Anti-intellectualism is hostility towards and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectual pursuits, usually expressed as the derision of education, philosophy, literature, art, and science, as impractical and contemptible. Alternatively, self-described intellectuals who are alleged to fail to adhere to rigorous standards of scholarship may be described as anti-intellectuals although pseudo-intellectualism is a more commonly, and perhaps more accurately, used description for this phenomenon.

In public discourse, anti-intellectuals are usually perceived and publicly present themselves as champions of the common folk — populists against political elitism and academic elitism — proposing that the educated are a social class detached from the everyday concerns of the majority, and that they dominate political discourse and higher education.

Because "anti-intellectual" can be pejorative, defining specific cases of anti-intellectualism can be troublesome; one can object to specific facets of intellectualism or the application thereof without being dismissive of intellectual pursuits in general. Moreover, allegations of anti-intellectualism can constitute an appeal to authority or an appeal to ridicule that attempts to discredit an opponent rather than specifically addressing his or her arguments.[1]

Anti-intellectualism is a common facet of totalitarian dictatorships to oppress political dissent. The Nazi party's populist rhetoric featured anti-intellectualism as a common motif, including Adolf Hitler's political polemic, Mein Kampf. Perhaps its most extreme political form was during the 1970s in Cambodia under the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, when people were killed for being academics or even for merely wearing eyeglasses (as it suggested literacy) in the Killing Fields.[2]

Anti-intellectualism expressed

Intellectualism as a social divider

Anti-intellectualism usually is expressed through declarations of otherness — the intellectual is "not one of us" and may be dangerous, due to having little empathy for the common folk.[3] Historically, this resulted in portrayals of intellectuals as an arrogant class, whom rural communities viewed as "city slickers" indifferent to country ways; such communities tended to stereotype intellectuals as foreigners or as racial and ethnic minorities who "think differently" than the natives. Religious critics describe intellectuals as prone to mental instability, proposing an organic, causal connection between genius and madness; they are unlike regular people because of their assumed atheism, and are indecent given their sexual mores, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, or celibacy.

Distrust of intellectuals

Economist Thomas Sowell argues for distinctions between unreasonable and reasonable wariness of intellectuals. Defining intellectuals as "people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas" as distinct from those who apply ideas practically, Sowell argues that there can be good cause for distrust of intellectuals. When working in their fields of expertise, intellectuals have increased knowledge. However, when compared to other careers, Sowell suggests intellectuals have few disincentives for speaking outside their expertise, and are less likely to face the consequences of their errors. For example, a physician is judged by effective treatment, yet might face malpractice lawsuits if he harms a patient. In contrast, a university professor with tenure is less likely to be judged by the effectiveness of his ideas and less likely to face repercussions for his errors:

By encouraging, or even requiring, students to take stands where they have neither the knowledge nor the intellectual training to seriously examine complex issues, teachers promote the expression of unsubstantiated opinions, the venting of uninformed emotions, and the habit of acting on those opinions and emotions, while ignoring or dismissing opposing views, without having either the intellectual equipment or the personal experience to weigh one view against another in any serious way.[4]

The source, Thomas Sowell, (2010) discusses intellectual influence, labeling schoolteachers as what he calls "intelligentsia" who recruit children, beginning in elementary school, to advocate for or against issues as part of "community service" projects, which will later assist them in the college application process. In this manner, intellectuals participate in other areas where they may possess no prior knowledge at all in order to influence public policy issues. The author argues that as a result, they encourage their students to formulate opinions "without any intellectual training or prior knowledge of those issues, making constraints against falsity few or non-existent" (Sowell, 296).

Similar arguments have been made by others. Historian Paul Johnson[5] argued that a close examination of 20th-century history reveals that intellectuals have championed innumerable disastrous public policies, writing, "beware intellectuals. Not merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice." Journalist Tom Wolfe[6] described an intellectual as "a person knowledgable in one field who speaks out only in others."

