The marks of anti-intellectualism

There is nothing wrong with mistrusting intellectuals.  After all, intellectuals often mistrust each other, and even those they trust they often vehemently disagree with.  Nor is there anything particularly wrong about a person not being interested in intellectual pursuits, nothing wrong even in a person actively disliking the practice of certain forms of inquiry.  We are all “anti-intellectual” on some topics, those that we find uninteresting or that we think obvious humbug.  I’ve never been interested enough to investigate claims that aliens built the pyramids or that the moon landing was faked.  Life is short, and I must allocate my time accordingly.  The phenomenon of anti-intellectualism involves something more:  dislike of analysis of a topic one has made one’s own.  If I were to write a book about the claim that aliens built the pyramids, it would be my job to give arguments for this view a careful hearing.  If instead I maintained my aloofness to the topic–now my own topic–but instead made my book entirely ad hominem, say seeking out embarrassing personal facts about those who espouse the alien construction hypothesis or accusing them of being pawns of the oil industry, then I would be practicing anti-intellectualism.  I would be engaging in a fundamentally dishonest practice, an abuse of the life of the mind, regardless of who built the pyramids.

Change “aliens built the pyramids” to “religion”, and one has a common new atheist attitude.  I can respect an atheist who thinks that religion is bunk and has no time for the sophistries of the theologians because, hey, life is short.  The moment he decides to devote energy to attacking religion, he makes it his business to work through the theologians and their sophistries, if he wishes to engage in an intellectual rather than an anti-intellectual pursuit.  It would be unfair, though, to imply that anti-intellectualism is a distinctively atheistic vice.  In fact, I think it is nowhere more prevalent today than among the clergy of the Catholic and Liberal Protestant Churches.  If theology is the practice of teasing out true statements about God and our relationship to Him, then a large number of ordained practicing theologians clearly are not only uninterested in theology but are actively hostile to it.

Anti-intellectualism is found in every sect and every party.  One sees its symptoms everywhere.

  1. Frequent appeal to epistemically irrelevant issues, such as whether a proposition is acceptable to modern man, whether it causes upset or offense, or the motives or psychological state of those who propose it.  In general, an appeal to the social intelligence when analysis is called for.  In theology, the irrelevant issue of choice is whether or not a given statement is “pastoral”, meaning agreeable to the higher-status segment of the laity.  “Relevant” is also popular in both theology and education theory; it also is used to mean “agreeable”.
  2. Inability to state contrary views in a form that proponents of those views would recognize as accurate.  Indifference, even pride, in this inability.  Lack of empathy is not a moral defect, but an intellectual one.  Because it is not recognized as a vice, it is common whenever one faction dominates a conversation.

  3. Dislike of clarity, and regarding the desire for it as morally suspect.  Related, a hostile or dismissive attitude toward discourses which aim at maximal clarity and rigor, such as mathematics.   ( loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.)
  4. The rush to judgement and to “activism”.  Prior confidence that the truth is simple, obvious, and known by the modern investigator from the start.  Lack of suspicion that one’s own viewpoint might need to be altered.  Lack of interest in bringing about any such alteration.  A mark of the curious of whatever sect or party is that he is excited by the prospect of having his own understanding radically reworked and deepened.  “You’ll never think about X the same way again” is his highest recommendation for a book.

Pope Francis and his clique exemplify the anti-intellectual strain in the modern Church, with their admitted hostility toward clarity and logical consistency, and their careless attribution of base motives in those who look for such things.  This anti-intellectual attitude goes back to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s attack on integralism.  The Catholic case for integralism is so simple and irrefutable–amounting basically to the claim that the state should base its actions on truth rather than falsehood–that clerics are forced to turn to irrationalism (a horror of “abstract, static, and immutable concepts”, i.e. to reason itself) to deny it.

Can we understand why post-conciliar Catholicism has become a hotbed of anti-intellectualism?  Certainly some of it traces to the Church’s official position toward the changes initiated by the Council, a position which does not withstand honest scrutiny and which might be called “the hermeneutic of consistency by fiat”, whereby two contradictory statements are declared to be compatible just because the Pope says so.

