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Book Smarts vs. Hard Knocks
on April 27, 2003
This is Hofstadter's study of trends in academic and social thought up to the 1950's, and it still deserves praise at a general level even though many of the particulars are no longer relevant. It's unfair to say that a book published way back in 1963 is outdated in the present day, so this can best be seen as a period piece, with a social history up to the point of writing. So it does function as a useful look at what was happening intellectually in the 1950's and early 60's.
Hofstadter's subject matter is the unique American disdain for intellectuals and eggheads - a term he actually uses several times, quite surprisingly for such an academic work. American folklore glamorizes the self-made man who conquers the challenges of nature, educating himself with experience - the school of hard knocks - as opposed to the isolated and condescending intellectual who has book smarts but no experience. At the time of writing, the end of the McCarthyist era, anti-intellectualism was especially strong and Hofstadter examines the history of this always shifting issue. He also makes the important distinction between intellectualism and intelligence. Folks usually distrust the former but still respect the latter. Some of Hofstadter's examinations seem highly irrelevant today, like the role of intellectualism in farming or organized labor, but his coverage of issues in public education (including the perennial evolution debate) is depressingly familiar. It seems some things never change.
The writing style is very academic, and dare I say intellectual, so it can be a struggle getting through Hofstadter's obscure issues and references that were more relevant back in 1963. However his political stance is very strong and levelheaded, and his examination of McCarthyism is surprisingly lucid. The only overall problem with this book is that Hofstadter keeps the anti-intellectualism issue at the academic or social-discourse level. There is no coverage of the effects of anti-intellectualism on real people and real social problems, as the fear and hatred of knowledge that was present both then and now can have very unfortunate effects for culture and society.