Criticism of the intelligentsia

Writer George Orwell was scathing of what he described as a "left-wing intelligentsia" that considered itself more "advanced"[7] and "enlightened"[7] than the ordinary man, and attacked their "shallow self-righteousness."[7]

In his essay Notes on Nationalism in May 1945, responding what he considered to be a particularity outlandish claim that had gained currency in intellectual circles casting aspersions on the United States' motives for entering World War II, he wrote:

I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that the American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution. One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.[8]

Anti-intellectualism expressed in popular culture

Intellectualism is portrayed in a highly critical light in an episode of the American animation series The Simpsons, They Saved Lisa's Brain, which revolves around one of the protagonists joining the local branch of Mensa, and through a bizarre series of events finds itself in complete charge of the local town of Springfield.

Considering themselves to be intellectually superior to the rest of the townsfolk, they quickly implement a series of ostensibly logical but socially disruptive public policies that antagonize the rest of the town, with disastrous consequences, and are eventually rebuked by Stephen Hawking, appearing as himself.



Dictators, and their dictatorship supporters, use anti-intellectualism to gain popular support, by accusing intellectuals of being a socially detached, politically dangerous class who question the extant social norms, who dissent from established opinion, and who reject nationalism, hence they are unpatriotic, and thus subversive of the nation. Violent anti-intellectualism is common to the rise and rule of authoritarian political movements, such as Italian Fascism, Stalinism in Russia, Nazism in Germany, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and Iranian theocracy.

In the 20th century, intellectuals were systematically demoted or expelled from the power structures, and, occasionally, assassinated. In Argentina in 1966, the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía intervened and dislodged many faculties, leading to a massive brain drain in an event which was called The Night of the Long Police Batons.[9][10] The biochemist César Milstein reports that when the military usurped Argentine government, they declared: "our country would be put in order, as soon as all the intellectuals who were meddling in the region were expelled". In Brazil, the educator Paulo Freire was banished for being ignorant, according to the organizers of the coup d’ État of the moment.[11]

Extreme ideological dictatorships, such as the Khmer Rouge regime in Kampuchea (1975–79), killed potential opponents with more than elementary education. In achieving their Year Zero social engineering of Cambodia, they assassinated anyone suspected of "involvement in free-market activities". The suspected Cambodian populace included professionals and almost every educated man and woman, city-dwellers, and people with connections to foreign governments. Doctrinally, the Maoist Khmer Rouge designated the farmers as the true proletariat, as the true representatives of the working class, hence the anti-intellectual purge (cf. Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966–76).

Governmental anti-intellectualism ranges from closing public libraries and public schools, to segregating intellectuals in an Ivory Tower ghetto, to official declarations that intellectuals tend to mental illness, thus facilitating psychiatric imprisonment, then scapegoating to divert popular discontent from the dictatorship (vide the USSR and Fascist Italy, cf. Antonio Gramsci).

Moreover, anti-intellectualism is neither always violent, nor oppressive, because most any social group can exercise contempt for intellect, intellectualism, and education. To wit, the Uruguayan writer Jorge Majfud said that "this contempt, that arises from a power installed in the social institutions and from the inferiority complex of its actors, is not a property of "underdeveloped" countries. In fact, it is always the critical intellectuals, writers, or artists who head the top-ten lists of 'The Most Stupid of the Stupid' in the country."[11]


Some forms of populism portray intellectuals as elitists possessed of rhetorical skills with which they deceive the common folk.[12]

Education — Populism also asserts that academic knowledge must be controlled, by "the people", because educators must work within the politics of the interested parties, such as the government, nationally, and with parents' groups, regionally, in establishing the content of the school curriculum. In the US, the common populist action is religiously supported education politics to introduce evangelical Protestant Christian religious interpretations of national history and natural science to school curricula — especially creationism, or variant pseudosciences, such as Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design, as factually equal counters to evolution.[13] (see: Discovery Institute)

