Anti-intellectualism in cross-cultural perspective

In a recent post by dr ngo at Obsidian Wings discussing the US election he talked about the anti-intellectualism of US culture and its political effect. This got me thinking about possible historical reasons why anti-intellectualism is so much more politically significant in the US than in other countries (especially given that the US does actually have a very strong intellectual tradition). I will say at once that I’m not coming to this topic with any detailed knowledge of American political and social history, but there are some interesting points to make from an outsider’s perspective.

The first thing to stress is that anti-intellectualism as an attitude is very old and not purely a western phenomenon. For three examples that are more than 2000 years old, see the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes, Aristophanes’ play ‘The Clouds’ and the Qin dynasty programme of book burning. I suspect that anti-intellectual attitudes exist in any culture which has intellectuals, in the sense of an individual group distinguished by their superior education/learning. (I’m going to use this very broad definition of intellectuals here, because that is the one anti-intellectuals tend to use). There’s an obvious reason for this: the paradox that learning and knowledge do not necessarily lead to true wisdom. The comic stereotypes of the foolish wise man and the cunning ‘fool’ are found in folk tales, as well as the sitcom Frasier.

But I think that anti-intellectualism as a potential political force normally requires the existence within a society of social mobility via education. If an intellectual can achieve, through their learning, a social level that they are not born to, there are two obvious groups affected. One is those of his/her social peers who have not ascended in this way: envy may not be a pleasant emotion, but it’s a very common one. The other group affected by the social mobility of intellectuals is those who are already part of the ruling class for other reasons. If social mobility is possible, their political and social dominance may be challenged.

But there’s also a third group who are normally involved in all more substantial anti-intellectual movements: intellectuals or would-be intellectuals themselves. Intellectual social mobility requires competition between intellectuals for advancement (whether formally via competitive exams, or informally via patronage). The ambitious but unsuccessful intellectual (or the disillusioned intellectual) is often found attacking the system itself. Most anti-intellectual movements which want to make a serious impact need some of educated people within them, because those are the kind of people who can provide both effective propaganda and strategic political thinking. An early example of this kind of ‘trahison des clercs’ is Jerome arguing against reading ‘pagan’ (classical Roman) literature. It was normal for the literate classes in late fourth century Rome to do so, but there was a rhetorical advantage to be gained by claiming not to read such material, and Jerome was not alone in his opportunism.

Most substantial anti-intellectual movements, therefore have seen some ‘intellectuals’ ally either with the current ruling class (top-down anti-intellectualism) or those left behind by social mobility (bottom-up anti-intellectualism). If intellectuals ally with the ruling class, culturally this gets you claims that intellectual ability is less important than ‘natural breeding’ or ‘character’. (The classic example of this is Thomas Arnold’s development of the public school ethos at Rugby). Politically, this alliance has normally been seen in countries ruled by oligarchies and aristocracies, and their more modern offshoots, traditional Conservative parties. Its main political limitation is a lack of broad-based appeal.

At a cultural level, meanwhile, an alliance with those lower down gives you adulation of folk wisdom and ‘common sense’. At a political level, such an alliance has traditionally produced the demagogue and the revolutionary leader (from the Athenian killing of Socrates to ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’). More recently, it gives you populist working-class parties either of the right (such as the British National Party or Pauline Hanson’s One Nation) or of the left (such as the original UK Labour party, communism and its offshoots). Its main political limitation is its lack of the knowledge of the levers of political power and the active hostility of the existing ruling class.

Normally, these two forms of anti-intellectualism have been mutually exclusive, because their different political interests need different messages. Top-down anti-intellectualism, in the service of the ruling class, always has to define non-intellectual superiority in way that excludes the lower classes having it (or why should they be ruled rather than ruling), which explains the emphasis on ‘character’ as something built particularly by very expensive schools. Bottom-up anti-intellectualism, in the service of the lower classes, has to define moral superiority in terms of virtues and experiences that their classes have in particular. Otherwise, why should they now be included in government? This explains all the intricate arguments about who is ‘really’ working class.

