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Anti-Intellectualism: The American Scourge

Updated on January 27, 2011

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.


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.


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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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      What a joke...Thomas Sowell is the great guy and Krugman is partisan huh? Thomas Sowell who wrote that Obama was Hitler because he created a fund for the BP oil spill? What a freaking joke?! Thomas Sowell who has fought against affirmative action and against the civil rights laws enacted in the late 60s and early 70s? He is not partisan huh? You laid your cards on the table in the first paragraph...and it discredited everything else you wrote WEHOLD.

      You talk about our forefathers? Were they right about blacks being 2/3 of white people? Were they right in that diseases are in your body because of the devil? Grow up! Anything can be improved upon, but that isn't even the issue. You want the idea of Reagan, not even Reagan in reality. Reagan raised taxes 18 times. He declared amnesty for illegals. He enacted the largest abortion rights bill in California's history. Gun control laws, gay day at the White House, environmental laws enacted...give me a break. You live in a fantasyland of partisanship that you have created in your own mind, with the flames fed by groups like AFP and Freedomworks and Heritage who are designed to fill your little mind with market researched thoughts to mold you into voting against the country's self interests and for the benefit of a relative handful of people.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      You've got it all wrong.

    • profile image


      7 years ago from Delaware

      I have been thinking the same thing. I recently posted a hub on what I called A Culture of Stupidity. Here is the link if interested:

      We, the people of the US, have become more interested in making someone look stupid then making ourselves look smart. The corollary to this is, if we make ourselves look smart enough by making enough people look dumb enough, then we will be smart. Does that mean our premises are wrong?

      I am a middle school teacher and I see daily how students put down each other, especially those that trying to do better. I really think our President, our Congress, but especially our entertainment (music, sports, etc.) stars need to tell our young students that your country needs you to be smart. You are right, being smart for a lot of people is a four letter word.

    • DTR0005 profile imageAUTHOR

      Doug Robinson 

      7 years ago from Midwest

      Mr. Patriot,

      There is scant political overtone in my article. Actually I attempted to explain the growth of anti-intellectualism over the last hundred plus years. There is no mention whatsoever in my hub about Democrats, Republicans, or born-again Birchers. You read much more into my article than there actually was/is. But if someone is naturally a very angry individual with an ax to grind, I suppose there is always a fight to be pecked.

      And you will notice, if you read my hubs, that almost none of them have anything to do with politics. There is one review of W's book, "Decision Points," and one article criticizing Obama for not mentioning Richard Nixon as a member of past presidents seeking healthcare reform.

      So while I am flattered that you stopped by to read my hub, I am not thrilled that you have put words in my mouth. Popular Right-Wing radio/television coined the term "intellectual elitism." And while my sympathies and leanings do tend toward the Left, I have yet to hear too many on the Left talking about the "dumbing down of America." And with the latest crop of intellectual bottom-feeders elected in Novemeber, that is certainly a valid talking point.

      Having studied a lot of history in school, I might suggest you take a gander at American History in the early 20th Century to, say, about 1990. While I have no doubt you are much more learned than myself regarding 18th Century American history, you seem to be lacking, at least based on your commentary, of history in the last hundred years. And honestly, my hubs are merely articles; I would never refer to you openly as a moron, a bottom-feeding Bircher, a wannabe Constitutional lawyer, nor would I ever bring your level or lack thereof of education into question.

    • weholdthesetruths profile image


      7 years ago from Western Flyover Country

      LOL, no, I don't prove your point. I disprove your point, because you don't have one. You don't know the difference between "intellectual" and "progressive". The two are not even related. The intellectual pursues truth. The progressive pursues control over others. The self adorned 'elites' pursue power and other's wealth to control.

      The last known intellectual on the left, was Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Since then it's been a bunch of simple-minded twits, parading around with fancy language and nonsensical theories - you know, the "rebel without a clue" types like Obama, who spent his academic years wallowing in gross stupidity, by hanging around with the dope smoking, commie types who were rebelling against the system that paid for their leisure and tuition at elite universities.

