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THE NATION : HISTORY

As American as Hating Intellectuals

February 21, 1999|Bruce J. Schulman | Bruce J. Schulman teaches U.S. history and directs the American Studies Program at Boston University. He is the author of "Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development and the Transformation of the South, 1938-1980."

BOSTON — Hidden among the sordid details of sex, lies and videotape, the president's impeachment and trial pointed up the miserably low standing of intellectuals in American life. Congress and the media treated experts with scorn. The public, for its part, greeted the erudite pronouncements of historians, legal scholars and political scientists with yawns. The nation ignored its scholars, viewing their research as irrelevant technicalities or partisan propaganda.

When Yale Law School Professor Bruce A. Ackerman testified that the Constitution forebid a lame-duck House from sending articles of impeachment to a newly elected Senate, the Judiciary Committee dismissed his contention without a second thought. When Princeton historian Sean Wilentz explained that the charges against President Bill Clinton, even if proved, did not meet the Founding Fathers' standards for impeachment, the committee reproached him for his insolence and warned him against criticizing the people's representatives. Even more respectful committee members nervously thanked the scholars for their "opinions," rejecting Wilentz's assertion of a fundamental difference between informed scholarship and mere opinion.

This anti-intellectual streak has deep roots in the republic's democratic, anti-aristocratic heritage. Americans have long viewed the learned with suspicion and challenged their intellectual authority. A healthy contempt for the life of the mind, Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1830, flowed naturally from the nation's fluid social boundaries and passionate democratic creed. The young nation, Tocqueville observed, "escaped the influence not only of great names and great wealth, but even of the natural aristocracy of knowledge and virtue." Americans focused on getting and spending, moving and building; they associated the "taste for intellectual pleasure" with the decadence and stagnation of Europe.

Early American intellectuals, moreover, usually effected an air of social superiority that rankled their countrymen's egalitarian sensibilities. To be sure, the nation produced some passionately democratic intellectuals: The 19th-century historian George Bancroft was an ardent Jacksonian Democrat. Yet, throughout much of the nation's history, intellectuals maintained an elitist, snobbish contempt for the hurly-burly of American life and the character and capacities of ordinary citizens.

Modern political forces, however, have allowed a healthy historical skepticism to fester into a dangerous disregard for scholarship. A number of factors account for this trend.

Intellectuals have not always distinguished themselves in U.S. politics, especially during the 1910s and 1960s. President Woodrow Wilson, a former professor and president of Princeton, pursued his reform agenda with the aid and counsel of the nation's most prominent intellectuals, including New Republic editor and political journalist Walter Lippmann and the nation's most prominent philosopher, John Dewey. When Wilson took the nation into World War I, a conflict the president and his brain trust had regarded as repugnant, atavistic, the vestige of an uncivilized past, American intellectuals marched behind their leader. Affirming the "social possibilities of war," Dewey described the conflict as a "plastic juncture in history," one he and fellow intellectuals could mold into a struggle against barbarism and unreason, a battle for democracy, a war to end war.

This hubris, set against the harsh realities of a bloody war and a harsh, disappointing peace, left a bitter taste in American mouths. It confirmed the earlier skepticism of Randolph Bourne, who had warned Dewey, "If the war is too strong for you to prevent, how is it going to be weak enough for you to control and mold to your liberal purposes?"

Half a century later, President John F. Kennedy again lured the nation's finest minds to Washington. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson assigned the conduct of the Vietnam War to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, the former Harvard dean; presidential aide Walt W. Rostow, the distinguished economic historian; and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, the cerebral auto executive famed for his quantitative analysis and operations research. But the war frustrated their plans and confounded the certainties of the nation's best and brightest. Working Americans could not help but note that these policy wonks retired to foundation presidencies and endowed professorships while many of their sons never returned from Southeast Asia.

Second, after World War II, the nation's universities opened to previously disfranchised Americans. Immigrant Jews and Catholics enrolled in the nation's most prestigious colleges, eventually storming the highest citadels of U.S. intellectual life. After 1970, a new generation of dispossessed--African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and women--entered academe.

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