There are two obvious factors which affect how politically significant anti-intellectualism is likely to be in any society: the extent of democracy and the extent of social mobility. Except in revolutionary (or post-revolutionary) situations (such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution), bottom-up anti-intellectualism is only politically significant in democracies, when those left behind get to vote. The amount of social mobility is also important. Even though not all social mobility is via education (it’s also possible though exceptional natural talent (entertainers, entrepreneurs, military geniuses) or exceptional luck (lottery winners) or both (sleeping with/marrying the right person)) education is almost always the largest cause of upwards social mobility. If there is a lot of social mobility, those left at the bottom are likely to feel more resentment: it’s harder to attribute their own failure to rise to external factors than if such rises are rare. Michael Young pointed out this problem with meritocracy 50 years ago). High social mobility, however, makes competition between intellectuals less fraught (because there are more places available), and so makes them less likely to ‘defect’ to anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism by the ruling classes is initially increased by high social mobility (more competition for them). But at a certain level of social mobility, enough individuals who have risen themselves through education get into the ruling class for this anti-intellectualism to be diluted.

There’s also one other factor that I think is significant in pushing up anti-intellectualism, and that’s the removal of educational discrimination. Whenever formal or quasi-formal barriers to the education of ‘minorities’, such as women, blacks, Jews, the working class etc are removed (whether it’s allowing women to graduate, universal free education or the end of ’Jewish quotas’), then anti-intellectualism is likely to increase, at least in the short-term. The increased social mobility will upset both those left behind (especially those who have been convinced of the ‘natural’ intellectual inferiority of such groups) and those of the ruling class who see their position challenged. It also means more competition for intellectuals themselves, since there will be a larger pool of talent competing for the same opportunities for advancement.

The contradictory factors which contribute to political anti-intellectualism suggests that it will normally be kept in equilibrium, since social forces both encourage and discourage it, and anti-intellectualism itself not a coherent concept. But there is an exception when social mobility is actually low, but thought to be high. In that case, you get a lot of both the aggrieved left behind and also disillusioned intellectuals, while the ruling class also keeps more of any anti-intellectualism it traditionally possesses. (A situation where discrimination in education is still high (due to informal discrimination), but thought to be low (due to the lack of formal discrimination) is similarly likely to increase the resentment of both would-be intellectuals and those left behind).

While the US national myth is all about its high social mobility, it actually has lower mobility then many other western cultures. There is a particularly interesting contrast with Canada, which shares many of the same economic features and early pioneer history with the US, but doesn’t have the same anti-intellectual political culture (that I know of).

This gap between reality and image opens up possibilities for those in the ruling class of the US not available for politicians in the UK (which has equally low social mobility, but fewer myths about it). In both countries, there are politicians who owe their rise at least as much to their high socio-economic class as their own talents. In a supposedly ‘classless’ and meritocratic society like the US, such politicians can more successfully identify their beliefs with ‘bottom-up anti-intellectualism’, to make a grand anti-intellectual alliance. In a country more conscious of class like the UK (and more deferential towards high social class), a Conservative politician from a public school would be foolish to pretend that he was not from a ‘cosmopolitan and metropolitan’ background.

That is my interpretation (in very general terms) of why anti-intellectualism can have a political influence in the US that it has in few other countries (the nearest equivalent I can think of is Australia, but I think that has a more purely populist political system). I’d be very interested if anyone has good counter-examples or better explanations (or comments on other countries that I haven’t mentioned – how does political anti-intellectualism work in India, for example?)


9 thoughts on “Anti-intellectualism in cross-cultural perspective

  1. A very interesting perspective on the anti-intellectual issues in cross-cultural perspective. Being as I mostly work with sixteenth century history, your comparison made me think of the early modern rebellions with the complaints of the commons also worrying about king’s counsellors being chosen from the ranks of new men instead of traditional nobles. (Cromwell, not Norfolk? Perish the thought!)

    In Canada, anti-intellectualism has its moments, as in right now with our federal election. Stephane Dion, leader of the Liberal party, is portrayed in some of the Conservative ads as clueless “Professor Dion” and the Conservative leader, Stephen Harper, hangs around in open-necked shirts, trying to appear as an everyman. But the posture and rhetoric aren’t as deeply engrained as they are in the American system. At least not yet!


  2. This post is outstanding. I am an American and last Sunday, distraught after a week of Sarah Palin media coverage, I asked my husband why we can’t elect a President with a first-rate mind. After 8 years of Bush incompetency why would anyone, apart from the right-wing Christianist base see this VP pick as an asset to the McCain ticket? What was so terrible about the Clinton years that we don’t want to go back to a smart guy (or gal) at the helm? You have given me the framework to explain the bottom-up perspective as I have experienced it.