Government Policy - In the USSR, in 1948, the Stalinist Central Committee officially imposed the Soviet (national) science of Lysenkoism upon agriculture. A concept developed by Agronomist Trofim Lysenko, Lysenkoism was promoted as the realization of Communist ideology: raised by farming parents and with limited formal education, he was lionized as the creator of innovative crop-growing methods based on the outdated concept of Lamarckian inheritance. Soviet government suppressed non-Lysenkoist biology, including the dismissal and assassination of scientists such as Nikolai Vavilov. Ultimately, Lysenkoism yielded poor agricultural results for the USSR. Moreover, because Lysenkoism was more political than scientific, its fortunes waxed and waned amid Russian Communist Party politics, ending as an officially discredited pseudoscience upon the fall of Nikita Khrushchev, in 1964.[14]

Educational anti-intellectualism

Education is often associated with charges of anti-intellectualism from a variety of critics who disagree over the meaning, goals and curricula of public education. Historically, such intellectual disagreements have manifested as Kulturkampf in Bismarck's Germany and Culture Wars in the contemporary US.

Grammar school

In the 2004 New York Times newspaper article "When Every Child is Good Enough", John Tierney reported that conservative parents believe that US primary and secondary schools over-emphasize equality of outcome[15] to the detriment of their children's individual (unequal) achievements. A literary example of that contention is the science fiction short story 'Harrison Bergeron' (1961), by Kurt Vonnegut, wherein the government's Handicapper General imposes equality upon the eponymous hero, lest his existence — as the smartest, handsomest, most athletic boy in the world — hurt the feelings of the mediocre popular majority, (viz. the over-simplification, the dumbing down, of curricula).


In the English-speaking world, especially in the US, critics like David Horowitz (viz. the David Horowitz Freedom Center), William Bennett, an ex-US secretary of education, and paleoconservative activist Patrick Buchanan, criticize schools and universities as 'intellectualist'

In his book The Campus Wars[16] about the widespread student protests of the late 1960s, philosopher John Searle wrote:

the two most salient traits of the radical movement are its anti-intellectualism and its hostility to the university as an institution. […] Intellectuals by definition are people who take ideas seriously for their own sake. Whether or not a theory is true or false is important to them independently of any practical applications it may have. [Intellectuals] have, as Richard Hofstadter has pointed out, an attitude to ideas that is at once playful and pious. But in the radical movement, the intellectual ideal of knowledge for its own sake is rejected. Knowledge is seen as valuable only as a basis for action, and it is not even very valuable there. Far more important than what one knows is how one feels.

In 1972, sociologist Stanislav Andreski[17] warned readers of academic works to be wary of appeals to authority when academics make questionable claims, writing, "do not be impressed by the imprint of a famous publishing house or the volume of an author's publications. […] Remember that the publishers want to keep the printing presses busy and do not object to nonsense if it can be sold."

Critics have alleged that much of the prevailing philosophy in American academia (i.e., postmodernism, poststructuralism, relativism) are anti-intellectual: "The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is -- second only to American political campaigns -- the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time."[18]

In the notorious Sokal Hoax of the 1990s, physicist Alan Sokal submitted a deliberately preposterous paper to Duke University's Social Texts journal to test if, as he later wrote, a leading "culture studies" periodical would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."[19] Social Texts published the paper, seemingly without noting any of the paper's abundant mathematical and scientific errors, leading Sokal to declare that "my little experiment demonstrate[s], at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy."

In a 1995 interview, social critic Camille Paglia[20] described academics (including herself) as "a parasitic class," arguing that during widespread social disruption "the only thing holding this culture together will be masculine men of the working class. The cultural elite--women and men--will be pleading for the plumbers and the construction workers."

Youth culture

Critics have suggested that contemporary adulthood.

