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Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  2,507 ratings  ·  263 reviews
Anti-intellectualism in American Life was awarded the 1964 Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction. It is a book which throws light on many features of the American character. Its concern is not merely to portray the scorners of intellect in American life, but to say something about what the intellectual is, and can be, as a force in a democratic society.

Hofstadter set out to trace
Paperback, 434 pages
Published 1964 by Vintage (first published February 12th 1963)
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Roy I actually think more recent books may be less relevant, because they are tied up in the issues of our time. I think Hofstadter's book holds up well, …moreI actually think more recent books may be less relevant, because they are tied up in the issues of our time. I think Hofstadter's book holds up well, because it shows how attitudes towards academic learning and expertise have evolved over American history. Most recent books seem to treat this as a recent phenomenon, and often as only a function of something like stupidity. Hofstadter, who was writing in such a period in the 1950s, not only embedded it in historical context, but showed how such attitudes are part of the dichotomies in the American experience and philosophy. Although the book reads much more like an academic book than I expect from Pulitzer winners, it provides a context that is necessary to understand our current cycle of anti-expertise reactions.(less)

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Bill Kerwin
Nov 12, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history

This Pulitzer Prize winner had long been on my to-read list, but when Sarah Palin became a vice presidential candidate, I moved it to the short list and read it. Now that Trump, that "stable genius," is our president, perhaps I should read it again.

What this book shows us is that anti-intellectualism in America has been around a long time. A generation before the Revolution, American revivalist preachers were already denigrating the university-educated ministers of the New England mainstream as
Aug 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Piety and Playfulness Forbidden

It is sometimes difficult to keep in mind that America was founded and organised by intellectuals. For about a century, Puritan regard for scholarship and classical education dominated the colonial ethos. Community leaders were primarily Oxford and Cambridge graduates who shared a vision of not just a theologically learned church but also a culturally and scientifically learned population. Remarkably, only six years after the foundation of the Massachusetts Bay Co
Sep 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
Hofstadter explores the development of the American bias against intellectuals. The intellectual is seen as wordy, conceited, pretentious, addled by over-examination of issues, contemptuous of practical men, a bleeding heart, and an outlier who defies faith, morality and egalitarianism. Hofstadter distinguishes between being intellectual and just being intelligent. Intelligent individuals place a higher value on useful and practical knowledge, they search for answers. The intellectual turns answ ...more
Jul 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
Journal entry #17; Year of the Gutwagon Slophound Repellent.

Today I found myself in a uniquely harrowing situation involving a backpack full of Ritz and a clutch of Wolverine Frogs. It happened while careening through Central Africa like a comet spewing uncontrolled jets of ethanol spirits, altering course unpredictability, propelled in a sort of Listerine fugue state. Feeling almost fatally ill from mouthwash ingestion, my breath effervescing like the Lord’s own seltzer. I have never felt more
Feb 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
The book was largely a historical overview on the systematic repression/suppression of intellectual thought in America. And I'm using overview in a very poor way — it was excruciatingly detailed. However, it is strikingly relevant for application in our current society. Covering topics ranging from religion (which by its nature, must strangle intellectual thought to ensure the masses follow blindly), to education (where the humanities are losing funding to the strict business-applicable sciences ...more
Mikey B.
Sep 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Page 42 (my book)

The older America, until the 1890’s was wrapped in the security of continental isolation, village society, the Protestant denominations… it has been drawn into the twentieth century and forced to cope with unpleasant realities: first the incursions of cosmopolitanism and skepticism… a centralized welfare state… the heartland of America filled with people who are often fundamentalist in religion, nativist in prejudice… has constantly rumbled with an underground revolt against all
Jun 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
What are the roots of stupidity in America, and how did they grow so strong?

It’s a question historian Richard Hofstadter raises and answers brilliantly and unforgettably in his 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.”

Though the book was written more than three decades ago, it has lost none of its relevance to current life in America. What a prescient book. To read it is to attain a fuller understanding of the rise of modern political figures such as Sarah Palin,
Nov 09, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This book is not nearly as snotty as the title makes it sound. It's full of amazing unknown social history of early America and draws a startling line showing many of the ways that the unique American character was formed from the early 1600's on. And it does so largely without judgement, even though the overall thrust of the book is an argument that the disapproval of education and knowledge for their own sake tend to undermine our social structures and retard our advancement as a nation. It's ...more
Aug 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Essential reading that has not aged at all. There was so much here--commentary, history, and well written analysis of current events. Though the current events are now history, it was still totally relevant. This is a must read.
Finished this a while back been meaning to write the review.

