Hating intellectuals: an American tradition

February 25, 1999|By Bruce J. Schulman

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 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 forbid 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 Clinton, even if proved, did not meet the Founders' standards for impeachment, the committee reproached him for his insolence and warned him against criticizing the people's representatives.

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.

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.

Wilson's advisers

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 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. Half a century later, John F. Kennedy again lured the nation's finest minds to Washington. Kennedy and later Lyndon B. Johnson assigned the conduct of the Vietnam War to National Security Adviser 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. Later, a new generation of dispossessed -- blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and women -- entered academe.

WASP tradition

This democratization injected enormous vitality into the nation's intelligentsia, but diminished the professoriat's social status and cachet. No longer tethered to the WASP ruling class by family, club and alma mater, U.S. intellectuals could not command automatic attention and respect from the power elite.

Third, and most relevant to the imbroglio, the metamorphosis of the intelligentsia, its ethnic diversification and political liberalism, sparked a counterrevolution. For three decades, conservatives have launched an unstinting attack on the nation's scholars and critics.

President Nixon began the assault in the late 1960s. "In this period of our history, the educated class are decadent," Nixon instructed his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. The learned had become "brighter in the head, but weaker in the spine." With campuses protesting its policies, the Nixon administration sent out its attack dogs to discredit the weak-kneed Ph.D.s and their muddle-headed proteges.

Since the late 1960s, conservatives have continued their assault on the "tenured radicals" who fill the universities and think tanks. Right-wing politicians have depicted U.S. intellectuals as destructive partisans rather than disinterested seekers of knowledge.

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