This is a review of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, one of the most personally influential history books I’ve read. I originally wrote the review as a suggestion for Sam Harris’s list of recommended reading. Being passably pleased with my review and understanding the long odds of it influencing an already-expansive list of great scholarship, I decided to publish it here.
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is the book I give to friends in celebration of academic achievement. I do so because it’s unmatched in explaining why the United States of America – the first nation-state organized around an entirely secular set of ideas – holds professional thinkers in such contempt. The book earned Richard Hofstadter the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 1964, and it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which his thesis could have been more validated in the half-century since.
Very broadly, Hofstadter argues that our nation’s contempt for thinkers is rooted in the product of anti-clerical Christian fundamentalism and the American frontier experience. In most citizens of the early United States, local clergy were the only people they knew who lived a life of ideas. For those living on a harsh and unforgiving frontier, sermons on abstract and unknowable concepts stood in stark contrast to lives that were – to borrow a phrase from one of the premier thinkers of that age – “nasty, brutish, and short.” To many, clergy also embodied corrupt European values that were irreconcilable with the self-reliant ethos of their young nation. What originated as distrust of European clergy was expressed via contempt of the closest social approximation – those who found joy and value in considering ideas not directly relevant to their daily survival.
Hofstadter further explains how the American struggles with racial, gender, and economic inequality shaped and exacerbated our distrust of intellectuals. These discussions are not protracted essays; the entire book is historical scholarship in the strictest sense of the term. Hofstadter draws from an expansive selection of primary sources, and thoroughly addresses the strongest critiques and weaknesses of his own argument.
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is a non-negotiable for students of American history. However, it’s equally invaluable for those of us seeking to understand the present-day contempt for secular thinkers in the US and the rest of the English-speaking world. The book is a 51 year-old work of pure history, but it goes a long ways towards explaining the vitriol directed towards many of our leading modern-day secular thinkers. After recently re-reading Hofstadter’s book, it’s clear to me that the “Regressive Left” is not a 21st century phenomenon, but rather the latest iteration of a timeless pattern in the American psyche.
I enthusiastically recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the historical foundations of unreason in the modern west.