What is an intellectual? Definitions vary.
Richard Hofstadter in “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” answers: radical critic … someone who loves to grapple with ideas … moral antennae of the human race … custodian of values like reason … someone who searches for truth … who strikes angrily at gross abuse … and has a passion for justice.
Intellectuals put reason above all else. The world is their country, all mankind is their brethren, as Paine put it. Their concern is the human condition.
Intellectuals have a wide cultural background, knowledge of art and music. (Nietzsche: “Without music life would be a mistake.”) Intellectuals know U.S. and world history and have a wide knowledge of political science.
Few academics qualify as intellectuals by those definitions. Ph.D.s, those with law degrees: bright people, some brilliant scholars. But most professors are narrow in scope.
Classic literature is beyond them. As Hofstadter writes: “It is painful to imagine what our literature would be like if it were written by academic teachers of ‘creative writing’ courses whose main experience was to have been themselves trained in such courses.”
Few academics wrestle with the thoughts and ideas of the great minds of literature throughout the centuries. Few have the outrage of great intellectual writers like Voltaire, Hugo and Zola (“J’Accuse”).
The culture of most academics is stinted. They know little about art, painting, sculpture and music. Not many professors grapple with concepts ranging from religion to politics, mores to history.
Few academics can talk knowledgeably about the political difference between Hamilton and Jefferson. Few professors are capable of noting that the self-righteous, racist Ph.D. Wilson gave America the great gift of Justice Brandeis.
Few academics can tell why Whitman is a greater poet than Frost — or vice versa. Few professors can discuss why “Hamlet” is better than “King Lear.” Few can say why Beethoven was greater than Mozart. That Verdi is vastly better than Wagner. Few see beauty and truth in lines of poetry. (Poe: “To elevate the soul, poetry is necessary.”)
Intellectuals repudiate American policies domestically and internationally. They note the crassness and vulgarization of society, its materialistic cravings. They note America’s shameful history of invasions, seizure of Indian and other nations’ land, its empire-building and its feeling of “manifest destiny” to rule the world.
Intellectual are rebels. They are constantly in opposition.
Emerson said of Thoreau that he was always in opposition, as if that is bad. Emerson did not understand his man. Thoreau was right to oppose slavery, the Mexican War. Thoreau was right to see John Brown as a great man rather than the madman nearly everyone else called him, including the fiery abolitionist Garrison.
But then Emerson was so often wrong about Thoreau. He fatuously declared that Thoreau, “instead of engineering for all of America,” was a mere “captain of a huckleberry party.”
Intellectuals should be democratic socialists. They see the soullessness of capitalism. Capitalism may be “religion” in America but, as Hofstadter writes, capitalism is ugly, materialistic and guilty of “ruthless human exploitation,” all affronts to “sensitive minds.”
Intellectuals see the starkness of world and national affairs, not the glowing exceptionalism that Americans feel about their county. Intellectuals are exponents of critical thinking. They point out that the emperor has no clothes. They are atheists. They are leftists. They see the lie behind the rhetoric of freedom and democracy.
Intellectuals should not become advisers to politicians because they cannot serve both power and truth. Intellectuals feel alienated from society. Indeed, most are alienated in their thinking from most of their colleagues. Intellectuals are loners, not better but quite different from most people. They don’t “think what others think.” (Yeats)
Intellectuals see that President Bush, with his master’s degree, may be the most schooled yet most ignorant man who ever lived. Jefferson read widely and deeply. Lincoln read the Bible and Shakespeare. Eisenhower? Western novels. The cretinish buffon Bush? He does not read.
“The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning who used their wide reading in history, politics and law to solve the exigent problems of their time,” Hofstadter writes. “No subsequent era in our history has produced so many men of knowledge among its political leaders.”
The nation has regressed from intellectual leaders to ignoramuses like Bush.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.