It is excellent and in depth and sadly much of it is still perfectly relevant. Also great for anyone interested in US history. Hofstadter's examination of religion and its role in American society is fascinating. It is by no means simple, there have been multiple factions in the religious sphere here, some were forces for enlightenment/reason/knowledge and others were anti-intellectual forces that cudgeled people with blind dogmatism a
Sep 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
I first read this book in my Intellectual History of the United States class when I was in college a hundred years ago and I've felt the need to revisit it about every decade. In light of the level of what constitutes political, social, and cultural discourse in the United States today and out of total frustration with my college students who have emerged from schools that want them to "feel good about themselves" and have both lowered expectations and inflated grades, it was time to pull it off ...more
This is an exceptional book. First published in 1964, it is still very much worth reading as a primer on how America got to where it is today, with the President, his party, and almost half the country having enthusiastically embraced anti-intellectual dumbassedness. If there is any hopefulness to be found, it is that this is not a new condition. All the way back to the colonial days, before the Revolution, anti-intellectualism was already playing a large part in religious and political life, an ...more
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
With slight modifications this book could be written today. The lack of respect school teachers have today is still prevalent. There’s probably some state (maybe even a majority of states) where the Governor’s cook earns more than the average school teacher as Hofstadter mentioned in this book for Florida, but so what? Cooks can be just as valuable as school teachers and we might as well let the market determine fair value.

Hofstadter can’t use the words ‘politically correct’, ‘trigger warning’
Aug 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
So the question isn't where did the current anti-intellectualism come from. It's: where did it go for a few decades?

Hofstadter's mission is to explain how we ended up here:

One reason why the political intelligence of our time is so incredulous and uncomprehending in the presence of the right-wing mind is that it does not reckon fully with the essentially theological concern that underlies right-wing views of the world. Characteristically, the political intelligence, if it is to operate at all as
Feb 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recent political development in this country make it seem that gossip, hearsay, "alternative facts," wishful thinking, invective, and shaming the intellectual class have become coin of the realm at the highest levels of government. Though it may seem these motives are brand-new, they are not. Richard Hofstadter's 1964 masterwork reminds us that these are enduring (though, happily, not always dominant) themes in our political discourse.

This book points backward to the formation of anti-intellect
Feb 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Written in the early 1960's this book has shaped my thinking like few others. Goes a long way to explain the history of intellectual life in America, examining religion, formal education, business, and politics. If we wonder why Americans seem "dumber" than ever, this book offers an argument that stands up well today. One of my all-time favorites.
Apr 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The old academic curriculum, as endorsed by the Committee of Ten, reached its apogee around 1910. In that year more pupils were studying foreign languages or mathematics or science or English — any one of these — than ALL non-academic subjects combined. During the following forty-year span the academic subjects offered in the High school curricula fell from about three fourths to about one fifth.

The first half of the 20th century was the turning point, educationally at least, towards anti-intel
Camelia Rose
Aug 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Anti-intellectualism in America has been around for a long time. It's hard to comprehend a country built by intellectuals and where all the founding fathers were intellectuals, also has such a long and winding history of anti-intellectualism. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is an analysis of how intellectuals and anti-intellectualism played out in the last four hundred years. This 1963's book has aged well.

Reality has an ancient soul. Many anti-intellectualism arguments described in the b
Jul 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Another game changer. I loved some of the ideas that this book brought out on intellectualism and anti-intellectualism at the same time. The book is essentially a study of the rampant anti-intellectualism that is strife in America today and as it was in 1962 when Richard wrote this book. You could say the same about most of the countries that are just slaves to the Benjamin’s, fast cars, big houses and other supra-chavvy desires and whimsical whims! The book talks about the foundation of America ...more
Jun 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: re-read-books
Anti-intellectualism in American Life

This book is not a militant intellectual ranting against the conventional philistines. This is an essential history of US along the strand of the uneven relationship of intellectualism and the society at large. Each segment - from politics, religion, cultural and education — is traced with the shifting or cyclical position of intellectual life.

This is a well-written, engaging account. I would recommend for anyone interested in US’s history.

Here some notes —
Hofstadter's main problem, as far as I can tell, is that he doesn't have a working definition for intellectual. At some points, he's more than happy to include artists and writers in the camp of "the intellectual," but at other times, he only refers to those intellectuals working within a specifically positivist tradition. This makes a great deal of sense given the time in which the book was written, but comes off as a bit preposterous today. This, to me, makes me question the work as a text in ...more
Helga Cohen
Dec 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Hofstadler’s book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in General Non-fiction in 1964. It is still relevant in our society today. Hofstadler explores the development of the American bias against intellectualism. He covered topics ranging from religion (which by nature strangles intellectual thought) to education (where humanities are losing funding to strict business-applicable sciences.

