Prof. Helga Duncan Speaks on Anti-Intellectualism

August 31, 2017


Professor of English Helga Duncan gave the Hegarty Address at this year's Academic Convocation. Below are her remarks:

Good afternoon! A warm welcome to our freshmen, class of 2021, and seniors, class of 2018, but also to all returning students. Greetings to staff, administrators, the platform party, my esteemed faculty colleagues, and in particular to Prof. Chris Wetzel, who is rejoining us today.

The beginning of an academic year is usually filled with speeches—so, thank you for sitting through another such address. I can’t promise that you have never heard any of what I’m about to share with you. In fact, I’m doing what Shakespeare (the man whose work I teach for a living) made an art: taking old ideas and making them (in my case, slightly) new again. 

My subject this afternoon is anti-intellectualism. By that I mean a distrust of and contempt for intellectual and educational activities—a rejection of rationality, reason, and critical thought, on the one hand, and the validation of emotion, faith, and instinct, on the other. Anti-intellectualism pits an educated, snobbish, and quixotic elite against “regular folk with common sense” who are presumably realistic and pragmatic. So—you say—anti-intellectualism has no room on college campuses; after all, they are bastions of higher learning where the life of the mind has value. You might be wrong! More than ever the focus of a college education is narrow (and presumably) practical job training, rather than the education of the whole person—in cultural literacy, in critical reading, writing, and thinking. According to a 2011 Pew Research Center Poll, 47% of respondents said that college ought to provide job training, while only 39% believed that it ought to provide opportunities for intellectual and personal growth.1 Large numbers of young people are seeking a college education (approximately 20.5 million in 2016)2, but there is also an unfortunate distrust in the purveyors of a college education—meaning academics, people like me, whose ideas are all too frequently perceived as liberal and elitist.3

I believe that you who are here before me, some beginning the journey toward acquiring knowledge and some of you who are less than a year away from completing a major milestone in the acquisition of knowledge, affirm through your presence the importance of intellectual pursuits. Only 33.4% of the adult population in this country earned a bachelor’s degree or higher last year.4 That means you are part of a minority and must take this calling to knowledge seriously. By deciding to attend college, by successfully working your way toward a degree, you are making a statement about the significance of rationality and the importance of learning. Here are some reasons it is crucial that you stay the course and combat anti-intellectualism wherever you see it.

Let me remind you that the history of anti-intellectualism is long. The twentieth century saw many regimes that scorned and persecuted intellectuals who dared to offer criticism, and such attitudes persist: anti-intellectuals believe a life of the mind that values ideas and abstraction in the pursuit of science, art, and the humanities is pointless and deserving of ridicule. I want to show you in the little time that we have together that learning and knowledge have mattered a great deal in the making of the country, and must continue to matter—regardless of the current climate of anti-intellectualism that would disdain serious inquiry, responsible research, and a commitment to learning. 

From their very beginnings more than 800 years ago western universities struggled with questions of purpose: were they to provide real-world job training, or should they let their students pursue a life of the mind and search for truth? Without intellectual quests and the thirst for knowledge there would be no universities, but neither would there be institutions of higher learning without the specific social, political, and economic conditions of the high Middle Ages that made the rise of universities possible as they provided training for a new educated class of public servants and professionals. But the love of learning mattered to truth-seekers and job-searchers alike, because knowledge was thought to benefit the public good.   

Fast-forward a few hundred years: in 1600, about twice as many universities were open for business than had been in previous centuries. Reasons for this significant expansion: the rapid growth of national bureaucracies and the rise of science. Graduates became lawyers, administrators, physicians, and clergymen—and many found work in the new and flourishing entertainment industry (plays by the university-educated son of a shoemaker became the hottest ticket in London). 

Let’s focus on the United States of America; this country would not exist, certainly not in its present form, if the dedication to learning had not survived the ocean passage. George Washington was a firm believer that Congress ought to support “the promotion of science and literature,” because only an educated citizenry could uphold a “free constitution.” In 1794 he wrote to his vice president John Adams that he thought a national university was “a thing to be desired,” for it would turn Americans into “one people.”5 Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Charles Yancey on January 6, 1816: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” In the same letter, Jefferson argued for the availability of education to fashion informed citizens without whom no nation can enjoy liberty.6 The “founding fathers” were anything but ignorant individuals. Indeed, men such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ben Franklin, John Adams, Benjamin Rush, and Alexander Hamilton were intellectuals through and through, educated in as many areas of human knowledge as was feasible. 

But if the country started out at a highpoint, it didn’t stay there. At best, America has had an ambiguous relationship with knowledge and the love of learning. In the early decades of the republic, many believed that education might undermine the tenets of democracy because highly educated individuals would lord it over those with less schooling. The idea was to get practical training for whatever jobs needed doing, not to waste time as “Man Thinking”—to borrow a term Ralph Waldo Emerson uses in The American Scholar. This attitude persists today, for many desire vocational rather than intellectual training, believing that only the former will lead to a job, good money, and if not happiness, at least contentment of some sort. In his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter argues that over the course of its short history, the country developed a “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”7 President Calvin Coolidge coined the phrase: “The chief business of America is business.”8 And in the second half of the twentieth century, as college increasingly became a sort of commodity, the country witnessed the rise of a powerful “mystique of practicality” (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life 237) according to which the world of the intellect was rather pointless.

