Are Americans anti-intellectual? Evan Kindley asked this question Monday in a review of historian Aaron Lecklider’s book Inventing the Egghead. In the book, Lecklider probes American’s assorted feelings of derision, stereotype, and awe toward the cognitive elite. “We oscillate wildly between demonizing our intellectuals and deifying them,” writes Kindley. “They appear to us, in turn, as nuisances, threats, and saviors.”
Lecklider argues that 20th century industrialization led to a “mainstreaming of intelligence”: Americans devalued the traditional intellectual elite in favor of a more organic intelligence theory, which he labels “brainpower.” This concept appealed to Americans without higher education: via “brainpower,” they could praise their unrefined intellect, while simultaneously ridiculing academic posturing and pomposity. Lecklider describes how this inconsistency developed in the mass media:
Popular culture represented an important site for exploring the messy politics of brainpower in the twentieth century. Cultural texts consumed by millions of ordinary women and men between 1900 and 1960 suggested all Americans were intellectually gifted while deflating the presumptuous grandstanding of the traditional intellectual elite.
Popular culture derided academics throughout the early 20th century, with terms like the “long-hair” (implying pompous sophistication and effeminacy, especially in the artistic elites) and the “egghead” (a more scientific term, referencing logical and mathematic academics). Interestingly, Kindley compares the “long-hairs” to our contemporary term “hipster,” and “eggheads” to the our “geek culture.” However, these modern subcultures are not an elite-class phenomena. Both are widely represented in academia, but not confined to its world. “Hipster” culture represents a mixture of philosophy, folk culture, and eccentricity that is perhaps separate from the mainstream – but not exceeding it. Geeks, meanwhile, rule the modern business class: their inventions – iPhones and Facebook, for instance – are bastions of mainstream culture.
Perhaps the American development of “brainpower” matured in the 20th century, as Lecklider believes; but Americans have always prided themselves on their “working-class intellect.” In pre-Civil War America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that Americans believed in equality of intellect, and were extremely antagonistic toward intellectual superiority. He believed Americans would prefer mediocrity to any sort of meritocracy. This fits with Lecklider’s theory: organic “brainpower” is an equalizer, and thus more palatable to democratic citizens.
Lecklider sides with the working class. His book ends with a call for working class intellectualism: “Reclaiming the history of an organic intellectual tradition in American culture represents a starting point for envisioning intelligence as a shared commodity across social classes,” he writes; “wrested from the hands of the intellectuals, there’s no telling what the brainpower of the people has the potential to accomplish.”
In contrast, Tocqueville urged Americans to limit their majoritarian tendencies. Although beneficial, he believed such tendencies could become tyrannical: “For equality, their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible: they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism—but they will not endure aristocracy.”
Lecklider is right to praise American working-class intellectualism. But desire for intellectual equality shouldn’t lead to derision — or, as Tocqueville feared, to oppression. Academia fosters an intellectualism necessary for society’s long-term wellbeing. Tocqueville wrote that an anti-academic mindset often drives the masses toward “a selfish, mercantile, and trading” intellectualism; the educated foster a “disinterested love of what is true.” Such love is abstract and intangible, apt to foster mockery in pragmatic Americans. But without such abstract knowledge, our “brainpower” as a populace is severely limited.