “a reaction against the Left's nihilistic revolt against conventional morality and religion” (Wolfson 2004). He and other neoconservatives criticized the Women’s Liberation, Civil Rights, and anti-war movements as not only “personal grievances” but antithetical to American patriotism — an idea that prevails still today. Neoconservatives rallied behind the state as “setting the moral-religious compass for society, and indeed for the world.”
Kristol also supported corporate rights over government-sanctioned social support systems such as welfare, laying the foundation for corporate anti-intellectualism. In his view, capitalism was suffering under a new class of intellectuals (defined as everyone from scientists and teachers to journalists, psychologists, and social workers) who “wanted the power to shape our civilization” (often by giving it to the government) instead of allowing it “to reside in the free market.” He argued that corporate businessmen built their social standing with their own efforts and deserved to reap its benefits, furthering the false ideal of meritocracy which still persists in the U.S. today.
These movements also coincided with the postmodernist assault on science in the 1960s-1970s, which emerged as a broader movement characterized by skepticism and the questioning of absolutes. The postmodernist critique opened necessary conversations; it illuminated how the pursuit of science was not always “an independent, non-partisan exploration of truth.” Postmodernist thinkers expressed skepticism towards the ways science has been approached and wielded, believing it to be driven by vested interests such as the government (Areo). One of the movement’s major leaders, Thomas Kuhn, argued that “if science is not a gradual process of accumulation of knowledge, but rather subject to sudden ‘revolution’ that overwhelm[s] outdated theories...how can one trust scientific knowledge?” (Kuntz 2012).
While ambiguous enough to allow for interpretation, Kuhn himself says that he did not write The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to be anti-science or to claim that science is irrational; others, like Bruno Latour, have similarly come out in subsequent years to clarify their position in support of science (and climate change). However, in practice, postmodernism had a different impact. Some have taken their views to the extreme, firmly believing that all knowledge is relative. This notion by some that there can be “multiple ways of knowing” has reduced science to opinions — or today, alternative facts — and has allowed political and capitalist agendas to selectively weaponize science for their own agendas, while simultaneously calling into question the validity of the scientific method itself. According to a2019 Pew report, only 27% of Republicans have confidence in scientists in comparison to 43% of Democrats. As science fiction writer Isaac Asimovwrote in the 1980s:
“The strain of anti-intellectualism has been...nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
Today, Americans’ distrust of intellect, experts, and science have been further encouraged with the digital democratization of information. A 2020 Pew Research Center analysis found that U.S. adults who primarily use social media for political news were more likely to believe in unproven or false claims while also being less knowledgeable about a wide range of topics. The wide availability of information combined with the siloing effect of social media algorithms creates a false sense of confidence in these claims.
This false confidence, as Dane Clausen explains, has prompted others to speed up information dissemination in an attempt to keep up: “Commoditized information naturally tends to reflect the assumptions and interests of those who produce it, and its producers are not driven to...promote critical reflection.” (Anti-Intellectualism in American Media). As a result, people are more inclined to share information on social media without critically reflecting on the sources and interests of those who created it, which can also lead to the spread of false information.
While there are valid ways to critique intellectualism and its proxies (e.g., university education), the ongoing use of anti-intellectualism in our society is led by other agendas. Jay DeSart finds evidence that anti-intellectualism is, in part, driven by a sense of powerlessness. This contextualizes much of the anti-intellectualism language we read from Bloom, Kristol, and other cultural icons like Fahrenheit 451— where knowledge and facts were made into weapons by the masses. At its core, anti-intellectualism is a reaction to changes that threaten existing claims to knowledge, privilege, and access to power.
Sociopolitical Effects of Anti-Intellectualism
With roots deeply ingrained into the foundation of the United States and fundamental American ideals, anti-intellectualism has shaped the societal structures we live in today. Politicians, corporations, and religious institutions stand to benefit from this most— to maintain or assert authority, anti-intellectualism is the default weapon employed to fuse patriotism, American identity, and support for their own agendas.
Anti-Intellectualism and Politics
Anti-intellectualism has shown itself to be a successful strategy for appealing to key voter segments. President Eisenhower first popularized the use of anti-intellectual rhetoric during his campaign, describing intellectuals as men who “take more words than necessary to tell more than he knows” and publicly worrying that no one except “business failures, college professors, and New Deal lawyers” (Lim 2008) would take jobs in Washington D.C. (For all his “affinity for the common man” image, however, Eisenhower had previously served as the President of Columbia University.)
While Eisenhower may not have been the first president to hold anti-intellectual sentiments, he demarcated a shift in the political rhetoric of America’s ideological right (current day Republicans). Anti-intellectualism became a common fixture in the subsequent campaigns of Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Trump to convey a stance of strong leadership and instinct not reliant on established experts while decision making.