There is also a sociological cause that the clergy are expected to be the guardians of doctrine, but that this is not what attracts men to the priesthood.  Once, the priesthood was a natural place for a young man with intellectual interests.  Now they have other options.  Most often, men don’t become priests because they want to parse dogmas, but because they want to be pastors.  This is all as it should be.  But it’s not surprising that a bunch of non-intellectually inclined pastors should judge doctrines based on how pastorally useful they are.  This will presumably be true for both liberal and conservative prelates, although the former are now far more influential.  One can imagine an anti-intellectualism of the clerical Right that would be reflexively hostile to novelty and care less about theological precision than keeping the laity as far as possible from sins and heresies regarded as particularly dangerous.  Of the possible anti-intellectualisms, this one is certainly less damaging, and is in fact probably the best maintainable attitude for the papacy, the errors to which it is prone being less destructive than the “openness (and surrender) to the world” attitude.  (In a fully healthy state of affairs, the Church would have at her disposal a class of ambitious, intellectually passionate theologians looking to make names for themselves by defending orthodoxy rather than undermining it.  How, though, to create the incentives for that?)

Anti-intellectualism in the university may have a similar cause.  As the student body swells, we now have many students–probably most–who, regardless of their intelligence, have no real interest in the life of the mind, and who demand their lack of interest be accommodated.  The arrogance of the student body is remarkable, when you think about it.  They come in as freshmen ready to change the world without any need for prior study and meditation, as if it were obvious which changes would be beneficial, as if they had nothing to learn from their elders before condemning them.  The one weakness they will admit to is not being very good at math.  (I hear that a lot.)  But this doesn’t seem to really bother them, as they have relegated mathematical truths to the category of uninteresting details.  Remarkably, they would all claim to have a modern, scientific worldview while admitting illiteracy in the language in which scientific truths are expressed.  We faculty are partly to blame.  We made our classes too easy and nonthreatening, when what students need is a humbling confrontation with their own intellectual inadequacies.  I have dealt with large classes of undergraduates, and it turns out that being bad at math is by no means the only weakness to be found among them.  Many have difficulty writing in complete sentences.  The basic rules of punctuation elude some.  Many find logic even at the level of the simple syllogism difficult.  But they all know how to fix the world.

20 thoughts on “The marks of anti-intellectualism

  1. Pingback: The marks of anti-intellectualism | @the_arv

  2. I’d feel less deplorable upon learning that more intellectuals circulated among the population routinely. Staying in touch with one’s fellow humans and observing how they live might help add some nuance to the abstract papers that reduce people to percentages or standard deviations. So much of what is presented as intellectual or acceptable discussion seems to be preening and posturing for the right kind of readers, or by extension, as a way to attract advertisers.
    In a former era, people could ask in all seriousness “Has he ever met a payroll?” or similar questions. Bona fides come in many forms.

  3. Pingback: The marks of anti-intellectualism | Reaction Times

  4. That is a worthy analysis, Bonald. I would add that, for the most part, the professoriate is as anti-intellectual, under your definition, as the student body. The undergraduate nowadays has really only one “interest”: Her cell phone, which remains glued to her face perpetually. I write “her,” but I am, of course, including the… er… men. Anyone can call up (pardoning the expression) the image, because it hardly confines itself to college campuses. The image of the cell phone slapped against the face portends much symbolically. The majority of young faculty members, for example, having been thoroughly politically indoctrinated, suffers from a similar monomania. Take the typical newly hired instructor. Her “interest” consists in two melded substances: Whatever incredibly narrow specialization she specialized in during graduate school, and the current politically correct attitude. This fasce, as we might name it, is glued to her face perpetually. I write “her,” but I am, of course, including the… er… men. Like the undergraduate’s cell phone, the junior professor’s fasce obliterates the entire world except for itself. It becomes the sole object of a narrow fascination. No thought permits itself to be thought that fails to refer to it. Liberalism, anti-intellectual to its core, amounts to the radical diminution of consciousness. It is spiritual suicide.

  5. My courses don’t give students much need to excuse their innumeracy, but quite a few have told me “I’m not a good test-taker.” I do not know if they recognize this as a euphemism for “I’m not a good student,” or if they actually believe that test-taking is some completely independent aptitude. The announcement “I’m not a good test-taker” is often followed by a sweet but sheepish smile that strikes me as utterly ambiguous. The sheepish part suggests that they know they just told a fib; the sweet part suggests that they think poor test-takers may be, in a spiritual sense, more gifted than those sweaty grinds who have mastered the film-flam of test-taking.

