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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 It's unfair to say that a book published way back in 1963 is outdated in the present day, so this can best be seen as a period piece, with a social history up to the point of writing.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.
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on July 15, 2004
Richard Hofstadter's remarkable ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM IN AMERICAN LIFE reflects the Cold War/post-McCarthy era, yet still echoes powerfully today. Why this book has endured for four decades is not only because it still rings true, but also for Hofstadter's iron-clad reasoning. (This is not easy reading--at least for me it wasn't). Hofstadter examines the multi-fronted attacks on intellectuals throughout the centuries: attacks from religions who suspected intellectuals of atheism or worse; attacks from the left; attacks from the right; attacks from the lower class who perceived intellectuals as privileged; and attacks from the upper class who worried about the knowledge/power balance. Yes, Hofstadter does linger long about the anti-intellectual movement of the early 60s, and some of those references are lost to us, but that cannot be helped nor blamed on him. I also enjoyed the distinction between intelligence and intellectualism--very acute.
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on January 1, 2004
One reviewer below insists that this book, while excellent, is "dated." I find this an astonishing evaluation. What stunned me about this book was how familiar the anti-intellectualism from each period in American history felt. True, we are not today facing McCarthyism--our own particular moment in history feels Orwellian more than anything--but Hofstadter's overall point about anti-intellectualism being a constituent part of the national character has not been invalidated by the past forty years. Indeed, his points have been confirmed at nearly every point. And while the anti-intellectuals in the fifties may have railed against "eggheads," today the GOP directs much of their fury against the "liberal elite." Since most of "the elite" is dirt poor financially, clearly they are aiming their guns at the intellectual elite. Figures Hofstadter quotes from the 18th century sound like they could be one of today's right wing pundits.
Few books that I have ever read have helped me understand the American character as well as this one. Many of the chapters in American history that he chronicles are somewhat forgotten, but just as essential as the more familiar figures and events. I was familiar with much of what he discusses in the role of religion in fomenting anti-intellectualism in America (though he didn't mention one of the most important factors in the spread of anti-intellectual religion in America: the success of denominations that did not require a college education in their ministers--in fact, were suspicious of ministers who possessed much education--due to geographic remoteness from the colonial colleges, so that Methodists and Baptists throve in the South, which was far away from the colleges that existed in 18th century America; therefore, I believe geography played a greater role and the Great Awakening played a smaller role in building anti-intellectualism than Hofstadter credits). I was also aware of the role that Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy had played in building a prejudice against literacy and culture. The sections on "The Practical Culture" and "Education in a Democracy," however, covers subjects that were somewhat less familiar to me. I was especially fascinated on the chapters on educational theories of the 20th century, with the educational establishment itself espousing anti-intellectual theories by deemphasizing college preparation for students and instead focusing on vocational training.
I would put this book on the shortest of short lists of books that anyone interested in understanding the American character ought to read. I have a large number of friends from other parts of the world, and to an individual they are baffled and mystified at the almost willful ignorance they have discovered on the part of Americans. Hofstadter's book will assist anyone in understanding why so many Americans are antagonistic towards intellectuals and those who possess an advanced literacy. This is also one of Hofstadter's greatest books. Unbelievably, despite the several classic volumes he penned, Hofstadter died at the early age of 54. He was in his forties when he wrote this. One wonders what classics we are now missing because of his premature death.
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on May 23, 2001
Why do I say "dated"? Because the America of which Richard Hofstadter writes no longer exists. Published in the early 1960s (and probably written during the waning of the 1950s), Hofstadter's book stands in the shadow of McCarthyism, the anticommunist consensus of the Cold War, the bland gray-flannel-suit conformity of the Eisenhower years--all of which would begin to dissolve into irreconcilable fragments only a short time after the book hit the stores in 1964.
I would submit that anti-intellectualism is indeed still a dominant force in American life--politicians make appeals to the "folks", right-wing radio talk-shows belabor the follies of academia, films and popular publishing pander to the desire for the basest kind of sensationalism--but that it is an entirely different sort of anti-intellectualism than the kind that held sway over American politics and culture in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s.
Hofstadter's book is certainly worth reading, though, especially if you are interested in the culture of the 1950s. Like Mills' _The Power Elite_ and Reisman's _The Lonely Crowd_, it remains one of the great sociological/historical works from that era; one that offers a vivid portrait of a unique period in American history.
