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Elite Elegy: The 6 Best Books for Understanding Anti-Intellectualism in America

* American anti-intellectualism from Know-Nothings to Flat-Earthers
* Learn about the deep history of America’s sometimes-resentful relationship with learning
* These thought-provoking books are both entertaining and timely

While Trump may be one of its most visible results, the strain of anti-intellectualism that is so prominent in American politics today is as old as the nation itself. TV shows and films like The Simpsons and Idiocracy have ridiculed it, dystopias like The Handmaiden’s Tale have explored its most extreme potential, but these 6 books will give any defiant “effete snob” a firm footing when it comes to understanding why so many Americans seem to resent intellectuals and education. Historically bound up with anti-immigrant rallies and antisemitism, the American animosity toward intellectual pursuits goes back to the frontier days. In the 19th-century, there was even a political party that called itself the “Know-Nothing” party. Check out our top six reads on the ever timely subject.

1. Idiot America

Journalist Charles Pierce’s timely 2010 best-seller examines how mass media and the internet encourage ignorance. Before “fake news,” was a thing, Pierce pointed out how easy it was for people to find confirmation of their own bias and prejudice.

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2. Empire of Illusion

Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges offers a deep dive into some of the most relevant spectacles of American idiocy, updating the age-old quip about “bread and circuses” to describe how the insular fantasies of celebrity culture allow us to tune out our own thoughts and hide from any serious thoughts about our world. Despite its intellectual subject matter, Empire of Illusion is nonetheless eminently readable and entertaining, with its commentary on porn, professional wrestling and reality TV.


3. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Published in 1963, Richard Hofstader’s seminal work is required reading for those who want to understand why people hate required reading. A true intellectual’s book, it offers no easy answers and in fact does not even condemn anti-intellectualism as such. Rather, it traces the history of American ambivalence toward elites and “bohemians” as a kind of flip-side of American democratic egalitarianism and ingenuity. Going back to colonial times, American culture distinguished itself by rejections of authority, with manifestations ranging from the Protestant revivals of the 19th century to the social movements of the 1960s that were just gaining momentum when this book was written (and are conspicuously absent from it.) A truly worthwhile historical document, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life offers readers a journey through the cultural landscape of America’s past, even if that journey is itself centered around a rather elite perspective.


4. Amusing Ourselves to Death

Originally written in 1985 about the rise of TV, this 2nd edition from 2005 seems to ring even more true today in the age of the Internet. Neil Postman’s look into the rise of what would come to be called “infotainment,” is an essential read for the age of diminishing attention spans and “fake news.” Thirteen years later, it’s clear that few pop culture books could have as much to say about the upheavals of the recent political news cycle.


5. The Age of American Unreason

Susan Jacoby, an American intellectual if ever there was one, describes herself as a “cultural conservationist,” and in this thoughtful, passionate #1 national bestseller she accomplishes the prime intellectual task of encouraging us to think more deeply about everyday things. Many say the English language itself holds the key to the origin of our anti-intellectualism; vernacular English came into use at a time when the elite spoke French, peasants spoke the Germanic Anglo-Saxon, and scholarly works were in Latin, and so English as we know it is an uneasy hybrid of “common” Anglo-Saxon words and “sophisticated” latin-based vocabulary. As Jacoby points out, it’s a divide that still has political heft, with Presidents trying to broaden their appeal by using the germanic world “folks” in place of the latinate “people” or “citizens.” Brilliant for how it uncovers meaning in the commonplace, this is one of the deepest and most moving works on Americans’ fraught relationship with intellectual activity and what it means for the future of the Republic.


6. The Death of Expertise

One of the most relevant recent books tackling the irony of the internet age, Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise is both philosophical and urgent. Here we are in 2018 and while our access to information is truly unprecedented, so is our access to ignorance. Nichols calls out the business models current in education and the internet’s illusory democratization of knowledge: pseudoscience blogs tend to be free, for example, while scholarly articles are usually paywalled. This book is a compelling, necessary reminder that a glut of information mixed with a shortage of learning can actually be dangerous for democracy.