Anti-Intellectualism in America

Instructor: David White
Anti-intellectualism is a complicated concept because it tends to manifest in different ways at different times. Through this lesson, you will learn how to define anti-intellectualism, and explore some of the ways that it has influenced American life.

What Is Anti-Intellectualism?

Think about the last time you were in classroom discussing big ideas and exploring new areas of knowledge. If you like the subject matter, such discussion can be really exciting and maybe even lead you to develop new passions or interests. While you probably wouldn't refer to them this way in casual conversation, what you're doing in those moments is engaging in intellectual exploration. Yet, while these discussions might be exciting for you, there are those who find such pursuits to be pointless or evening threatening.

A belief that intellectual interests are a waste of time is referred to as anti-intellectualism, which is an ideology that has gained some popularity at various times around the world. But it's more than merely a dislike of education - people that hold this position tend to have contempt for those that invest their time in things like the humanities, sciences, or creative expression. Though there are different reasons why a person feels this way, it often stems from the feeling that academics, artists, and scholars are elitist or feel superior to the average working-class person.

Anti-intellectualism can be a tricky topic to discuss, because the term has seriously negative connotations and has at times been used in degrading ways. For example, if someone prefers reality television, video games, and tabloid magazines to museums or literature, to call them anti-intellectual would be insulting because it insinuates that they're unintelligent because of their taste in entertainment, not their attitudes toward intellectual pursuits. Insults aside, anti-intellectualism does exist and has historically produced some frightening results.

The Intellectual Threat

One of the reasons that anti-intellectualism is hard to describe is that it manifests itself in different ways depending on the circumstances, only a handful of which are explored in this lesson. In a broad sense, it is most often a response to a real or perceived threat.

Imagine that you're at a party and the people around you are engaged in a conversation about the relevancy of Socrates in the present academic environment. Because you don't have any idea what they're talking about or why, you feel left out and conclude that they're just elitists (they believe they're better or more valuable than others). Now imagine that you did know what they were talking about and maybe even had something to contribute - do you think you'd still draw that conclusion?

In this hypothetical scenario, one of the reasons that you've drawn an anti-intellectual conclusion is very likely that you don't feel as intelligent as the other people at the party. Regardless of whether or not it's true, those feelings are related to emotional or intellectual insecurity, which is fundamentally a threat to your own identity or sense of self-worth. In response to this threat, you reject your personal insecurity and instead place the blame for your feelings on other people.

Anti-Intellectualism in Politics

In the early years of the American colonies, religious leaders like Cotton Mather held a significant amount of power within the society. These men often discouraged education, even claiming that it was sinful or an act against God. This early anti-intellectual perspective was the result of fears that if people became educated, these religious leaders would lose much of their ability to control or influence the people in the colony, which is indeed what happened.

Turning to a more recent example, during a 2012 speech, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum told the audience that 'President Obama once said he wants everyone in America to go to college…what a snob.' Santorum was misquoting and misrepresenting the president, who has stated that everyone should have the opportunity to continue their education past high school, regardless of ability to pay. Nevertheless, many Americans joined Santorum in the belief that Obama was 'a snob.'

Populism values the common people over those that are often identified as the liberal elite.

By promoting the idea that Obama (and by extension the Democratic Party) was an elitist 'snob,' Santorum was likely attempting to capture the populist vote. Populism is a political ideology in which the needs and desires of 'common people' are valued above what is often referred to as the liberal elite. Putting the people first probably sounds like a good idea; unfortunately, populist politicians tend to manipulate people's emotions through an 'us versus them' agenda.

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