Anti-intellectualism in cross-cultural perspective 2: the genealogy of the hippy

In my first post on this topic, I talked about two long enduring anti-intellectual attitudes: the populist resentment of the upwardly mobile scholar and the ruling class dislike of such new men. I now want to look in a historical way at a different form of anti-intellectualism touched on in dr ngo’s original article. This, expressed in slogans such as ‘trust your instincts’, ‘look into your own heart and decide’ etc, might be broadly seen as a hippy/New Age anti-intellectual philosophy (and associated with ‘liberal’ or left-wing social views). As far as I know, this is a Western attitude without obvious parallels to non-Western movements. What I’m interested is in thinking to what extent such views are a recent (1960s) phenomenon or whether the ideas have deeper roots. (I’m not looking here at ‘populist’ left-wing anti-intellectualism, as seen e.g. in the Cultural Revolution or some strands of working-class socialism)

New Age and hippy thought, of course, has many roots, drawing eclectically on many spiritual traditions from ‘Celtic’ druidry and Buddhism to Native American religions. But I don’t think these are the main sources for its modern Western anti-intellectual content. Some of these traditions are opposed to (or at least sceptical of) the conventional education of their culture, but they all (as far as I know) stress the importance of spiritual training. Witchcraft, shamanism, Buddhism, druid lore, the dream quest etc all seem to me to be ‘gnostic’ in its original sense: they involve the search for a hidden spiritual knowledge (gnosis) that is only slowly (and often painfully) revealed to the searcher after years of striving. It seems to me that the more superficial aspects of New Age thought are imposed on it by the modern West rather than inherent in the underlying spiritual traditions.

A different route for a more general Western hippy/liberal/left-wing anti-intellectualism seems more plausible. My current view (though I’m open to correction, as usual) is that its roots are in eighteenth and nineteenth century Romanticism. This period seems to me to mark the development of three new concepts that are key to this modern anti-intellectualism: a non-religious hostility to ‘science’, the development of ‘progressive’ education, and the Romantic cult of the genius.

Religious hostility to scientific thought has been a characteristic of some strands of Christian and Islamic thought since the later Middle Ages, and tends to be based on a contrast between the ‘true knowledge’ found in holy books and the ‘false knowledge’ of scientists, which is seen as either contradictory to this or superfluous. In contrast, non-religious hostility to ‘science’ is normally based on the opposition of natural/artificial (an idea that has a lot of traction in the Green movement). Although this contrast of the natural and the artificial is an age-old literary trope (as well a Western tradition of pastoral poetry which dates back to the Greeks, there’s also a Chinese one), this contrast of nature and science seems to me only to take off in the Romantic period. This is actually several centuries after the scientific revolution began, which fits with the fact that it wasn’t generally aesthetic concerns about the ‘unweaving of the rainbow’ that really alarmed the Romantics (after all, Goethe studied colour theory and you can’t get more Romantic than him). It was the technology of the Industrial Revolution, whether the factory system and its ‘dark satanic mills’ or the fantasy of creating artificial life that alarmed them. In a similar way, liberal ‘anti-science’ thought in the 1960s focused on the atom bomb and pesticides, and its current concerns include GM crops and carcinogens, while religious anti-science has its key focus on scientific theories such as evolution. (This leads to such paradoxes as right-wing opponents of science who are happy to use advanced technological methods to spread their message, and left-wingers who insist on the need to reject much of modern technology, but who don’t doubt the science of global warming.)

But I don’t think this anti-technology stance on its own leads to anti-intellectualism: instead it’s more likely to lead to a call for a more humanistic education, not a rejection of intellectual culture. Two more ingredients are needed to create the current forms of leftist anti-intellectualism. One is the development of ‘progressive’ educational ideas, which is also a new phenomenon of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. I associate these ideas as originating with the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (although I’d appreciate comments from those better informed on the history of education) and they are obviously influenced by more general ideas of the natural (child) as good and the artificial (adult) as bad.

Associated with this ideal of progressive education in the late eighteenth century was a condemnation of current forms of education as oppressive. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that such ideas arose at the same time as the first attempts at mass education in the west (such as Joseph Lancaster’s assembly-line style monitorial system and the Sunday School movement). It is only when access to education becomes less of a right and more of a privilege that it makes sense to complain that it’s harmful in its current form. Ten centuries or more of learning through beating (standard in the West in medieval and early modern period) had raised little more opposition than the occasional legend of teachers killed by their pupils. Educational violence was implicitly or explicitly seen as compensated for by the advancement education gained one. To be suspicious about how the ruling classes might want to control education also wasn’t paranoid in the period: there were many attempts in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain (and France) to ensure that the poor were only taught suitable things and to root out dangerous radicalism in them.

Progressive education (and the condemnation of current education) has had a peculiar relationship to anti-intellectualism ever since its origins. On the one hand it tends to condemn certain forms of learning as either socially ‘irrelevant’ or not equally available to all in society (the classic example would be the study of Latin). Thus when it is anti-intellectual, it is so for specifically anti-elitist reasons. (It is ironic that while the main right-wing complaint in the US is of liberal elitists, in the UK it is of anti-elite liberals). Equally, however, progressive education is always based on the idea that everyone in society should be fully educated and thus tends to exalt some forms of learning.

Progressive education and the exaltation of nature by themselves, then don’t encourage the rejection of education; instead they argue for changing its form. They needed combining with the Romantic cult of genius to achieve their full anti-intellectual impact.

