Digital democracy & American anti-intellectualism: Part II
by J.C. Caruso
Last week I wrote a post about some of the challenges we face in a digital age where expertise and authority seem to be under constant attack, but I’d like to follow that up here by exploring this issue from a slightly different angle.
What I see as the crux of our current challenge is this: how can we ensure that the digital democratization of human knowledge does not become mired in the same anti-intellectualism that has for so long been a hallmark of our American democracy?
I know what some of you are thinking. How can I say that America is anti-intellectual? Isn’t it true that we are home to many of the greatest universities in the world, schools that continue to draw the best and brightest from around the globe for graduate studies?
Yes, that may be true, but looking at our culture as a whole, the anti-intellectualist attitude that pervades our country is undeniable. Consider how casually and caustically our politicians and pundits dismiss “experts” and “authorities” when such learned wisdom (or book-learnin’) disagrees with their own cherished personal opinions. Witness how during last fall’s debates before the elections, senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren’s opponent called her “Professor Warren” as a put-down. True, Professor-cum-Senator Warren still won in Massachusetts but that state prides itself on the prestige surrounding its academic institutions.
By contrast, there are plenty of regions in our country where Warren’s academic credentials would more surely have done her irreparable political damage. Throughout most of the country, American anti-intellecualism is a hard fact. And it’s one I’d guess more than a few of us eggheads had thumped into us in grade school.
This isn’t a new observation. From the 1940’s to the 60’s, historian Richard Hofstadter explored these ideas in his works of social theory and political culture. The most important of Hofstadter’s studies may be Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1964), one of two separate books for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. While Hofstadter saw American anti-intellectualism as part and parcel of our national heritage of utilitarianism rather than a necessary by-product of democracy, he did see anti-intellectualism as stemming at least in part from the democratization of knowledge. Not that he opposed broad access to university education. Rather, Hofstadter saw universities as the necessary “intellectual and spiritual balance wheel” of civilized society, though he recognized an ongoing tension between the ideals of open access to university education and the highest levels of intellectual excellence.
Of course, important as his work remains, Hofstadter wrote before the dawning of our own digital age. He didn’t grapple with the new challenges presented by an online world where (for better or worse) communication is instantaneous, everything is available all the time, and everyone not only has a voice but has the ability to speak in a polyphony of voices masked in anonymity.
Still, we must be willing to admit that things may not be as dire as all that. As Adam Gopnik has pointed out in the New Yorker (“The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” Feb. 14, 2011), the World Wide Web is sort of like the palantir, the seeing stone used by wizards in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It tends to serve as a magnifying glass for everything we view through it.
As such, it’s no surprise that many have viewed the dawn of the Digital Age as signaling the end of everything that made the modern civilized world great. Indeed, for years now, academics and public intellectuals have lamented the way our digital media has seemed to dumb down our discourse, but there are signs of hope.
In his 2009 article “Public Intellectuals 2.1” (Society 46:49-54), Daniel W. Drezner takes a brighter view of the prospects for a new intellectual renaissance in the Digital Age, predicting that blogging and the various other forms online writing can in fact serve to reverse the cultural trend of seeing academics and intellectuals as remote and unimportant to our public life. Drezner argues that “the growth of the blogosphere breaks down—or at least lowers—the barriers erected by a professional academy” and can “provide a vetting mechanism through which public intellectuals can receive feedback and therefore fulfill their roles more effectively” (50).
Some views are not so optimistic, but it’s true that are great online resources for serious scholarly work and there are even smart people who are thinking amazing thoughts and writing about them online.
But let’s see what a vigorous online discussion can look like. I anxiously look forward to hearing what others have to say about the issues I’ve raised here.
A 19th-century Americanist and textual scholar, John Caruso teaches at Marylhurst University in both the Department of English Literature & Writing and the Department of Culture & Media.
Photo: N3wjack’s world in pixels via Flickr