      Having long winded and tortured logic, and complex theories about economics or social engineering does not make you an intellectual. It just means you rejected the obvious and now desperately seek meaning in that which has none.

      Nor does rejecting the truths proven by time. It merely makes you a fool. Our forefathers WERE CORRECT, and rejecting it does not make you an intellectual, it just makes you wrong.

    • DTR0005 profile imageAUTHOR

      Doug Robinson 

      7 years ago from Midwest

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting - you prove my point.

    • weholdthesetruths profile image


      7 years ago from Western Flyover Country

      Wow, what a narrow minded point of view. The difference between "intellectuals" and the self proclaimed intellectual elites, is that one is smart, and the other just claims to be. True intellectuals would NEVER claim to be worthy of deciding things for other people, after all, the more you know...the more you know you don't know.

      But, sadly, today's true intellectuals are few and far between. There's a few great people like Thomas Sowell left, but lots of educated idiots, like Krugman, whose writings are nothing more than naked, simple minded partisanship.

      To confuse the subject even more, you have the academics, the people who "teach", who have forgotten that they were to teach how to think, and instead, have created an academia that believes its mission is to tell people WHAT to think, instead. The most closed minded institutions in our country are now the institutions of "higher" learning.

      So, is there an anti-intellectual movement? Not at all, there is an anti-elitism movement, based upon the fact that since the days of LBJ's technocrats, they have wielded massive influence over the course of our politics, social engineering, and economy. And, absolutely EVERY effort they have made has been a disaster of epic proportions. They claim to be intellectuals, but in reality, are merely the politically inherited elites, who now follow and continue down the road of untested, unproven, and unworkable ideas. Except, they believe, and millions of gullible followers, believe they deserve to control the lives and futures of others, because of their "elite" status.

      It takes no great intellectual to see this. It's one of the most obvious and glaringly true observations of our day. As I stated, real intellectuals would never dream of imposing ANYTHING they thought upon other people. Instead, they were the agents of debate, the proponents of new ideas, to spur even more, the adoption of the values of freedom, liberty, and justice.

      Instead, todays self proclaimed intellectual elites claim moral and self deserving grounds to rule everyone else, claiming to be smarter, wiser, and more knowing, which gives them an inherent right to control people for their own good. Which, of course, is nothing at all different from the kings and nobles of centuries past, the very things we went to war to obtain freedom FROM.

    • TeaPartyCrasher profile image


      7 years ago from Camp Hill, PA

      Actually, a lot of has to do with the idea that "Smart People" can see through what folks like Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, Robertson, or Phelps say.

    • William R. Wilson profile image

      William R. Wilson 

      7 years ago from Knoxville, TN

      Right on. I saw this developing in the late 90s. I blame Rush Limbaugh, who constantly used the terms "intellectual pointy heads" and "elites" to demean anyone who actually thought about policy decisions. It really is a sad trend.

    • DTR0005 profile imageAUTHOR

      Doug Robinson 

      7 years ago from Midwest

      Thanks to everyone for stopping by and commenting.

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 

      7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      This truly is an eye-opener. Germany, Russia and China are not examples we should want to follow. America still does have a strong agrarian core, although our manufacturing (industrial) prowess has slipped. In today's global knowledge age, wouldn't we logically expect intellect to dominate? Oh right, we're talking about the country that brought the world Paris Hilton, Snooki and the great anti-intellectual herself, Mrs. Palin! Thanks for the great read. MM

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      Agreed. It's strange and sad that in a supposed meritocratic culture, people who are "too good" are looked at with disdain.

    • damian0000 profile image


      7 years ago from Belfast

      Great hub my friend and can I say I really agree with the points you make --- it's funny the power of a word but you have hit the nail right on the head, is very sad that the word intellectual --- which used to be a fine thing and something to be aspired to, has now become something of a negative!


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