Brief observation about anti-intellectualism

Anti-intellectualism must be at its peak. Nerdy glasses are in fashion; I hope they promise a recovery of intellectual values in the post-Bush years.

Regarding the thinking of anti-intellectuals… They think:

  • If they can’t understand it, it’s ivory tower stuff that excludes the everyday person; it’s elitist, exclusive, and probably BS. Intellectuals are irrelevant.
  • If they can understand it, then they could have thought of it, and if they could have thought of it, then so could anyone. Intellectuals are unnecessary.
  • If it contradicts their views, it is a lie. Intellectuals are a class that tries to manipulate real folk.

The consequence of this thinking is that the independence of academia is under attack and there is a loss of respect for the conclusions of real investigations and deep thought, and a boost in power for reactionaries and fundamentalists with their superstitious views.

Is it a harbinger of a new dark age, just a few terrible years, or not much different from the American norm over time?

In the about page of this blog, among the concerns I stated as a blogger was “The Decline of Civilization and the position in which it puts us as librarians.” Isabel Espinal made a valid point, quoting Gandhi’s response to the question, “What do you think of Western Civilization?”, which was “It would be a good idea.” Isabel pointed out that talk about “the decline of civilization” often accompanies racist anxiety about immigration and demographic change, and also that the kind of “civilization” I am worried about losing has always only belonged to a minority in society. I think Isabel raises a key problem there. The answer is simple to state but complex to attempt. The intellectual values that underly librarianship (or should) are values that should belong to everyone. When we talk about access, we should not only think about giving people access to what they “want” (which is a constructed thing), but giving people access to civilization, to make it their own. For many people this has meant pop culture as art and a destruction of ivory towers. I deplore this. I think it has to mean that the intellectual sphere, while it may not be a place for everyone, should belong to everyone, and it should be accessible to everyone who seeks it, while at the same time being respected as the highest social authority. Both populism and multiculturalism obviously make legitimate and important demands, but we can own and pursue those without giving quarter to anti-intellectualism, which I think sometimes happens. Anti-intellectualism is a part of Right-wing ideology, certainly, but it crops up unnoticed in our own work as well. (I don’t mean Isabel at all, btw, but I mean that our populist commitments can sometimes make room for it.)

2 comments on “Brief observation about anti-intellectualism

  1. I thought that John Pateman’s review of Ed D’Angelo’s book positively dripped with anti-intellectualism. I normally respect Pateman’s work, but that review was just awful; I think Ed’s response was brilliant, and thank you for publishing it.

    Anti-intellectualism also pops up among the techno-hip, arguing (in effect) that library catalogs should be dumbed down for use by the “average” user. Well, um, NO. Screw them. Library catalogs, especially in Academic research libraries, are for serious scholars. And there’s no technological quick fix, no end-run around well-done, “expensive” original cataloging, either.

    Ditto those arguing against Latin abbreviations in catalog records; they’re the best compromise for truly international resource sharing and bibliographic control.

    At a recent conference on “Future Libraries” I heard a book digitizer enthusiast rave that “we could scan all the books in the Library of Congress for (some ridiculously low sum) and there we’d have a digital copy of the whole Library of Congress, available for free, forever.”

    …I wanted to shout to the podium “No, you’d have a FROZEN SNAPSHOT of the Library of Congress from one particular point in time, growing increasingly out of date, because if you’d remembered Ranganathan for just a minute you’d remember that ‘the library is a growing organism’…LC no less than any other library.”


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