Bernie on Education and ‘Anti-Intellectualism in American Life’

Honored to have a guest post today from my Twitter buddy, Bernie Latham. Bernie is a self-described liberal (“so liberal that communists envy me”), so he’s sometimes vexed by things I write. This post is a response to a tweet I sent this morning:


One of the most valuable tips I might pass on re the history of American thought on education comes from Richard Hofstadter’s book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (you can find it cheap via Amazon and if you attend to it well, it will surely become a favored possession on your bookshelf). One of five major sections of the book deals with education. I’ll quote just a bit here (page 300)…

Anti-Intellectualism in American LifeAnti-Intellectualism in American LifeThat something has always been seriously missing in our educational performance, despite the high promise of our rhetoric, has been evident to the educators who have taken our hopes most seriously. The history of our educational writing poses a formidable challenge to those modern educational critics who yield too readily to nostalgia for good old days that apparently were never too good. ?The educational writing that has been left to us by men whose names command our respect is to a remarkale degree a literature of acid criticism and bitter complaint…there is a constant undercurrent of something close to despair.

Hofstadter then goes on to quote such literature and, outside of now obscure language use, I defy you or anyone to differentiate many criticisms from the 1800s and from the present. It’s quite staggering, really. As Hofstadter points out, this is understandable. We care about public education and have always had great hopes for it. And anyone wishing to improve a thing will be voicing complaints. And educating one child is no simply task, philosophically or in practice. A whole class of 30, yikes. An entire local, state or national system, verging on the impossible.

And then, there is the empirical data we do have on school systems elsewhere, eg Denmark. It is enormously complex as an issue. And given that my two brothers were, before retiring, educators/administrators in the BC system, I steer away from education discussions because my life has been full to overflowing with the thing. Hell, I’d rather talk about neolithic pottery shards from Anatolia.

The reason I responded to that tweet was to attempt some curb on the common notion, often poorly supported, that our schools are in some new crisis with easily identified causes and equally facile solutions. You may well not be guilty of either of those two things but your tweet, by itself, might be indicted for suggesting such. You know, if I was like a shoot from hip liberal sort.



One thought on “Bernie on Education and ‘Anti-Intellectualism in American Life’”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Bernie.

    I think the heart of my thesis isn’t as much the “good old days” as it is the conversations I have with people in person and on the internet. They have no idea, for instance, why the U.S. has a (very brief, plainly written) written constitution. Or why it’s important to learn how to decode language—whether contemporary or 18th Century—in order to tease out concrete meaning.

    In other words, my contention is based on the difficulties I encounter trying to work out logical disagreements in the political realm.


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