Anti-intellectual forces are manifesting themselves in college environments where study habits have noticeably changed. Research indicates that “college students’ academic effort has dramatically declined in recent decades,” meaning students spend only about 27 hours per week on class and study time, in contrast to earlier generations (1920s through 1960s) who spent an average of 40 hours a week.9 Today, only one in five college students says she devotes more than 20 hours to study per week. I call on you, whose shining faces I see before me, to resist this trend. No student at this college would say: “I hate classes with a lot of reading that is tested on…If I’m expected to read, you know, a hundred-and-fifty-page book and then write a three page essay on it, you know…I’ll probably do worse…because I probably wouldn’t have read the book (Academically Adrift 4-5). You will take up the work habits of the past and do 150-page readings with a smile on your face. (Although, I admit that Shmoop’s plot summaries can be very funny—still, if you read Shmoop instead of the actual literary text, I will deny ever having mentioned it.)

But jokes aside, as you pursue higher education, be willing to buck disturbing trends in popular culture according to which ignorance is very fashionable. American English possesses a great many derogatory words for people who are interested in the acquisition and the display of knowledge: “geek, nerd, dork, dweeb, or egghead.” In my native German there are no good translations for these labels. Indeed, there is no word that expresses quite the same contempt for an individual that is committed to learning. On the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory smart individuals are depicted as emotionally illiterate; their extraordinary intelligence becomes a major impairment because they fail to function as human beings (they’re hyper-rational and woefully unintuitive). You know that such representations are unhelpful clichés, and you will reject them. You know that encountering literature, art, scientific ideas, philosophical hypotheses, and economic theories (especially if they are strangely unsettling) will expand your perspective, will lift you up to that most expansive horizon that is humanity in all its diversity.  

Finally, I would encourage you to examine critically one of our greatest purveyors of genuine knowledge, the digital world, which also happens to be one of the most egregious dispensers of anti-intellectualism. In a much discussed essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain,” technology writer Nicholas Carr makes the argument that our perpetual exposure to the net is altering our ability to focus deeply;10 he suggests that the kind of immersion into the written word he used to be capable of, is no longer possible. Some have challenged Carr’s argument, but, in my opinion, he’s not entirely wrong. We may well be losing brainpower in the onslaught of images, information, and endless virtual distractions. But more important, anti-intellectualism and the outright contempt for facts are built into many of the most popular websites that purvey “knowledge.” Reddit, for example (a popular site that lets users generate news links), boasts that it is “much like reading the daily newspaper except that it’s timely, interactive, personalized, participatory, horrifyingly absorbing, and basically good.”11 Basically good—hmmm… But Reddit’s very unsteady grasp on content (especially in subreddits where extremist ideologies have made themselves at home) makes such claims sound hollow indeed. Democratic as the Internet appears in its enormous size, it is a wilderness that contains everything from utter nonsense to deadly hate speech.

Let me bring you back to the larger point—the importance of fighting the rising tide of anti-intellectualism. The world in which we live has lowered the intellectual stakes to unsafe levels. It is college’s main objective to counteract this sliding off into ignorant oblivion.

Here are some parting thoughts on how this may be accomplished:

  • Get an education, not job training. That means learn to think critically and creatively! Learn how to write clearly and persuasively. And accept the fact that this process demands hard work and focus.
  • Reject the anti-intellectualism that has become such an outsized part of our (popular) culture by refusing to accept negative images of learning and by resisting our current culture of distraction.
  • Be aware that education is not a consumer good. The transmission of knowledge is a very different kind of undertaking. We don’t buy a college education like we would buy stocks by trying to get maximum return with minimum investment: that is get a degree by putting in the least amount of effort to earn that degree. Education is not primarily instrumental, a means to an end. It’s about making the world a better, more just and hospitable place, but that’s possible only if we learn a great deal more about this complex planet on which we live. We can do that when we engage with history and science; literature and economics; art, business, and technology. A college education then is not about acquiring narrow, specialized knowledge but about becoming aware of the enduring questions that continue to occupy (or should occupy) us all—especially as we face a world in which racism, terrorism, and natural disasters threaten our future.

Be curious. Be open to that which is different. Tune in to thought-provoking questions and ask some of your own. And, above all, have an exciting and fulfilling academic year!

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1 Pew research Center, “Purpose of College Education.” Pewresearch.org, 02 June, 2011, accessed July, 21, 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2011/06/02/purpose-of-college-education/.

2 National Center for Educational Statistics, “Fast Facts.” Nces.ed.org, accessed  July, 21, 2017.   https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372.

3 Darren L. Linvill and Joseph P. Mazer, “Ideological Bias in the College Classroom and the Role of Student Reflective Thinking.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 11:4 (December 2011), 90-101.

4 US Census Bureau, “Highest Educational Levels Reached by Adults in the U.S. Since 1940.” Cenus.gov, March 30, 2017, accessed August, 24, 2017. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2017/cb17-51.html.

5 Cited in George Thomas, The Founders and the Idea of a National University (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 29 and 30, respectively.

6 Susan Jacoby uses this phrase by Jefferson as the epigraph of her The Age of American Unreason (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008). 

7 Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963), 7.

8 David Greenberg, Calvin Coolidge: The American Presidents Series: The 30th President, 1923-1929, (New York: Macmillan, 2007), 4.

9 Richard Arum, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 3.

10 Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain.” The Atlantic.com, July/August, 2008, accessed July 21, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/.

11 “What Is Reddit?” YouTube.com, uploaded by CGP Grey, September 9, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlI022aUWQQ. Accessed July 21, 2017.