    I don’t think that I could understate the level of hostility towards the Clintons that I encountered among my lower-income family in Iowa or among my colleagues in the military in the late 90’s. I could never understand what, other than being smooth talking lawyers, “slick Willy” and Hillary (I won’t mention the horrible names she was called) could have been guilty of considering that they weren’t really very liberal on economic policy and were to some extent hawkish on foreign policy.
    I think that Bill Clinton’s great sin was in coming from a poor broken family in a part of the U.S. notorious for scoring as low as you can get in any category of the U.N. Human Development Index while still being part of the developed world and making it to the pinnacle of the intellectual universe. All of that was bad enough, but what I think really intensified the resentment is that as a result his academic success he got out of going to Vietnam. He was at Oxford when by virtue of his social class he should have been drafted, and that is something for which rural middle and lower class (white) Americans who couldn’t get into college and obtain that all-coveted deferment could never forgive him.

    It would seem that with the passing of that 60/70’s generation that Barrack Obama would represent a welcomed change, but what Obama has achieved as a black man is hardly more forgivable. I think he would have had the same problem of being an “elitist” even without his “bitter” comments. In my opinion his elite problem is racial. Again, growing up in an almost exclusively white rural community in the Mid-west it seemed like nearly everyone had a brother, uncle or cousin who didn’t get a scholarship or a job because it was given to some less qualified minority. I heard the same type of resentment from my predominately urban white classmates when I went off to university in Chicago. Obama’s problem is that it is clear from 20 months of campaigning that he did earn his place in elite academic institutions and he was more qualified than anyone else to edit the Harvard Law Review. Adding to that insult he chose to pass up the high paying career that went with his success in the academy for the relatively low paying and now infamous community organizer position.

    You are spot on about our myth of social mobility in America. What Clinton and Obama have achieved is nearly impossible. In the less than affluent white America that I live resentment is quite pervasive. One may ask how anyone with a brain can get elected in America. Without getting too deep into the complexities of U.S. electoral politics, I think it is largely due to low voter turnout (ranging from 45-55% in Presidential elections according to government statistics) and anomalies caused by the Electoral College system. It is commonly assumed that increased voter turn-out would benefit Democrats. But I am not so sure. From what I have observed non-voters tend to be lower class and are either indifferent or so hostile to all politicians, who they see as elites, that they actively reject participating in the process. The people I know that hate the Clintons the most don’t really like any politicians. I think that the reason that Obama won all of those predominately white rural states is that those who resent him most were either Republicans or didn’t vote at all. The situation was different in the more industrialized states with a tradition of organized labor where working class voters find the moderate Democratic politics of the Clintons acceptable but find in Obama a “less appealing candidate”.


  3. Most thought provoking! I think you are onto something here; and quite correct that Australia is the closest other Western example. I would say, however, that in the Australian case – and possibly also the US one – the stratification of those excluded from educational advancement is more complex and can be divided (at minimum) into those who lacked opportunity at primary, secondary, or tertiary levels. Each of these groups might have different tendencies toward or expressions of anti-intellectualism (or otherwise) when investigated more deeply.

    In the historical sense – and partly in response to Janice (above), I would add the example of English xenophobia in the thirteenth century. This can also be attributed to resentment of ‘new men’ of education being appointed to government positions, most especially since during this period education became increasingly necessary in order to carry out ‘government’ itself (rise of the Universities, etc…), thus, it can be postulated, driving out an older, perhaps more military or loyalty-based elite, in favour of talented bureaucrats. Of course, contemporary sources tended to frame it in terms of a pushy queen/ill-advised king imposing her/his foreign favourites on the court, but I think it is possible to read between those lines.

    The interesting situation in current Australian politics is that the party most traditionally associated with what you’ve called ‘bottom-up anti-intellectualism’ – the Labour Party – have come to power with the ultimate in geek-chic, Uber-bureaucrats at the head! Explain that one…


  4. Thanks for all your comments. I think it is revealing to see both the historical and comparative aspects of anti-intellectualism, because it helps separate out enduring anti-intellectual prejudices from their political exploitation, which is specific to particular cultures.

    When I was writing I was thinking particularly of the example of the medieval rise of the universities and how that produced both resentment among the nobility and conflicts between the intellectuals themselves (thought the same ideas are present later as well). Helen Waddell in ‘The wandering scholars’ has a story about how Gerald of Wales mocks university men: a scholar came home from Paris able to prove to his father that the six eggs on his table were really twelve. So the father ate the six eggs and said his son could have the ones his logic told him were still there.

