Anti-Intellectualism: The American Scourge
Over the last five years, a disturbing phrase has begun to creep into American media broadcasts and journalistic articles. And that term is intellectual elitism. When I was growing up and going to school in the 1970's and 1980's, the term intellectual was anything but a pejorative term. Times have apparently changed. In my youth, an intellectual was someone who people aspired to be like, a figure we looked up to in other words. After all, an intellectual is by definition a learned person- a man or woman of great knowledge and in possession of powers of rational and analytical thought - people who are able to look outside of the box and solve problems to use a more familiar term. And on a side note, look at the number of characters who were called professor in television and cinema during the 1950's and 60's. So it's logical to assume that, at least in some periods of our history, being smart wasn't always considered a liability.
There is, however, a long history of distrust of intellectuals, and that history not only applies to the United States but to other nations and cultures as well.
HISTORICAL ANTI-INTELLECTUAL MOVEMENTS OVERSEAS
When Adloph Hilter took power in Germany during the 1930's, intellectuals found themselves immediately in his cross-hairs. Jewish intellectuals, in particular, dominated academia. According to Nazi dogma, Jewish intellectualism was poisoning the mind of German youth and rendering German society in general more decadent. The elite of Germany were deemed dangerous because they were exposing Germany to deviant beliefs such as cultural integration, etc. Intellectualism, much as it does today, has tended to denounce nationalism in favor of a more internationalist view. And authoritarian governments or extremely conservative governments invariably view this as unpatriotic.
The Stalinist purges after World War II likewise targeted intellectuals. Many highly-educated Soviets were sent to concentration camps; the Russians took their best minds and shipped them away to rot and often die in Siberia. Again, their views were considered anti-Soviet - un-patriotic and ultimately dangerous to the ideals of the proletarian revolution.
During the 1960's and 70's, Mao's Great Cultural Revolution in China focused on the re-education of teachers, engineers, college professors - essentially anyone that the Communist regime saw as threatening to the status quo. And as a result, China suffered greatly; it is only in the last ten to fifteen years that China has begun to recover from this great brain drain.
HISTORIC ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM AT HOME
Scholars argue that much of American anti-intellectual sentiment stems from our rural history - particularly that of the 19th Century. America a hundred plus years ago was an agricultural country - small farms dominated the relatively young country. And "classic education" was considered an extraneous luxury - very impractical in other words when nearly everyone worked down on the farm. And so the great divide between classic education and utilitarianism education begun. This is where the three "R's" - reading, writing, and arithmetic came from. Rural America saw no value in classic education, and those "sent away" to school "Back East" were considered to be, well, eggheads, city slickers, etc.
And as America industrialized things didn't change much. Factory work required minimal knowledge in an era where showing up for work and mastering a single task was all that was required in order to make a decent living. But with the large immigration waves and increasing unemployment in the 1930's and 40's, the foreigner became the logical target of the the everyman who saw his job going to an immigrant. Sounds familiar doesn't it?
You see, with increasing economic pressures, scapegoats inevitably appear - they must because the one thing we all fear more than anything else is having to take a serious look in the mirror and evaluate on our place in the grand scheme of things. And those traditionally viewed as the "least productive" among us, the intellectuals, take the brunt of popular anger.. And because intellectuals tend to view issues from several angles and with a broader historical perspective, their views do not tend to represent those of the populous. And this inevitably produces resentment between the intellectuals and the populous.
So why does the intellectual play an important role in our society? There is still great value in being able to observe and evaluate issues without running these same issues through a profitability filter. I don't think any society benefits from having their thinkers consider issues based solely on their inherent usefulness, their economic value. I believe that this is the great burden and freedom that intellectuals both carry and enjoy. But we should not denigrate them - minimize their importance, and neither should they view the common man with disdain. We all have a part to play. Ideally they, the intellectuals, should be the light that guides our path and we should be their trailblazers. But remember, and history bears this out time and again, whenever a government or society goes headhunting intellectuals, there is trouble afoot.
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