The US youth subculture originated from the post-World War II economic prosperity allowing adolescents to work and have a discretionary income — whilst still dependent upon parents. In turn, scholars argue that the newfound economic power of adolescents allowed business to sell them popularity — an identity as a young person — something that once was not for sale, but self-created; to wit, the computer programmer and blog writer Paul Graham likened youth culture to an occupation permitting little time for education and intellectual interests.[21]

American anti-intellectualism

17th century

In The Powring Out of the Seven Vials (1642), the Puritan John Cotton wrote that 'the more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee. . . . Take off the fond doting . . . upon the learning of the Jesuites, and the glorie of the Episcopacy, and the brave estates of the Prelates. I say bee not deceived by these pompes, empty shewes, and faire representations of goodly condition before the eyes of flesh and blood, bee not taken with the applause of these persons.'[22] Not every Puritan concurred with Cotton's contempt for secular education; some founded universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth.

Economist Thomas Sowell[23] argues that American anti-intellectualism can be traced to the early Colonial era, and that wariness of the educated upper-classes is understandable given that America was built, in large part, by people fleeing persecution and brutality at the hands of the educated upper classes. Additionally, rather few intellectuals possessed the practical hands-on skills required to survive in the New World, leading to a deeply rooted suspicion of those who may appear to specialize in "verbal virtuosity" rather than tangible, measurable products or services:

From its colonial beginnings, American society was a "decapitated" society—largely lacking the topmost social layers of European society. The highest elites and the titled aristocracies had little reason to risk their lives crossing the Atlantic and then face the perils of pioneering. Most of the white population of colonial America arrived as indentured servants and the black population as slaves. Later waves of immigrants were disproportionately peasants and proletarians, even when they came from Western Europe [...] The rise of American society to pre-eminence as an economic, political and military power was thus the triumph of the common man and a slap across the face to the presumptions of the arrogant, whether an elite of blood or books.

The source, Thomas Sowell, (2001) describes the effect the American Revolution had on the development of American government, as established by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. In his opinion, the tendency to "disregard" the impartiality of the law depending upon "who you are" rather than what the author describes as the impartiality of the "supremacy of the law" conflicts with the American creed of the common man. According to Sowell, this fundamental right uniquely distinguishes the American character, forged by "the beaten men of beaten races," from that of the arrogant and privileged elites of the European aristocracy (Sowell, 187).

19th century

In the history of American anti-intellectualism, modern scholars suggest that 19th-century popular culture is important, because, when most of the populace lived a rural life of manual labour and agricultural work, a 'bookish' education, concerned with the Græco-Roman classics, was perceived as of impractical value, ergo unprofitable — yet Americans, generally, were literate and read Shakespeare for pleasure — thus, the ideal "American" man was technically skilled and successful in his trade, ergo a productive member of society. Culturally, the ideal American was a self-made man whose knowledge derived from life-experience, not an intellectual man, whose knowledge derived from books, formal education, and academic study; thus, in The New Purchase, or Seven and a Half Years in the Far West (1843), the Reverend Bayard R. Hall, A.M., said about frontier Indiana:

"We always preferred an ignorant bad man to a talented one, and, hence, attempts were usually made to ruin the moral character of a smart candidate; since, unhappily, smartness and wickedness were supposed to be generally coupled, and [like-wise] incompetence and goodness."[22]

Yet, the egghead's worldly redemption was possible if he embraced mainstream mores; thus, in the fiction of O. Henry, a character noted that once an East Coast university graduate 'gets over' his intellectual vanity — no longer thinks himself better than others — he makes just as good a cowboy as any other young man, despite his counterpart being the slow-witted naïf of good heart, a pop culture stereotype from stage shows.

20th and 21st centuries

Charges of anti-intellectualism have been made against a variety of movements and schools of thought:

The Book of Mormon makes numerous arguments against intellectualism if your intellect makes you "puffed up in pride" and makes you think you're better than others, like in 2nd Nephi:
- "O the wise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their hearts, and all those who preach false doctrines, and all those who commit whoredoms, and pervert the right way of the Lord, wo, wo, wo be unto them, saith the Lord God Almighty, for they shall be thrust down to hell!" 2 Nephi 28:15
However, the Book of Mormon also puts conditions on its criticism of Intellectual Pursuits:
- "But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God." 2 Nephi 9:29

