RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

What's Wrong with Intellectuals?


My neighbor went to a fancy dinner in St. Louis, a retirement banquet for a prominent academic, and it was quite the deal. After describing the food and clothes, the surroundings and the music, she noted that, despite the festive occasion, everyone was worried -- "Because," she said, "the world is getting so anti-intellectual."


I've been worried about the anti-intellectuals ever since I read Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, which is chock full of angst about them.

Once someone called me an intellectual. Who could be against me?

I asked what she meant by anti-intellectual and she said, You know, people who didn't like to use their heads. She hadn't thought about it as deeply as Richard Hofstadter, who got the Pulitzer for Anti-intellectualism in American Life in 1964.

Hofstadter said that anti-intellectualism, or dislike of "eggheads," was marked by acceptance of evangelical, fundamentalist religion, trust in the manufactured corporate culture and egalitarianism. Hofstadter suggested that America went wrong from the first Jeffersonian moment, the moment when we embraced the noble yeoman and rejected philosophy and high culture in favor of folk wisdom.

Googling "anti-intellectual" gives you a few other definitions. "Anti-education" and "anti-culture." Favoring the practical instead of the philosophical. I tried to make a list: "You know you're anti-intellectual when you cancel your subscription to Harper's, which celebrates the New York literati, and extend the subscription on the local newspaper, which only covers local births, deaths and marriages."

Or how about: "You know you're anti-intellectual when you stop jawing about hunger and start a community garden."

My list was going nowhere, so I decided, rather than writing about it, I would become anti-intellectual. For a month last summer, I gave up NPR and stopped reading the major cultural arbiters -- brightly priggish The New Yorker and paternalistically hip Rolling Stone -- and I vowed that for a month I would become a woman of action rather than thought.

I would be useful rather than intellectual.

I would start by solving my own problems -- the wallpaper hanging off the bedroom wall and the hole in the kitchen floor. I had in my intellectual way ignored them for years. So I would repair them, and work on a garden watering system to keep ahead of the worst drought since 1988. I figured I could give up culture more easily than the intellectuals can give up food.

But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't give up my brain. I wondered who made the skirt I cut up for curtains. And who made the tiles I used on the kitchen floor? Were the factories still in business? Were the people still employed? Did the management leave polluted ground water or did they pick up after themselves?

The water system turned into an archaeology project as we rediscovered an underground system of cisterns that had been built in the 1920s and rebuilt in the 1950s. This network, which captured rain water from building gutters and gullies, kept more than 20 feet of water in the main cistern when we hadn't seen rain for two months.

The folks who put in the system drew from knowledge as old as the first irrigation a thousand years ago. Greek knowledge, Egyptian knowledge. Unburdened by the rift between intellectuals and regular people, they just used folk wisdom to build a system to save rain water for dry times.

The true anti-intellectual, I realized as I worked, is a mythological creature. Making curtains, fixing a floor, figuring out a water system -- all intellectual activities. I hope that, in the same way, the true intellectual is as phony as the unicorn. Or maybe they're the people that figure out evacuation plans that leave out half a population or farm subsidy plans that don't pay for vegetables.

The grand experiment over, I turned NPR back on and read what I had missed when working on the house. And then I discovered what I will call "the magnificent illusion." That is, the very arbiters of culture are just as anti-intellectual as James Kennedy's "Save a Marriage, Save a Nation" Coral Ridge Church.

The New Yorker, for example, sells most of its ad space to corporate culture. In one summer issue, the red bull's-eye logo appears repeatedly, with a column of thank yous in the back as homage to the artists that produced this great art event.

NPR is sponsored by Wal-Mart. PBS takes money from Monsanto.

As The Baffler might opine, intellectuals are commodified. The question, really, is, "Who co-opted whom?"

The answer: Those who build careers on the illusion of a great divide are only seeking to greatly divide themselves from us.

Them on top, us underneath, in the usual way.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Jan. 1-15, 2006

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