This is not to say Democratic presidents did not also employ anti-intellectualism — President Lyndon B. Johnson engaged in anti-intellectual posturing, specifically highlighting his humble roots in rural Central Texas and often citing his father’s advice that “if you are to speak for the people, you must know them.” In these same remarks, he stated, “self-styled intellectuals... are more concerned with the trivia and the superficial than they are with the things that have really built America.” As Susan Jacoby points out, “our politicians repeatedly assure Americans that they are just ‘folks,’ a patronizing term … [often used] in important presidential speeches before 1980.”
What started as an appeal to the everyman, rooted in an (often valid) critique of the wealthy and elite-educated, has now morphed into a weapon to politicize fundamentally non-partisan issues. The use of anti-intellectualism allows politicians to position their opponents and their viewpoints as elitist and/or anti-American, bolster their own credibility on various topics (despite a lack of supporting evidence), and polarize certain issues like climate change so severely that sympathy towards opposing views results in political ostracization.
The very real consequences of anti-intellectualism used as a tool to politically posture is particularly evident with the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has expressed his disdain for “experts” since 2016; once COVID-19 became a national crisis in the U.S., Trump and his top policymakers waged an ongoing campaign to vilify Anthony Fauci, considered the nation's top COVID-19 expert and Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. As Trump and his policy-makers dismissed both the reality and severity of the virus, Fauci received death threats and became the target of an online conspiracy theory.
The alignment of COVID-19 cautiousness with a violation of freedom and the embracing of liberal identity has led many to ignore the public health measures set to contain the disease, including wearing a mask, social distancing, and minimizing large group interactions. Resultantly, COVID-19 related deaths in the U.S. have hit a grim milestone of more than 550,000 deaths. This is in stark contrast to countries that took early and consistent precautions, like Taiwan and New Zealand.
Trump has further fostered divisiveness to deny and delay necessary social change, such as in combating systemic racism. By pitting the existence of racism against notions of U.S.-centric exceptionalism, the Trump administration created new narratives around why the U.S. is not “inherently unfair and racist…[but a country that] possesses a distinct identity and noble traditions that must be fiercely defended, not challenged.” (LA Times)
Whenever this facade of American exceptionalism is challenged, the strategy of anti-intellectualism characterizes the people demanding change as a threat to the stability of America, rather than acknowledging that these inequalities undermine American values of equality and liberty. In response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Trump renounced the “protesters as ‘evil’ representatives of a ‘new far-left fascism,’ whose ultimate goal is ‘the end of America’” (Washington Post). It harkens back to the clash of Civil Rights era movements and neoconservatives as well as the anti-intellectualism that bred McCarthyism. (McCarthyism originated in the 1950s from its namesake, Senator Joe McCarthy, whose “shrieking denunciations and fear-mongering” by way of anti-intellectual vocabulary bred suspicion of Communist infiltration in the U.S. during a time of heightened tension between the U.S. and Russia.)
Anti-Intellectualism & Corporations
Corporations also utilize anti-intellectualism to prioritize their own interests and maximize profit. America’s mode of capitalism has always been predicated on exploitation, and the corporate sector knows that championing anti-intellectualism, especially anti-rationalism, is effective in maintaining a distracted and poorly informed public. Corporations recognize people are less likely to challenge pro-corporate, pro-wealthy public policy even when they are directly harmed by these policies.
A prominent example is the ongoing refusal of corporations (and government officials backed by corporate executives) to invest in clean energy and large-scale policy changes to slow the effects of climate change. Although pivoting to wind or solar energy would boast environmental and economic benefits, pro-coal companies and coalitions consistently deploy anti-rationalism as public narratives to ignore overwhelming scientific evidence. These public narratives used while lobbying claim that climate change either is not as serious as scientists warn, or deny its existence altogether.
For example, the Rocky Mountain Coal Mining Institute (sponsored by Murray Energy Corporation, the largest privately-owned coal company in the U.S.) has cited coal’s abundance and affordability despite evidence from Carbon Tracker, an independent financial think tank, that renewable power is a cheaper alternative than coal.
For decades, the tobacco industry engaged in similar behavior. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway write in their book Merchants of Doubt:
"Rightwing think tanks, the fossil fuel industry, and other corporate interests that are intent on discrediting science have employed a strategy first used by the tobacco industry to try to confuse the public about the dangers of smoking.
'Doubt is our product,' read an infamous memo written by a tobacco industry executive in 1969, 'since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.'"
The tobacco industry’s dedication to anti-intellectualism can still be seen today. For example, popular e-cigarette Juul was marketed as a safer, non-addictive alternative to cigarettes. Representatives of its parent company, Altria, claimed Juul products were effective ways for smokers to quit when in reality, the nicotine concentration in Juul products is higher than most tobacco products and other e-cigarette brands.