  • Anti-war protests — The 1960s–70s anti-war movement protesting the ten-year US–Vietnam War (1963–1973), demonstrated its anti-intellectual leanings against US defence secretary Robert McNamara. They rallied against the war's increasing casualties, and the intellectual justification for the war, which was becoming seemingly impossible to win. McNamara's appearance as an intellectual, justifying warfare with an apparent disregard for the lives of American soldiers had become very unpopular. The anti-intellectualism in this movement may have been a counter to the perceived 'intellectual' rationalisation of the war by McNamara and others.
Marxist intellectual Theodor Adorno criticised such left-wing anti-intellectualism as "actionism," a kind of ineffective "pseudo-activity" which serves to deflect attention from the difficulty of genuinely changing the world, a difficulty which critical thought would make clear.[46]
However, publications such as The Pentagon Papers (1971) had made the war very unpopular with intellectuals and anti-intellectuals alike, and the movement gained much popular support, culminating in the Case Church Amendment and the eventual exit of American troops from the war in 1973.
"For most American intellectuals, the Communist movement of the 1930s was a crucial experience. In Europe, where the [Communist] movement was at once more serious and more popular, it was still only one current in intellectual life; the Communists could never completely set the tone of thinking. . . . But in this country there was a time when virtually all intellectual vitality was derived, in one way or another, from the Communist party. If you were not somewhere within the party's wide orbit, then you were likely to be in the opposition, which meant that much of your thought and energy had to be devoted to maintaining yourself in opposition."[47]

European anti-intellectualism

Greco–Roman world

In the Roman Republic (509–27 BC), the public career of the statesman Cato the Elder displayed traits that some modern observers argue would be considered anti-intellectual in the contemporary world. He vehemently opposed the introduction of Greek culture to the Roman republic, believing them subversive of traditional Roman military values and plainspokenness. In 186 BC, he convinced the Senate to decree against the Bacchanalia, then a recently imported mystery religion, they agreed with him via the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus. He urged the deportation of three Athenian philosophers, Carneades, Diogenes the Stoic, and Critolaus, in Rome as Athenian ambassadors, because he believed their opinions dangerous to the Republic.

Soviet Union

In the first decade after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks suspected the Tsarist intelligentsia as potentially traitorous of the proletariat, thus, the initial Soviet government comprised men and women without much formal education. Lenin derided the old intelligentsia with the expression (roughly translated): 'We ain't completed no academies' (мы академиев не кончали).[49] Moreover, the deposed propertied classes were termed Lishentsy ("the disenfranchised"), whose children were excluded from education; eventually, some 200 Tsarist intellectuals were deported to Germany on Philosophers' ships in 1922; others were deported to Latvia and to Turkey in 1923.

During the revolutionary period, the pragmatic Bolsheviks employed "bourgeois experts" to manage the economy, industry, and agriculture, and so learn from them. After the Russian Civil War (1917–23), to achieve socialism, the USSR (1922–91) emphasised literacy and education in service to modernising the country via an educated working class intelligentsia, rather than an Ivory Tower intelligentsia. During the 1930s and the 1950s, Joseph Stalin replaced Lenin's intelligentsia with a "communist" intelligentsia, loyal to him and with a specifically Soviet world view, thereby producing the most egregious examples of Soviet anti-intellectualism — the pseudoscientific theories of Lysenkoism and Japhetic theory, most damaging to biology and linguistics in that country, by subordinating science to a dogmatic interpretation of Marxism.


The idealist philosopher Giovanni Gentile established the intellectual basis of Fascist ideology with the autoctisi (self-realisation) via concrete thinking that distinguished between the good (active) intellectual and the bad (passive) intellectual:

Fascism combats ... not intelligence, but intellectualism... which is... a sickness of the intellect... not a consequence of its abuse, because the intellect cannot be used too much... it derives from the false belief that one can segregate oneself from life....
—Giovanni Gentile, addressing a Congress of Fascist Culture, Bologna, 30 March 1925

To counter the "passive intellectual" who used his or her intellect abstractly, and therefore was "decadent", he proposed the "concrete thinking" of the active intellectual who applied intellect as praxis — a "man of action", like Fascist Benito Mussolini, versus the decadent Communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci. The passive intellectual stagnates intellect by objectifying ideas, thus establishing them as objects. Hence the Fascist rejection of materialist logic, because it relies upon a priori principles improperly counter-changed with a posteriori ones that are irrelevant to the matter-in-hand in deciding whether or not to act.