The cult of the genius is best seen as a Renaissance phenomenon, but the Renaissance genius is not socially marginalised. In Vaseri’s Lives of the Artists, for example (one of the key works for developing the idea of the artist as genius) boys with exceptional talent are nevertheless shown as undergoing an apprenticeship in the normal way and receiving success and rewards for their talent. In contrast, the Romantic genius was a tormented and unappreciated outsider and might also, for the first time, be untaught/self-taught. Paradoxically, it was the expansion of education in the eighteenth century that allowed the rise of the untaught genius, who needed no education, or whose talent was even harmed by training. (Again, an exaltation of ‘the natural’ is visible here). The ‘peasant poet’, for example, is very much a late eighteenth century phenomenon in the UK (Robert Bloomfield, Robert Burns, John Clare). It was only then that such men could learn to write without acquiring a formal education and yet have their output appreciated (at least by some). There are parallels to such non-classical artists as Samuel Palmer and William Blake.

It was also in this period that there is the first influential cult of the artist as transgressive outsider (with Lord Byron), thus demonstrating how the prosperous might be able to feel unappreciated and oppressed as well. This cult of the Romantic genius has sustained millions of the untalented ever since (via the false syllogism: ‘The untaught genius of X was unappreciated in his/her time. I am untaught and unappreciated. I am therefore a genius’). If the cult of nature and progressive education carried with them the implication that many of the educated could not be trusted, because they misused education, the cult of the Romantic genius allowed the more radical view that education was not really necessary.

I’m not suggesting here a specific genealogy connecting (say) Rousseau and Shelley to the hippies, more that similar reactions across time are visible to persistent characteristics of the modern industrial-capitalist state. ‘Liberal’ anti-intellectualism thus seems to me far more specifically tied to the modern West than populist anti-intellectualism: those in the Third World who have been most vocal about the Western use of knowledge as oppression, for example, are often precisely the products of Western or Western-style higher education.

There’s one other characteristic of the modern world that has also assisted the spread of liberal anti-intellectualism, and that’s paradoxically, the market. Once entrepreneurs realised there was a market (even if a niche market) for ‘left-wing anti-intellectualism’, whether it was for the Lyrical Ballads, Montessori education, modern art, rock and roll or New Age paraphernalia, then the market was willing to supply this (for a price). As much as liberal anti-intellectualism rejects the modern world, it simultaneously depends on it. It cannot gain the simple coherence of popular anti-intellectualism, because its supporters are almost always deeply embedded in the system itself, while simultaneously claiming to be outsiders. It thus has intrinsically ludicrous tendencies (in a way that populist anti-intellectualism doesn’t), but it’s also a much less coherent and dangerous political force.


3 thoughts on “Anti-intellectualism in cross-cultural perspective 2: the genealogy of the hippy

  1. My current view (though I’m open to correction, as usual) is that its roots are in eighteenth and nineteenth century Romanticism.

    I think you’re right, but specifically I suspect that it owes much to the late 20th century idolisation of Blake. Blake of course was notoriously hostile both to traditional learning (“dark satanic mills”) and to science, especially Newtonian physics, since he contrived to believe that attempting to understand the universe intellectually was incompatible with wondering at it.

    Unfortunately, the original hippies and their mentors tended to adopt Blake as an unwitting progenitor, and therefore he could do no wrong in the counterculture for a couple of decades after about 1960. His stuff was trotted out by people who had probably never heard of Clare or Bloomfield, and created a very damaging mind set in my opinion.


  2. I’ve read some Blake but have never heard of Clare or Bloomfield.

    Is my mind set permanently damaged? Or is there still hope?

    Or does it matter?

    Maybe I should contemplate nature instead. I’m sure there’s something on the National Geographic Channel . . .


  3. FWIW John Clare was a nineteenth century ‘peasant poet’ (still vaguely known today); Robert Bloomfield was another one, now almost completely obscure.

    As for Blake, it’s not so much whether you read him, it’s whether you inhaled. I think in the UK Blake now tends to be taken as an English eccentric rather more than a serious political thinker, mainly reduced to ‘Jerusalem’ (in the Parry version), animal rights and the weird God as architect picture.

    I’m not sure whether it’s just Blake, though. The exaltation of the irrational as against the rational, after all, doesn’t necessarily lead to anti-intellectualism. There’s a whole academic tradition of the humanities involving what you might call art as religion or literary mysticism, in which deep contemplation of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Beethoven etc somehow makes you into a better person, even though you can never clearly explain why. (In literature this tends to involve the teacher in lots of reciting passages in a suitably sonorous voice, through which knowledge is supposedly mysteriously transmitted to the students largely without conscious thought on either side).

    It seems to me that what the Romantic period brings is not only the first exaltation of irrationality, but also the first challenges to the idea of objective quality/intellectual standards. I think that’s what connects the aspects I mention, although I wasn’t very clear in my initial discussion. Progressive education thinks that the attainments of the many are more important than the (possibly higher) attainments of the few, and that therefore standards of achievement should be related to one’s initial starting point, as well as one’s final level. Meanwhile the cult of the Romantic genius implicitly underlies the wider and more recent claim that the conventional standards of artistic quality are subjective rather than objective (if not actually arbitrary): the peasant poets may not have the education to produce conventional masterpieces, but other qualities of their work trump this. (This view is also tied up with the cult of celebrity: the life of the artist is more significant than their actual achievements. The start of this is already visible slightly earlier, with Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, but Byron and Walter Scott are certainly early examples of ‘celebrity authors’, as were the peasant poets and Thomas Chatterton).

    When you put together a rejection of science (and its rational standards), an egalitarian feeling that high achievement isn’t the main priority of education, and a view that achievement is purely subjective anyhow, it’s then that you end up with the modern progressive anti-intellectualism (so mocked by the right wing) that any ‘cultural product’ is as good as any other, any achievement by anyone is as good as any other and any opinion is as valid as any other. I don’t think it’s a necessary view for liberals (see a marvellous takedown of anti-rational views by Noam Chomsky, but I do think it is more deeply rooted than we may realise.


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