It is quite clear that anti-intellectualism is widespread in America. Some argue that America has always been rather anti-intellectual, but I am not sure that is true. Americans, I think, have always disliked arrogance and being talked down to. They hate being told what to think and how to think. But that isn’t necessarily anti-intellectualism. I think the current rise in anti-intellectualism has more to do with the change in what it means to be an intellectual in America, especially in main stream culture.
What does it mean in America today to be an intellectual? This is not a silly question because that is not a clearly defined or understood term. (Like so many other words, we throw it around as if there is one clear meaning that we all know.) It used to mean simply someone who was intelligent and often implied that they were well educated and well read. Today the meaning seems much narrower, especially when we talk about anti-intellectualism.
To be an intellectual today often means to be scientific. Let's face it, everything today tries or claims to be a science or scientific. When we judge how true, important or reliable something is, we want to know how scientific it is. Science is the measure of truth and reliability. When someone is an intellectual, they should be truthful, have important information and that information needs to be reliable, so they need to be scientific. Economics strives to be scientific and is based more and more on data and math, less and less on theory and ideas. Psychology relies more and more on data and clinical trials, less on the individual and the practitioner. (I think that a result of this is the greater and greater reliance on medication as opposed to the work done between the patient and practitioner.) Even some branches of art and literary criticism/ studies are trying to become more scientific: data driven and objective.
Here it is necessary for me to clarify what I mean by science. This will necessitate me contrasting science with scientism. Science is a method of inquiry used to understand the physical world. It is primarily descriptive and aims to tell us what is there and how it works. It relies on repeatable events, and thus more and more on numerical data, and uses data to formulate and support theories that account for the majority of the events and factors. It has its own set of assumptions and rules: the understandability (or even logical nature) of the physical world, it limits itself to the physical world, etc. It also relies on a tradition and authority of its own that needs to be respected. This is a very valid and useful human pursuit. This is what I will refer to as legitimate science, or simply science.
Science turns to scientism when it does any or several of the following: goes beyond talking about the physical world (usually to categorically deny that anything out side of the physical exists), tries to be prescriptive, thinks that it can answer questions of meaning and significance (or insists that they be ignored because they are not scientific and therefore not important), denies its own assumptions, thinks its own rules ought to apply to every human pursuit (or any pursuit of truth or knowledge), or denies that it has its own tradition and hierarchy of authority and as a result claims that tradition and hierarchy of all types need to be dismantled or disrespected. In short, scientism is when the very legitimate discipline of science over steps its bounds or misrepresents itself. Often it is a case of non-scientists misunderstanding what science actually is.
Science is therefore about how things are, and what is happening, all of this in the physical world. In contrast, theology (and its practice in the everyday world, which we call religion), philosophy and the arts are about why and what for: meaning and value. For lack of a better blanket term, I will simply call these the humanities. These are not at all limited to the physical world and not limited to questions of what and how. In fact, they are more focused on the world of ideas and questions of meaning, significance and value.
Another distinction between science and the humanities is the difference between descriptive pursuits and prescriptive ones. Science is by and large limited to being descriptive; its aim is to accurately describe the world and how it works. Though the humanities often start with description of what is as a foundation, they primarily are prescriptive. They talk about what things could be or should be, or how they should be understood or valued.
Science is descriptive like a photograph or diagram in an instruction manual. It gives a detailed account of what is and what is happening. Sometimes, based on that, it talks about how we can manipulate or use these things, but really that is more technology than pure science.
The humanities are prescriptive in that they tell us about meaning and value: how we should see and act towards things and people. The word mythology fits well here, but I hesitate to use it because of its negative connotations. Myths are stories that are not literally true but that contain truth. (In a world where science is seen as the measure of truth, a world where scientism pervades, something not being literally true is taken to mean that it is false and therefore unimportant.) Meaning and values are not things that are in the world itself. They are things we create or things that are revealed to us, if you believe in a higher power or something transcendent. Myths tell us about those things in a way that resonates with us.
What is often referred to as science in the main stream is too often scientism. One of the results of this is that the humanities are either colonized by scientific ideas and methods, or they are discredited and mocked. This is especially true in the case of religion. Of course religion and theology should yield to science when it comes to understanding the what and how of the physical world, but at the same time science should not insists that the religious approach and religious conceptions be totally abandoned. Religion and science deal with two different things that are closely connected but different. The humanities should not be trying to explain the what and how in a descriptive way; they should and usually do look at it in a way that is prescriptive and looks for meaning and value. At the same time science should not be trying to explain or dismiss questions of meaning and value because the pursuit of them is not scientific.
The humanities should yield to science in areas where science is the more appropriate method of inquiry and scientific research is more developed. This is seen as common sense for many. What is less common is the opposite: that science needs to yield to the humanities in certain spheres. Yet, that is just as true.
The borders between science and humanities will never be totally clear and there will always be some tension and even conflict. This is natural. Legitimate science ought to acknowledge this and respect the purpose and methods of the humanities, even religion and theology. A failure to do this is a slip into scientism which is really a form of scientific fundamentalism. The opposite needs to be the case as well: the humanities need to respect legitimate science. To not do so is a slip into any number of forms of fundamentalism which we see all too often today and rightly condemn. However, it is important to condemn them as that discipline overstepping its boundaries, not of the discipline as a whole. But the latter is often what happens.
When intellectualism is really scientism, then it is perfectly understandable that anti-intellectualism increases. Some people are more scientific minded, they want descriptive truths that deal with what and how. Others are more humanities minded and want truths that are mostly prescriptive and that deal more with meaning and significance. Both are necessary for a sustainable civilization or culture.
Yes, anti-intellectualism is a problem, especially in a democracy. However, when intellectualism becomes scientism there does need to be resistance and a fight against it. That is why I do sympathize with anti-intellectualism as a response to an intellectualism that is largely anti-humanities and anti-religious, a hostile form of scientism. The problem is that that response is merely reactionary and just as myopic as the scientism it is trying to counter. Science is not going to be put in check and scientism rooted out by a movement that is anti-scientific and anti-authority. That just feeds the animosity and makes the situation worse.
The Root of All Evil
Being at one is godlike and good,
but human, too human, the mania
Which insists there is only the One,
one country, one truth and one way.
-- Friedrich Holderlin