    What is peculiar is that anti-intellectualism became so politically successful in the US in the late twentienth century, when the education of the poor had actually improved in absolute terms (and probably even in relative terms to the rich). Why wasn’t anti-intellectualism more politically significant when illiteracy rates were still high and there was no universal free education (as in the UK in the late nineteenth century?) Why aren’t most Third World politicians elected on anti-intellectual platforms?

    I can only conclude that the US case is different because of this deliberately engineered confusion about the possibilities of social mobility. In particular, a few cases of extreme social mobility (such as Bill Clinton’s), which the US system does allow, conceals the normal social hierarchy from many people. (Whereas historians don’t conclude from the fact that Thomas Wolsey was (possibly) a butcher’s son and became Lord Chancellor that Tudor England was a pure meritocracy).

    As for the Australian Labour Party being taken over by geeks, I think that may be part of a more general tendency for the middle classes to come to dominate all political parties (as the middle class expands and politics becomes more and more a professional career). Certainly, there are few working class politicians now prominent in the senior ranks of the British Labour Party. I don’t know if the same is true of other similar parties elsewhere.


  5. Just for fun, I’d like to take this issue from the generalized international comparisons, to the school and classroom in rural Canada.

    In the smaller centres of Canada where my children have attended some schools, I was struck (coming from central-urban Toronto, a school situated a stone’s throw from U of T) by how overwhelming the praise, interest and status was achieved by being a hockey jock, and inversely, how much scorn, derision, and even some teachers critcising kids as “show-offs” for being a child with above average intellect or enthusiasm for academic pusuits. This is what is going on in some schools, granted they are in areas where a significant portion of the society attends fundamentalist christian churches, votes conservative, and is overwhemingly descended from northern europeans.

    In contrast to this, the school we attended in Toronto was extremely multi-cultural, teachers spent endless hours in after school activities like band, string orchestra, chess club. Academic achievement was praised and encouraged.

    From my anecdotal observations, anti-intellectualism is taught to children in the ho-hum schools in the areas of Canada where no voter will tolerate property tax increases to properly fund schools. I wonder, does this pattern hold as consistent over a larger area?


  6. magistra:

    This is one of the best analyses of this issue I have ever seen. Thanks for linking to it from the Obsidian Wings discussion.

    I’m now turning your ideas over in my mind, trying to see how it interacts with Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a must-read.

    Another aspect is suggested by Albion’s Seed. The Puritan culture that came from East Anglia to New England emphasized education as a way to rise, spiritually and materially. The culture of the Scots-Irish border region did not hold with book-larnin’, nor with erudite, reasoned religion. Their American cultural descendents how cover most of the low-population-density areas of the country.

    Have you read Albion’s Seed? Do you see the culture ways Fischer describes — East Anglia (to Puritan New England), “Wessex” (to Virginia and the South), North Midlands (to the Quaker Delaware Valley and later to the “Old Northwest” of Wisconsin and Minnesota), and the Borders (to the Backcountry) — as still being important divisions in the UK?


    • Thanks for your comments: I haven’t read Albion’s Seed, although it sounds intriguing. I would say that regional distinctions in England have been greatly decreased in the twentieth century, due to mass media and increased geographical mobility (in a much smaller country than the US). There is still a ‘northern’ identity in England (developed largely in the Industrial Revolution) and subsets of this (such as Geordie and Yorkshire). But apart from this and the civic identities of some big cities (such as London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham), there’s not a lot of other coherent regional identities in England (with the possible exception of Cornish). Scottish identity (to me as an outsider) now seems to be largely based on a pseudo-Highland culture, as popularised by Sir Walter Scott etc from the nineteenth century onwards. I’m not sure there’s much Lowlands cultural identity left (aside from Edinburgh and Glasgow civic identities). I think Welsh culture is still fairly regional, particularly since northern and southern dialects of Welsh have quite a lot of difference. Ireland is, of course, different (although the average English person probably now feels more common ground with someone from ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland than with an old-fashioned Ulster Protestant).

      It wouldn’t surprise me if the US has preserved British regional characteristics that the UK has since lost, just as it has preserved some early modern grammatical forms, dialects and music that Britain no longer has. Anti-intellectualism and poor standards of education in most of Britain are now associated far more with class than with regional identities; the white working class tend to be seen (perhaps unfairly) as particularly anti-intellectual, along with some (but not all) ethnic minority groups. The Scots (who have their own education system) have traditionally been seen as more positive towards education than the English, with particular pride in the figure of the dominie (local school master) and more universities than England from the fifteenth until the nineteenth centuries. (I suspect that came from a combination of the Protestant emphasis on education for the people and the desire to get out of (rural) Scotland and have a better life). I’m not sure to what extent that tradition still survives.

