Anti-intellectualism in American Life is a book by Richard Hofstadter published in 1963 that won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. In this book, Hofstadter set out to trace the social movements that altered the role of intellect in American society. In so doing, he explored questions regarding the purpose of education and whether the democratization of education altered that purpose and reshaped its form. In considering the historic tension between access to education and excellence in education, Hofstadter argued that both anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism were consequences, in part, of the democratization of knowledge. Moreover, he saw these themes as historically embedded in America's national fabric, an outcome of its colonial European and evangelical Protestant heritage. Anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism were functions of American cultural heritage, not necessarily of democracy.
Written in response to the political and intellectual conditions of the 1950s, Anti-intellectualism in American Life emerged as a grand attack on the institutions to which society historically entrusted the nurturing of intellect. Though generally perceived more as a work of social criticism than of educational history, the book can also be viewed as a comprehensive work on education. Two years before Hofstadter published his book, Bernard Bailyn had called for a broader interpretation of education, one that included institutions other than schools in the development of attitudes, beliefs, and values. Anti-intellectualism in American Life answered the call by exploring how the traditional values of commitment, refinement, excellence, practicality, and self-help were transmitted from one generation to the next via social, political, religious, and educational institutions. Both Bailyn and Hofstadter were interested in the social milieu and the ideas that created and influenced American culture. Hofstadter, however, was particularly interested in the forces of science, business, religion, utilitarianism, and egalitarianism. These he identified as the major causes of anti-intellectualism in society, mediocrity in the public schools, and attacks on academic freedom in the universities.
In many ways, Anti-intellectualism in American Life was a commentary on the increasing influence of Protestant evangelicalism, political egalitarianism, and the rising cult of practicality as the new criteria for assessing the private and public worlds. Hofstadter accused religion, politics, and the public schools of fostering in common people a resentment and suspicion of intellect, of the life of the mind, and of those who devote their lives to it. He charged that local evangelical preachers and small town lawyers and businessmen masked their bias against intellect with the rhetoric of morality, democracy, utility, and practicality. Thus, as the twentieth century chipped away at village culture, it was regrettable though not surprising that common folk, made suspicious of urbanity and learning by community leaders, reacted with a "righteous" vengeance to change and those who celebrated it. However, though Hofstadter deplored the anti-intellectualism of village life, he sympathized with those whose way of life was being swept away by the rush of events in the latter half of the twentieth century. He noted the "patience and generosity" of the common American in the face of monumental change. He suggested that the animosity between intellectuals and the common people was not solely the fault of the commoner. He recognized that the life of the villager was at odds with the life of the mind. Where common folk lead hard, belabored lives, intellectuals lead more leisured ones—lives that involved extensive education and time to read, think, and write. Hofstadter also noted that intellectuals were often at odds with their fellow Americans, but perhaps more so with their democratic beliefs.
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