This book illustrates how anti-intellectualism in American revivalist preachers were scorning the university educat
Jay Roberts, CFP®, CRPC ®
Written in 1964, this book outlines the history of anti-intellectualism in our nation. Because the book was written almost 50 years ago, it delves deeper into the subject matter then most contemporary work. This book has become a cornerstone work on the subject, and is a must read for anyone interested in the subject matter. Sadly, the same problems that existed at the time of this work still have not been addressed today. The author could not have imagined the propaganda machines that political ...more
Conor Ahern
I read Hofstadter's "The American Political Tradition" in high school, and I'm kind of surprised in retrospect that an author as critical of (honest about?) America was allowed into the halls of that stodgy institution. But, good news, dear reader: everyone was either too sleepy or disaffected (or high) to do the readings, so we never got at any true criticism. I think it would have been harder to avoid had we read this book.

It started off great, accounting for the suspicion of the learned that
J. Dunn
I couldn't finish this the first time I tried. Just wasn’t in the mood at the time. I thought it would be kind of interesting reading on whacked out stuff like the Know-Nothings, the KKK, nativism, the Birchers, and so on, but it turns out it’s mostly about the influence of Evangelicals on our politics and culture throughout American history. And I thought I wanted to know more about that too, but it turned out to be pretty boring in practice, so I dropped it, for now. I’ll finish eventually, be ...more
Randall Wallace
Dec 22, 2018 rated it liked it
I finally read this book that I was supposed to have read decades ago in school, I was hoping it would shed some light on the cultural backwater history of the United States which Noam Chomsky has written so eloquently about. Two of Noam’s many points are that presently under 10% of Americans believe in evolution, and you have to go and chat with old women in Sicily to find beliefs similar to the U.S., where three-quarters of our population still believe in religious miracles. Richard’s single t ...more
May 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Richard Hofstadter was one of the great American historians of the 20th century, doing his best writing around the time I was in college and graduate school.

While I read this book many years ago now, probably either as a graduate student or in my first years of teaching at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa, I had not returned to it in the intervening half-century, until now.

As I wonderingly read it, finding so much richness in each page, I was reminded of the twist on one of Oliver Wilde's
Donald Luther
Apr 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This was my second go-round on this book and in 2014, Hofstadter's treatment of American disdain for intellectuals, in particular, and for ideas, more generally, reads like a warning, a jeremiad, even, regarding the downward slide of our political and aesthetic culture. When it was first published, in the early 1960s, it called on America to close the door on McCarthyism and for the Republican Party to open its collective mind to an awareness of where it was dragging American society and America ...more
Oct 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I got this book at a school library sale a few years ago. I was surprised at how much of the information in the book sort of ingratiated itself into my mind and became natural, like a re-interpretation of common knowledge. It's almost like when you know something abstract and then someone puts it into tangible words and everything becomes clearer, except I hadn't really thought about/realized it before in this case. It is hard to explain.
Nov 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
Apparently we've been here before. Many times. Fascinating read that perhaps should have been two books (the last section on education may have been better served as its own volume) - a history of America's distrust and occasional appreciation of 'experts' and the 'elite', from its colonial days through the Eisenhower/McCarthy years. Just think: Hofstadter wrote this in the 60s, and he's saying the same things that people are saying in the media now. Ugh.
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Richard Hofstadter was an American public intellectual, historian and DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. In the course of his career, Hofstadter became the “iconic historian of postwar liberal consensus” whom twenty-first century scholars continue consulting, because his intellectually engaging books and essays continue to illuminate contemporary history.

His most

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“To those who suspect that intellect is a subversive force in society, it will not do to reply that intellect is really a safe, bland, and emollient thing. In a certain sense, the suspicious Tories and militant philistines are right: intellect is dangerous. Left free, there is nothing it will not reconsider, analyze, throw into question. "Let us admit the case of the conservative," John Dewey once wrote. "If we once start thinking no one can guarantee what will be the outcome, except that many objects, ends and institutions will be surely doomed. Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril, and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place." Further, there is no way of guaranteeing that an intellectual class will be discreet and restrained in the use of its influence; the only assurance that can be given to any community is that it will be far worse off if it denies the free uses of the power of intellect than if it permits them. To be sure, intellectuals, contrary to the fantasies of cultural vigilantes, are hardly ever subversive of a society as a whole. But intellect is always on the move against something: some oppression, fraud, illusion, dogma, or interest is constantly falling under the scrutiny of the intellectual class and becoming the object of exposure, indignation, or ridicule.” 20 likes
“Tocqueville saw that the life of constant action and decision which was entailed by the democratic and businesslike character of American life put a premium upon rough and ready habits of mind, quick decision, and the prompt seizure of opportunities - and that all this activity was not propitious for deliberation, elaboration, or precision in thought.” 15 likes
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