    I can think of many people who are highly intelligent, but not the tiniest bit intellectual. And I can than of many who are intellectual but not all that bright. The latter are like a runner who has finished many marathons, but always near last place. Such a man is unquestionably “a runner,” just not a good runner (or, I suppose he might say, with a sheepish smile, “not a good racer”).

    An intellectual likes to “think about things,” and the things he likes to think about are “deep” or “lofty” or “far-fetched,” or in some other way removed from the urgent needs of here and now. Some intellectuals do this thinking acutely, some lazily, some under the handicap of gross stupidity.

    A sensible society will recognize that intellectuals can’t help themselves, and that they are relatively harmless if they are kept away from the machinery of society and are not allowed to preach “the life of the mind” to decent and impressionable young people. A sensible society will treat intellectuals just as it treats drunks: it won’t let them drive, won’t let them give drinks to minors, and will laugh at their jokes when they pass through the window between the sullenness of sobriety and the surliness of advanced intoxication.

    • @JMSmith. I would qualify one of your statements slightly, JM. The things that intellectuals think of as lofty or profound tend to be flatly one-dimensional; and they are possibly less far-fetched than they are near-fetched. The near is ever dear to the self-involved. The goal, I would say, of what passes for the higher education nowadays, especially the graduate portion thereof, is a resolute near-fetchedness.

      @Bonald. I know not whether ancient astronauts built the pyramids, but I stand in perfect sureness that hostile bug-eyed-monsters from the Zirconium Nebula designed the cell phone and that they introduced it as the first phase of their military agenda to stupefy and then eliminate the human race without ever having to fire a shot from Krupp-sized neutron pulsators.

      • Ah yes, I have one of those alien-crafted machines, and I do find that it’s easy to waste lots of time with one. Not that I’m looking at anything particularly interesting on it. Surfing the web on a phone is just like surfing the web on a computer except for putting greater strain on your eyes. The thing is that one always has a plausible reason to be carrying around a phone: there might be an emergency; my wife might need to call. And there is always a plausible, work-related reason one might have for looking at one’s phone: I might be checking my work email. I’m not, but somehow I’m less shy staring at a phone knowing it might have been work-related.

        Then I noticed that I had started doing the same thing as my students, so I decided to set an example for them. Now, when I’m prepared for lecture and there is still some time before class starts, I sit down and read a book. Those five minutes before class helped me get through Aristotle’s Physics faster. (I’ve also gone ahead and brought Aristotle with me to a faculty meeting. No one complained.) Then for about a month it was a book on noncommutative geometry.

        Pretending to work is a terrible waste of time. One’s time is often better spent clearly not working.

    • I would guess that mine is not the only campus where being a “poor test-taker” has been pathologized, the creative pathologies couched in psycho-babble. Every semester, I receive a few notices that student X, Y, or Z has a disability. I am not permitted to know what the disability is, but I may be required to make appropriate accommodations (?? “You don’t know which language your guest will speak–and we’re not going to tell you–but you may need to provide an interpreter”). The most common “accommodation” I am asked–or rather required–to make is to allow the student to take exams at a central testing center on campus. I don’t know exactly how the exams are administered or proctored there (soothing music in the background? extra-comfortable seats? free cookies and milk?), but I’m not there to clarify any test question, which sometimes a student might legitimately need. On those few occasions when a student has volunteered to explain the pathology–since I’m not allowed to ask–the most common is “I suffer from test anxiety.” Test anxiety? Isn’t one supposed to be anxious about tests?

      • The Accommodation Apparatchik informed me a few years ago that a certain student required double the allotted time to write any quiz. I informed that party that I composed my quizzes so that any competent student could complete them in about five minutes, but that I routinely gave the students — all of them — twenty minutes to fulfill the task. Well then, the apparatchik informed me, the student in question would require forty minutes to sit the quiz. I wrote back suggesting that I give the entire fifty-five minute class period to writing the five-minute quiz. No, the apparatchik replied, in that case the student would require twice fifty-five minutes in another location (because, in the daily order of things, I had to relinquish the classroom after my fifty-five minutes were up) to write any quiz. My solution was to excuse the student from writing any quizzes and to make an assessment on contributions to in-class discussion and on written work. That, as it turned out, was agreeable.

      • The reason I’ve been relatively silent of late is that I’ve had to produce and run an on-line class this semester. If there is a way to double the test times for some students, I haven’t discovered it, so I’ve given all students double the amount of time. As in your case, this led to a protests and a demand disabled students be granted double the doubled time. I fully expect that all testing will eventually become like the caucus race in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Start when you like, end when you like, and prizes for everyone!

