Frank Episale is an editor, writer, educator, and theatre artist living and working in Brooklyn. He holds a BFA from New York University, an MA from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and an MPhil from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This is his (infrequently updated) blog. He's pretty google-able, if you'd like to know more.

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Thursday
Dec102009

rant re: anti-intellectualism

I know I need to stop involving myself in debates on other people's Facebook walls, but sometimes I can't help myself.

A friend recently re-posted a status of mine, which read: "Every time someone says 'professorial' like it's a bad thing, I want to defend Obama even if I disagree with him. Fuck anti-intellectualism."

The various responses to his post prompted the following rant, from me:

 ---

"Anti-intellectualism" as a term isn't about your ex with Asperger's or your blowhard friend, or your pretentious, insecure cousin. It's a thread in the US culture that has been remarked upon and documented since at least the 19th century (Tocqueville) and was more fully articulated in the 1960s by Richard Hofstadter (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life). 

It's that aspect of our character that calls kids with good grades "nerds," that accuses those who learn grammar of not "keeping it real," that condemns the family genius as being "too big for his britches," or losing sight of her "roots." 

It is the absurd reality that speaking in complete sentences and thinking in paragraphs is considered a political liability, that researching difficult issues and attempting to address them in an informed, nuanced way is somehow a betrayal of the American notion of the "gut." It is embodied by the false idea that there is an inherent distinction between the "authentic" and the "educated," between thought and emotion, between analysis and action. 


"Professorial" means "professor-like," and the fact that some interpret that to mean "out of touch with the 'real' world" (as if some parts of the world were more real than others) is a direct by-product of the "ivy tower" fiction, the myth that thinking about something removes you from it in a way that renders you less able to engage on a visceral level. Calling a politician "professorial" when s/he discusses war or economics is, essentially, an assertion that decisions about life and death should be made based entirely on "gut" reactions, inspired by impulses for revenge and "justice."

As for "over-analysis," that's usually a misnomer. Most discussions labeled as overly analytical are a) bad analysis or b) inconvenient. Sometimes it is about your asshole boyfriend who won't stop picking away at your eating habits. Sometimes it is about the uncomfortable fact that the Twilight books are thinly disguised socially conservative propaganda designed to promote abstinence, condemn abortion, reinforce gender binaries, and reify a dangerous love-at-first-sight soulmate mythology.

All of this is evident in the fact that the statement that started this thread was about a specific political situation, but the responses that followed had nothing to do with that context. The opportunity to hate on the socially crippled ex, or the teacher who gave you an unfair C, or that coworker who can never just have a good time trumped any possibility of engaging in a productive conversation about our current political climate. Perhaps that's because politics, history, war, identity, etc. are too complex to be considered "real," and because anything beyond an individual's bank account is too abstract to be worth our attention. I hope not.

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Reader Comments (7)

Did you ever read The Price of Loyalty? I became a big Paul O'Neill fan after that, even though he's a Republican and I'm not, because it was exactly the anti-analytical bent of the Bush administration that he strenuously objected to, to the point where they asked for his resignation as Secretary of the Treasury. O'Neill was a big fan of the Brandeis brief as a method of making policy decisions.

I think you're roughly right about the impulse behind calling Obama "professorial," though I wouldn't mind seeing that name-calling in its original context. Have you got a link? It seems like a way of saying, "You don't really care; you're just a feelingless automaton." Or, alternatively, "You don't have a right to discuss this because you have no experience with it." You're also right about anti-intellectualism having a long tradition in this country.

That said, I think that clichés are clichés for a reason, and while I personally know many inspiring and engaged and emotional and intuitive and activist and realist professors, someone who's spent as much time in academia as I have is unlikely to deny the charge that many intellectuals are often "out of touch with the real world." Or, to put that more forthrightly, *I* think that many academics are out of touch. Heck, I'm entirely and deliberately out of touch in many ways.

December 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda French

Thanks for commenting, Amanda.

My original tweet was a response to a variety of tweets from a variety of pundits, including those on KCRW's Left, Right, and Center. (More examples can be found easily enough). The point of these criticisms was that Obama's justification for the war was too couched in nuance, and that he couldn't expect the support of the public if he wasn't willing to use words like "win," "lose," "evil," and "good."

While I am deeply concerned about Obama's Afghanistan policy, I can't agree that the problem is his overthinking of the situation. Indeed, I think we would be in a much better situation if the previous situation had thought the situation through and taken more seriously the historical, military, religious, and political context of the conflict(s), as well as the likely implications of our invasion.

As for academics who are "out of touch" in one way or another, I don't see how their being out of touch with x is any worse than an auto-worker's being out of touch with y. All of us filter and select our sources of information to some extent, resulting in our being "out of touch" with some other sources. But I reject the notion that an academic's perspective is necessarily less "real" than a farmer's.

December 10, 2009 | Registered CommenterFrank Episale

Sure, I'd agree with that last point, especially. The phrase "the real world" is capable of infinite interpretations.

December 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda French

Critical Thinking Through Writing is the learning initiative at Georgia State, where I teach, and we're each required to define critical thinking in our field. After trying to explain to my theatre history class that they couldn't criticize simply based on gut response to what bothered them but rather had to consider why the bothersome issues were in the play and in what context they were presented, I finally came up with the definition. In theatre, critical thinking is learning to think outside your gut.

December 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Miller

One small correction to my comment above. The first full paragraph should begin, "My original tweet was a response to a variety of STATEMENTS..."

December 10, 2009 | Registered CommenterFrank Episale

I have a hard time relating to the other side on this issue. The way we were raised was pretty far from anti-intellectualist. Intellectualism was always the goal; the ultimate; the thing to strive for. Then again, I think that some of the disdain encouraged towards non-intellectuals may cause some anti-intellectualism.

I think I may have used more versions of the word intellectual here than actually exist.

December 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngela Episale

Not quite Angela. There's still "pseudo-intellectual" and "quasi-intellectual."

December 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAkash

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