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Anti-intellectualism is a term, which in one sense describes a hostility towards, or a mistrust of intellectuals, and their intellectual pursuits. This may be expressed in various ways, such as an attack on the merits science, education, or literature,

In a broader sense, the term 'anti-intellectualism' simply reflects an attitude that takes "intellectualism" with a grain of salt. Inasmuch as intellectuals may be vain or narcissistic in their self-image, so too may they be understood by "common people" as simply another fallible human archetype.


Anti-intellectualism is found in every nation on earth, but has become associated in particular with the United States of America. It existed in the US before the nation itself; the New England Puritan writer John Cotton wrote in 1642 that "The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee." In 1843, Bayard R. Hall wrote of frontier Indiana, that "(w)e always preferred an ignorant bad man to a talented one, and hence attempts were usually made to ruin the moral character of a smart candidate; since unhappily smartness and wickedness were supposed to be generally coupled, and incompetence and goodness." Anti-intellectual folklore values the self-reliant and "self-made man," schooled by society and by experience, over the intellectual whose learning was acquired through books and formal study.


Anti-intellectual beliefs can come from a variety of factors. These include:


Although most religions have rich intellectual traditions, many often rely on arguments from authority and reject secular critical traditions. Evangelical or fundamentalist forms of religion are a frequent source of anti-intellectual statements. Syncretistic or mystical varieties of religion may also struggle with the definitions and distinctions of theology. Some religions have doctrines that affirm statements about natural or human history, the provenance of sacred texts, and other matters that may be investigated by outside scholarship; this can give rise to conflict. In a different cultural field, when bohemianism and romanticism become major factors in the arts, religious believers may believe these trends to be subversive of morality and call for censorship.

Corporate culture

Corporate culture, which sometimes calls itself "pragmatism," is an occasional source of hostility to learning. The idea here is that education is a costly and useless distraction from the more important business of making money. Reading is a sort of solitary vice, according to this viewpoint; it does little to make a person more affable or conventional, and does not foster an aptitude for marketing. It is feared that intellectuals may acquire ethical and political ideas that may impede business or make its practices distasteful. Scientific and technological learning may be given a grudging respect; but the arts, literature, philosophy, and similar cultural pursuits are all wastes of time. Those who pursue them are supposed to inhabit an "ivory tower" of academia, full of grand plans whose practise is seen as impossibly flawed by practical people who know better.

According to this view, education should be a sort of apprenticeship, rather than being done on the model of classical education based on Greek and Latin grammar and literature. The educational philosophy of John Dewey, founded on these assumptions, has largely replaced classical education in the USA.


Populism is a third strain of anti-intellectualism. Intellectuals are presented as elitists and tricksters whose knowledge and rhetorical skills are feared, not because they are useless, but because they may be used to hoodwink the ordinary people, who are conceived of as the "salt of the earth" and the source of virtue. In a similar vein, the curiosity and objectivity of intellectuals about foreign countries and beliefs is portrayed by populists as a lack of patriotism or moral clarity, and intellectuals are often held to be suspect of holding dangerously foreign, possibly subversive, opinions. This kind of anti-intellectualism is associated in the history of the United States with Joseph McCarthy, the anti-Communist senator from Wisconsin. William F. Buckley, Jr once remarked that he'd rather be governed by the first hundred names in the phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. (Buckley went to Yale.) When Richard Nixon evoked the virtues of a "silent majority," he indicated by implication that he was governing with their interests in mind, as opposed to the interests of a minority that was unrepresenatively vocal and loud in their beliefs.

A loaded term?

Not surprisingly, intellectuals commonly use allegations of anti-intellectualism as a charge against their critics. Critics of certain intellectuals in turn argue that "anti-intellectualism" is itself a loaded term. The term "intellectual" implies knowledge, wisdom, and intelligence, and thus to be called "anti-intellectual" can often be perceived as meaning that one favours ignorance or stupidity.

Sometimes criticism of intellectuals can take the form of a specific critique of an intellectual's specific field of study or theory. Not all "intellectual" theories are correct, and thus an intellectual's beliefs can be disputed without necessarily being against the larger concept of intellectual study.


Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter: ISBN 0394703170