Phi Beta Cons

Who’s Anti-Intellectual?

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, English professor William Pannapacker has written an essay called “Why Do They Hate Us?” exploring the roots of popular rage against academics. It’s a thoughtful essay and worth a careful read, but I’d like to focus on his first explanation for the “hate”:

Anti-intellectualism and populism. Those tendencies in American life are not new, but they have become more virulent (see parts one and two of my column “On Stupidity”). Traditionally, professors have countered the tendency toward simplistic, slogan-based thinking — and manipulation — by teaching students to evaluate sources and reach their own conclusions on the basis of evidence derived from painstaking research.

The notion that knowledge is always political, and that perspectives are always relative, has eroded the belief in expertise and earned authority. If everyone’s biased, including professors, why not just “go with your gut”? It’s much easier, and it empowers you against the academics whose admonitions — as we have lost influence — have become increasingly condescending, sanctimonious, and shrill.

I think he’s on to something, but the anti-intellectualism often comes not from the public but from the academy itself. When he decries the “notion that knowledge is always political, and that perspectives are always relative,” where does he think the public would get such an idea? In fact, I’d say that sums up the state of argument in the academy much more than it does in the outside world. In an era of politicized hiring, speech codes, and ideological monocultures, it’s easy to conclude that the academy is dedicated more to “manipulation” than to reaching conclusions “on the basis of evidence derived from painstaking research.”  

Professor Pannapacker is correct that professors “have become increasingly condescending, sanctimonious, and shrill” because they shut down the marketplace of ideas on campus. Large segments of the population are hungry for knowledge, but less hungry for the postmodern, race/gender deconstruction that dominates much of academic thought. What’s more anti-intellectual? Reading (or writing) one more screed against the patriarchy or reading seminal economic texts? The much-maligned Glenn Beck and his much-maligned audience have demonstrated more hunger for knowledge than many academics. He asks his audience to read serious works, and he recently blasted The Road to Serfdom back to No. 1 on the Amazon charts.

There’s no doubt that many students are disinterested in learning, but that’s different from being “anti-intellectual.” A student who can’t concentrate on his studies or resents his homework because it interferes with his social life isn’t anti-intellectual. He’s just lazy. True anti-intellectualism — actual disgust for the world of ideas and a spirit of free inquiry — is a hallmark of the radical academic Left. And students are right to resent it

I fear, however, in addressing Dr. Pannapacker’s first point that I’ve created the impression that his essay is a reflexive defense of the academy. It’s not. Read the whole thing, and consider the truth of his penultimate paragraph:

There are, of course, many other, less prominent reasons for the current anti-faculty climate. But perhaps it is enough to say that the reason we feel more “hated” than ever is that we deserve it. Instead of collaborating, we competed with each other. We focused on our research instead of on the needs of undergraduates. We even exploited our graduate students, using their labor to underwrite our privileges, and then we relegated most of them to marginal positions as adjuncts. We waited too long to institute reforms to our profession, and now — after 40 years of inaction — the reforms are going to be forced upon us.

Well said.


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