In the praxis of Gentile's concrete thinking criteria, such consideration of the a priori toward the properly a posteriori constitutes impractical, decadent intellectualism. Moreover, this fascist philosophy occurred parallel to Actual Idealism, his philosophic system; he opposed intellectualism for its being disconnected from the active intelligence that gets things done, i.e. thought is killed when its constituent parts are labelled, and thus rendered as discrete entities.[50][51]

Related to this, is the confrontation between the Spanish franquist General, Millán Astray, and the writer Miguel de Unamuno during the Dia de la Raza celebration at the University of Salamanca, in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. The General exclaimed: ¡Muera la inteligencia! ¡Viva la Muerte! ("Death to intelligence! Long live death!"); the Falangists applauded.

Asian anti-intellectualism


Imperial ChinaQin Shi Huang (246–21 BC), the first Emperor of unified China, consolidated political thought, and power, by suppressing freedom of speech at the suggestion of Chancellor Li Si, who justified such anti-intellectualism by accusing the intelligentsia of falsely praising the emperor, and of dissenting through libel. From 213 to 206 BC, the works of the Hundred Schools of Thought were incinerated, especially the Shi Jing (Classic of Poetry, c. 1000 BC) and the Shujing (Classic of History, c. 6th century BC). The exceptions were books by Qin historians, and books of Legalism, an early type of totalitarianism — and the Chancellor's philosophic school, (see the Burning of books and burying of scholars).

People's Republic of China — The Cultural Revolution was a politically violent decade (1966–76) of wide-ranging social engineering of the People's Republic of China by its leader Chairman Mao. After several national policy failures, Mao, to regain public prestige and control of the Communist Party of China (CCP), on 16 May, announced that the Party and Chinese society were permeated with liberal bourgeois elements who meant to restore capitalism to China, and that said people could only be removed with post–Revolutionary class struggle. To that effect, China's youth nationally organised into Red Guards, paramilitaries hunting the liberal bourgeois elements subverting the CCP and Chinese society. The Red Guards acted nationally, purging the country, the military, urban workers, and the leaders of the CCP, until there remained no one politically dangerous to Mao. Three years later, in 1969, Mao declared the Cultural Revolution ended; yet the political intrigues continued until 1976, concluding with the arrest of the Gang of Four, the de facto end of the Cultural Revolution.

Democratic Kampuchea

When the Communist Party of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge (1951–81), established their regime as Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979) in Cambodia, their anti-intellectualism idealised the country and demonised the cities to establish agrarian socialism, thus, they emptied cities to purge the Khmer nation of every traitor, enemy of the state, and intellectual, often symbolised by eyeglasses (see the Killing Fields).

See also


Further reading

  • The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush, by Elvin T. Lim: New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-534264-2.
  • Anti-intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter: ISBN 978-0-394-70317-6
  • Anti-Intellectualism in American Media, by Dane S. Claussen: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2004. ISBN 978-0-8204-5721-5
  • Evening Chats in Beijing: Probing China's Predicament, by Perry Link: New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991. ISBN 978-0-393-31065-8
  • Hinton, William. Hundred Day War: The Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University. New York: New York UP, 1972. ISBN 978-0-85345-281-2.
  • Moynihan Commission Report, Appendix A, 7. The Cold War, footnote 103 quoted from Robert Warshow, The Legacy of the 30's: Middle-Class Mass Culture and the Intellectuals' Problem, Commentary Magazine (December 1947): 538.
  • "Action Will be Taken" Left Anti-Intellectualism and its Discontents by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti (Left Business Observer)
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