Wednesday, January 14, 2009


American Ideals

A thought:

[T]he primary intellectual value [nineteenth-century American schoolbooks] embodied was utility. As an early reader said: "We are all scholars of useful knowledge." Jedidiah Morse's famous geography boasted: "While many other nations are wasting the brilliant efforts of genius in monuments of ingenious folly, to perpetuate their pride, the Americans, according to the true spirit of republicanism, are employed almost entirely in works of public and private utility." Authors of schoolbooks were proud of the democratic diffusion of knowledge in America and were quite content to pay the price of not having so many advanced or profound scholars. "There are none of those splendid establishments such as Oxford and Cambridge in which immense salaries maintain the professors of literature in monastic idleness. . . . The People of this country have not yet been inclined to make much literary display -- they have rather aimed at works of general utility." A similar pride was expressed that American colleges and universities, unlike those of Europe, were not devoted simply to the acquisition of knowledge but to the moral cultivation of their students. The American college was complacently portrayed as a place designed to form character and inculcate sound principle rather than to lead to the pursuit of truth.

The common school was thought to have been designed for a similar purpose. "Little children," said Alice Cary in a selection used in a third reader of 1882, "you must seek rather to be good than wise." "Man's intellect," said another writer, 'is not man's sole nor best adorning." The virtues of the heart were consistently exalted over those of the head, and this preference found its way into the hero literature of the school readers. European heroes might be haughty aristocrats, soldiers destructive on the battlefield, or "great scholars who were pensioned flatterers of power, and poets, who profaned the high gift of genius to pamper the vices of a corrupted court." But American heroes were notable as simple, sincere men of high character. Washington, a central figure in this literature, was portrayed in some of the books as an example both of the self-made man and of the practical man with little use for the intellectual life. "He was more solid than brilliant, and had more judgment than genius. He had great dread of public life, cared little for books, and possessed no library," said a history book of the 1880's and 1890's. Even Franklin was not depicted as one of the intellectual leaders of the eighteenth century, or as a distinguished scientist at home in the capitals of the world and among its aristocracies, but rather as an exemplar of the self-made man and the author of catch-penny maxims about thrift and industry.

-- Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life


Dave S. said...

America: The community college among nations
Oooooh! I like it!!!

Don't be surprised if you see me using it ... with attribution, of course ...

... or not.
No surprise that it is the independent, self-taught tinkerer in his garage, rather than the PhD. at the University laboratory, who invents the perpetual motion machines!
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