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on June 24, 1999
I have always been puzzled by anti-intellectualism. It never ceases to amaze me how America can be such a technological giant at the same time it is so easily duped by telephone psychics. Richard Hofstader puts the dilemma into historical perspective. He shows how intellect has come to be "resented as a form of power and privilege" and how "at an early date literature and learning were stigmatized as the prerogative of useless aristocracies." Such thinking remains a barrier to fighting racism and achieving greater quality of life for all of us. This book offers deep insights into how and why ignorance is still revered by so many people in what is supposed to be an age of enlightenment. Highly recommend.
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on November 23, 2001
In sharply elucidating America's long and unfortunate flirtation with anti-intellectualism, brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter sheds meaningful light on why American democracy has suffered in subsequent years after the publication of this milestone book, culminating with an increasing number of elegible voters sitting on the sidelines, dropping out of the electoral process.
A major focal point of Hofstadter's study is the turbulent fifties, when the demagoguery of Nixon and McCarthy poisoned the political atmosphere. Hofstadter perceptively reveals a democracy which emerges as a tragic loser when emotion replaces reason.
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on January 25, 2001
Hofstadter's book seems even more vital today than it was when it first came out, back in 1964. As the title suggests, he explores the anti-intellectual roots of American society, particularly along three lines: the rise of evangelical, fundamentalist religion (emphasizing intensity of faith versus book larnin'); the growth of business (corporate) culture in America (with its emphasis on "practicality" and "pragmatism"); and the egalitarian impulses of what Americans consider democracy.
This book is incredibly detailed and thorough, with ample footnotes throughout. When people use the term "exhaustive" to describe a work, it comes to mind with this one. I found sections of it to be fascinating and informative, and other parts less so.
What this book seems to lack is really a sense of what to do about it; in his exploration of the anti-intellectual culture of America, he sort of paints himself into a corner -- especially when he notes that intellectuals themselves have come to incorporate themselves with mainstream society and few assume the gadfly social critic role they historically occupied.
I think American readers today can read this and realize: a) this problem has been with America a long time; b) it seems to be getting worse; Europeans can read it and get a sense of what makes Americans tick.
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on April 29, 1998
This is a beautifully written thesis on how pragmatism has come to dominate intellect in America by way of concepts implanted early in the development of the national psyche: evangelicalism, Jacksonian egalitarian democracy, business culture, and the progressive school of public education. This book should be required reading for Americans and non-Americans alike who wish to understand the origins of certain unflattering stereotypes concerning American "mainstream" culture. He fails to address two critical issues, however. Firstly, he has a tendency to universally equate "intellectual" with "academic" throughout the book. As America is a nation of so-called "self-made" men, we are also a nation of "self-made" intellectuals. An American intellectual needs not necessarily have his/her position validated by university credentials. To his credit, the author never directly includes this point in his definition of the intellectual. It may be indirectly inferred, however, that the author believes that most American intellectuals populate universities and colleges. Also, the author seems to artificially subordinate the role of America's formidable intellectual community to that of the anti-intellectual mainstream. After reading this book, one may get the impression that Americans lack any sort of intellectualism at all. His points are well taken, but perhpas taken a bit far. Still, this book should be considered a classic.
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on November 18, 2000
Richard Hofstadter's scholarly treatise on Anti-Intellectualism remains as a powerful reminder to the forces behind the modern Conservative agenda. This reviewer has found it particularly timely in the face of the 2000 Presidental Election. Specifically, how one the two candidates (which are more similar than dissimilar in superficial policy) has successfully motivated strong positive support (and the other strong negative sentiment) from those sympathic to the far-right and Christian Conservative agenda. Hofstader's discussion of Evangelicalism, and anti-Modernism reveal the strong historical elements behind these deeply rooted beliefs. Although the text refrains from being overtly political and tends towards a dry, detached style, its message is likely to promote strong feelings of "deja-vu" from those who wonder how evolution could possibly produce talk-radio audiences. Highly reccomended.
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on June 18, 1999
Before this book, I had never contemplated the differences between intelligence and intellectualism, but now, armed with Hofstadter's witty, sophisticated study, I can, with confidence, better survey our national landscape. Not only does the author reveal our anti-intellectual roots, he deconstructs the origins of our commitment to "practical knowledge." Whether it's religion or the business ethic, American culture has sanctioned and outwardly promoted a disdain for intellectual contemplation in favor of more "functional" learning that will (must), in the end, bring about conformity, commercialism, and commodification, NOT abstract thought. The book is a masterpiece and if there are any people left in this country who believe the mind is the last refuge of true freedom, it should serve as a revolutionary cry for all of us to follow.
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