      • Roger @ It seems to me that extraordinary accommodations ought to be noted on a student’s transcripts. It would deal honestly with people who struggle to draw inferences from those transcripts, and it would discourage fakers.

      • A also get students that need “accommodations” sometimes. It doesn’t bother me because I give students enough time on tests that I don’t think having more time would bring any advantage. If I did want to give a “speed test”, though, this sort of thing would bother me.

        By the way, some of my graduate students have tried to go into the private sector, and I’ve been surprised at how stressful the application process has gotten. They don’t just interview you; they test you. They give you coding assignments and reject applications for roundoff errors. From the looks of it, employers can be very picky. It’s a really brutal job market. If I lost this job, I doubt I’d ever be able to find another. (And I was always a good test-taker, by the way. Not panicking takes one a long way.) How are these psychologically fragile students going to survive?

  6. “It seems to me that extraordinary accommodations ought to be noted on a student’s transcripts. It would deal honestly with people who struggle to draw inferences from those transcripts, and it would discourage fakers.” Ah! But this would undermine the purpose of accommodation, which is to disguise difference, in particular the difference of deficiency, as competency, and thereby to equalize the deficient and the competent. Add to the formula the discouragement of excellence and the picture is complete.

  7. The last paragraph very much evokes my own experience teaching introductory philosophy. All too often students thought the point of each lecture on a given thinker was to casually pass judgment upon him from their own ostensibly privileged & enlightened modern vantage point.

    Interestingly, education majors tended to be the worst, so far as overt hostility toward the life of the mind goes.

  8. Bonald,

    I’d add another symptom to the list. Particularly, a denial to acknowledge realty.

    Spain had an intergralist government during the Franco era and look how that worked out.

    • Slumlord,

      The trouble with such a criterion is that it is almost impossible to apply it in a non-partisan way. By definition, I think everybody I disagree with is failing to acknowledge reality. However, I am quite capable of seeing when someone on my side is carelessly inaccurate in characterizing the rival viewpoint, when he is hostile to precision and clarity, when he resorts gratuitously to insults. It’s not about being wrong or right; it’s about not really caring. While Pope Francis displays anti-intellectualism in a particularly flagrant ray, explicitly attacking the desire for precision and “idolization” of truth, one finds anti-intellectuals in every party.

  9. By definition, I think everybody I disagree with is failing to acknowledge reality.
    I disagree with that statement Bonald.
    The whole point with Aquinas is that there IS a reality, and it can be known. . And while I agree while there may be elements of subjectivity in the perception of it there comes a point where clear malice is involved. Honest error is pardonable, dishonest error is not.
    The task of every Christian is to get his views to calibrate with reality. If I propose A and you, not A, then one of us is by logical necessity wrong. Subjectivity does not take this fact away.
    When I say that Integralism did not produce a strong faith in Spain, the statement under consideration is then true or false.
    If Spain had a thriving faith, if religious numbers and vocations were rising, if the churches were full, then it would be easy to point to empirical data which would prove me wrong. But the problem is that the empirical data points the other way. There’s no subjectivity in the failure to recognise these facts, it’s wilful.
    The true test of the validity of Integralism is the demonstration of the fact that it has produced a strong faith able to resist Modernism. The fact is, it hasn’t. A careful consideration of the facts would suggest that it is toxic to the faith to all but the most temperamentally conservative. Former Catholic strongholds have abandoned the faith.
    And just to let you know from where I’m coming from in all of this. I’m very sympathetic to the Trad position, it’s just that I recognise that putting the thumbscrews on the people seems to be toxic to the faith in the long run.

    • Hello again slumlord,

      I believe there are two different issues in discussion, so I’ll address them separately.

      I still prefer that “anti-intellectual” be a diagnosis independent of how one judges the accuracy of the person’s views. However, I see how “failing to acknowledge reality” could refer to anti-intellectual habits. For example, if a person refuses to deal forthrightly with objections and counter-examples to his views, even after they are pointed out to him, it would be appropriate to suspect an anti-intellectual frame of mind, the kind that cares more about winning than about truth. Perhaps that’s what you were getting at?

      Regarding integralism, I’m not sure we do disagree over the bare historical record. We both agree that integralism followed by liberalization doesn’t work. Don’t do integralism followed by liberalization.


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