      I might write some time a bit more about British evangelicals and education: I think there’s a rather different tradition there from the American ones that Noll discusses.


  7. I spent some years in Australia, the only place I’ve lived that rivals the USA for anti-intellectualism, as one aspect of anti-elitism in general. It even has a word for the cutting down of those who appear to stand out from the crowd “poppy-lopping”. FWIW, this was more than two decades ago, and it may have changed, as Kath (above) implies.

    What struck me as a quick commonality between the US and Oz – in contrast to Canada and New Zealand (close neighbours in which I have not actually lived) – is the strong tradition of rebelliousness against authority.

    In the US, this is embodied in the American Revolution, and subsequently the cult that has been made of this (in spite of the fact, omitted in the history books of my generation, that about a third of the “colonists” supported King George III rather than George Washington et al.), as We The People stood up to tyranny. Nobody tells us what to do! “No foreign king,” for sure, but over time this could be morphed into “No pointy-headed East-coast intellectuals” and tap into the same sense of ourselves as . . . well, I hate to use the term . . . mavericks.

    Oz had no actual Revolution, but was characterized by bloody-mindedness from the outset (at least as this history was retold in the 1980s). Convicts first – 40% of them Irish (which links nicely into the theme of British regionalisms, above). Eureka Stockade. Breaker Morant and Gallipoli and Bodyline [1930s cricket scandal!], where Aussie attempts to play by British rules were undercut and betrayed by perfidious Albion, thus justifying further bloody-mindedness. Finally, The Last Bastion [early WWII], where Oz finally – according to popular retelling – said “No.” Again, what began (and may still continue, though weakly) as simple “Pommy-bashing” is like in spirit to other challenges to Authority, which can be figured as simply as Anyone Who’s Too Full Of Themself.

    Exceptions are allowed for sports, in which excellence is actually applauded, and occasionally for the arts, though normally only after recognition has been achieved internationally (being good enough for Australia just isn’t good enough). One of the most iconic politicians in modern Australia, Bob Hawke, was able to transcend being a Rhodes Scholar by shattering the Oxford University record for speed in swallowing beer — 2.5 pints in 11 seconds — which endeared him to his countrymen and spared him the potential ignominy of being considered an intellectual (see

    Canucks and Kiwis, on the other hand, are just too damn polite – first to the Brits, now to each other.


  8. Oddly, ‘tall poppy syndrome’ in the UK tends to be seen either as characteristic of the media or else of egalitarian leftists who can’t accept other people’s success, and it is often contrasted with the supposed lack of such views in the US!

    These different cultural responses have got me thinking a bit more about why people resent ‘the successful’ and whether there are different attitudes in any particular social group. I think the basic emotions of envy and resentment are universal (after all, they underpin what was supposedly the world’s first murder in Genesis 4) and they’re certainly not restricted to lower social classes (academic life is full of resentful people). But I think that middle-class/professional resentment is largely directed at those who have ‘undeserved’ success (why does her inferior work get rewarded?), those who are seen as having becoming arrogant (he thinks so much of himself now he’s a professor) or derived from self-criticism (why haven’t I done as well?) I wonder whether particularly in working-class cultures there isn’t a more basic cause for resentment: that the successful person has breached ties of social solidarity. Poverty and hard times (whether it’s among the inner-city working class or small-town pioneers) are made easier to sustain by the feeling that ‘we’re all in this together’ and there is often much more of a sense of community than in more prosperous areas.

    Success, then, can often be understood as a rejection by someone of these ties and traditions. It would also explain why success via education in particular is so often seen negatively by many working class people (as experienced in the UK, for example, by working-class grammar school children). If you define yourself and your community by manual labour (in the factory or the fields or the mines or wherever) then someone who finds advancement through education is almost by definition rejecting these values (and so by implication this community). It’s very hard for academics to claim they’re still working-class (though some frantically do so).

    In contrast, success at sport or entertainment need not be seen as rejection of a poor community’s values in the same way. (I was thinking this because I’ve recently heard a programme about Gracie Fields a working class girl who became the highest paid movie star in the world for a time, but ‘never forgot her roots’. Elvis would be another example).


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