Corporations will reject logic and science produced by credible institutions in the name of capitalism, whereby wealth accumulation for the shareholders comes at the expense of workers. What is particularly dangerous about the pervasiveness of anti-intellectualism, however, is that those most hurt by corporate power play internalize these sentiments and in turn, perpetuate and enforce the very unjust systems that oppress them.
This is witnessed in the unreflective instrumentalism of the restaurant industry where the romanticization of restaurant culture and “toughness” needed to survive resists change to an oppressive structure. The traditional brigade structure of kitchens — a system of hierarchy centered around a rigid chain of command, influenced by the Efficiency Movement and the military — combined with problematic tipping practices rooted in racism and rising real estate costs — have contributed to decades of an overtly unsustainable business model.
Rather than reformulating the system by providing transparency so the public can see the true costs of operations and advocate for better wages, restaurant owners (and their mid-level leadership) would rather maintain the status quo. Unpaid labor (e.g., stagiaires or trainees) and the most vulnerable populations (e.g., formerly incarcerated and undocumented workers) are exploited, and still, a toxic culture, which prioritizes extreme output at the expense of mental and physical health, is standard.
The cost of this indoctrination in “the way things are” is high. Kitchen workers are taught to never question their superiors, to not receive credit for their contributions, to not waste time experimenting unless it contributes to the bottom line, and to work endlessly to keep the inherently flawed restaurant above water. The recent example of Los Angeles’s famed Sqirl is a poignant demonstration of the results of rigid authority that begets employee abuse. (Relatedly, a 2017 Unilever Food Solutions survey found 74% percent of chefs are sleep deprived to the point of exhaustion, 63% of chefs feel depressed, and more than half feel pushed to the breaking point.) You can read an analysis on the health impacts of the brigade system here.
Criticism of Intellectualism vs. Anti-Intellectualism
Anti-intellectualism is often guised as a critique of authority or pointless theory, but both are far cries from useful criticism. Here, we distinguish between constructive criticism and anti-intellectualism by analyzing the purpose of the critique in addition to who and what it is meant to benefit. Constructive criticism adds to a conversation by advocating for certain analyses or futures. Anti-intellectualism, meanwhile, aims to undermine and diminish any analyses or discourse that runs counter to its original position.
Under populist anti-elitism, for example, education reform advocates often highlight the biases embedded into Ivy league education due to the historical exclusion of Black Americans and institutional tendencies toward academic isolation. The critique is well deserved: the university (as well as the “liberal intellectual elite”) perpetuates a correlation between class and intellect, claiming the university as the primary site of knowledge production at the exclusion of the working class.
However, the purpose of these criticisms is not to overturn public sentiment on the importance of education, “elite” or otherwise. Instead, it emphasizes the limits of our current systems and advocates for more equitable access to academic institutions. In fact, these movements aim to rectify the very social inequities that bred and encouraged American anti-intellectualism in the 20th and 21st centuries. They also reveal the ways that American anti-intellectualism entered the university, such as how universities are increasingly run like corporations.
Similarly, by pointing out historical lack of BIPOC and female, non-binary, and trans consideration when formulating research and standards, professionals challenge the intellectual canon within their industry or discipline (e.g., decolonizing psychotherapy and psychiatry). Deficits in inclusivity aren't raised to discredit their field of work; these questions help explain how exclusion contributes to real-world problems (e.g., misdiagnosed or undiagnosed autism and ADHD in girls and women, or unnecessary racial re-traumatization during counseling). Critique can only improve the rigor and applicability of future work, thereby inspiring progress.
As Adam Waters and E.J. Dionne Jr. point out in Is Anti-Intellectualism Ever Good for Democracy?:
"Anti-intellectualism is often a symptom of a larger problem: many of those engaged in academic and policy work have lost a sense of obligation to connect what they do to the daily struggles of ordinary people."
What was once a “rich and interactive relationship between intellectuals and unions, which ran robust education and discussion programs with workers” has become the “Ivory Tower,” mystified from the working class as a result of academic jargon, economic barriers, and bureaucratic hurdles.
Rather than calling for a revision of educational priorities, anti-intellectualism can take an extreme approach by advocating for the elimination or rejection of education (particularly humanities education), scientific study, and discourse. However, the improvement of intellectual applications is not mutually exclusive to pursuit of intellect itself; it is a false binary created with ulterior motives. As Waters and Dionne Jr. write, “What must be preserved is the right to dissent.”
Anti-intellectualism is a popular mindset because it allows us to believe the things we want to believe, even with little, uncertain, or no supporting evidence. It is especially pervasive in discussions surrounding sensitive topics like abortion or the