How To Do Business With Americans: America Has An Anti-Intellectual Streak
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
In America intellectuals get acceptance from the public, sometimes even admiration, but never anything approaching the deep respect that scholars receive in some societies.
Part of this feeling is American anti-snobbism. Americans don’t like snobs, and never have. They cannot stand people who act like they think they’re better than anybody else. And well-educated individuals are prone to feel disdain for those who aren’t, which makes them, by definition, a snob.
Americans adore individuals of great accomplishment and fame–athletes, the rich, and scientists– as long as they have what Americans call “the common touch.” But let that individual act like others are inferior, and Americans will hate them. That idea was expressed in a conversation I had with a famous American senator and governor by the name of Herman Talmadge who told me, “I was taught never to look down on anybody, and never to look up to anybody.”
Part of this attitude comes from a sense of distrust–a feeling that intellectuals are more liberal, perhaps more radical than ordinary Americans. Americans on the extreme right see academia as a threat to American values.
Part of the difficulty that intellectuals face in America is the belief that intellectuals do not contribute anything of value. Intellectuals may know a lot, but what they know cannot be put to use. Americans are fond of contrasting the Ivory Tower with Main Street, theoretical with practical.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed this in the 1830s, and wrote: “The spirit of the Americans is averse to general ideas and does not seek theoretical discoveries. Neither politics nor industry leads that way.”
Americans have seldom choosen intellectuals to lead them, Thomas Jefferson being the notable exception. Alexis de Tocqueville saw this too. “In democratic societies when almost everyone is engaged in active life, the darting speed of a quick superficial mind is at a premium, while slow, deep life is excessively undervalued.”
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