Saturday, December 06, 2008



The ... um ... select few readers of this blog will probably be thoroughly sick of Richard Hofstadter's renowned book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life by the time I get done reading it but this section has a clear lesson for us now:

Today the evolution controversy seems as remote as the Homeric era to intellectuals in the East, and it is not uncommon to take a condescending view of both sides. In other parts of the country and in other circles, the controversy is still alive. A few years ago, when the Scopes trial was dramatized in Inherit the Wind, the play seemed on Broadway more like a quaint period piece than a stirring call for freedom of thought. But when the road company took the play to a small town in Montana, a member of the audience, rose and shouted "Amen!" at one of the speeches of the character representing Bryan. Today intellectuals have bogies much more frightening than fundamentalism in the schools; but it would be a serious failure of imagination not to remember how scared the intellectuals of the 1920's were. Perhaps not quite so much appeared to be at stake as in the McCarthyist crusade of the 1950's, but the sense of oppressive danger was no less real. ... The Scopes trial, like the Army-McCarthy hearings thirty years later, brought feeling to a head and provided a dramatic purgation and resolution. After the trial was over, it was easier to see that the anti-evolution crusade was being contained and that the fears of the intellectuals had been excessive. But before the trial, the crusade had gained a great deal of strength in many states, including several outside the South.
Of course, as we now know, anti-evolution and the anti-intellectualism that fueled it had not been vanquished but had merely gone underground, like some giant fungus waiting to send up its mushrooms in a better climate. As Hofstadler acknowledges, after Scopes, evolution was being taught in public schools only by indirection, if at all. And, shortly before Hofstadter's book was published, but well below the notice of those no-longer-overwrought intellectuals, Morris and Whitcomb published The Genesis Flood that, a scant two decades later, would have two states giving "creation science" equal time with evolution in public schools and many more lined up to do the same, until the Supreme Court put an end to it and sent the creationists back to the drawing board, with results we are all familiar with.

The evolution controversy and the Scopes trial greatly quickened the pulse of anti-intellectualism. For the first time in the twentieth century, intellectuals and experts were denounced as enemies by leaders of a large segment of the public. No doubt, the militant fundamentalists were a minority in the country, but they were a substantial minority; and their animus plainly reflected the feelings of still larger numbers, who, however reluctant to join in their reactionary crusade, none the less shared their disquiet about the trend of the times, their fear of the cosmopolitan mentality, of critical intelligence, of experimentalism in morals and literature.
We need look no further back than the past election, with its charges of elitism, its exaltation of the proudly unschooled, its insinuations that anyone the least intellectual or cosmopolitan was not a "real" American, to see that this vein still runs strong through our body politic and remains only barely below the surface.

There is no easy answer to this problem, no simple way to avoid the danger. Unless and until we can make it part of being "just plain folks" to be well-read; to include in "Main Street" American values the exercise of true critical thinking; to have it be as respectable to be knowledgeable for knowledge's sake as it is to be famous or wealthy or to "fit in" with everyone else, we will be vulnerable to this dark streak in our national culture and a danger to ourselves and the rest of the world.


Dave S. said...

Wait a minute....bleh...bleh...BLEEEECCH!! Yes, just a bit sick there.

Here comes another one...bleh!!! Dry heaves.

OK, better now. Carry on.
I hope it wasn't a hairball.

I, for one, will never tire of this stuff. Thanks for sharing.
As one of the (unfortunately) rare readers of your blog, John, I'm enjoying the excerpts from Hofstadter very much. I haven't read it, and now I don't have to!
(puffing heavily) Running behind the pack on COTEB! The exile of cosmopolitan and intellectual perspective to "not real American" is no accident. It is a product of highly-paid, ivy-league educated strategists. It is also a familiar strategy to every incipient fascist movement I've ever heard of.

Yet "American know how" still plays in Peoria, as if the latter could survive long without the former.

(I always read your blog on RSS, by the way, but I'm runnning behind on COTEB)
... the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise ...

As far as that goes, I'm running behind on my email alerts, too.

Thanks for reading at all!
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