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The Book I Wish He’d Written

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I keep telling myself that there has to be a reason–other than the bleeding obvious–that every time I try to click on the link in my bookmarks to access the add a new post section on the blog, I end up clicking on the one that says “Living in the moment on the Island of Oahu.”

And yes, that’s exactly how the capitalization goes.

It’s not my fault.  Go complain to the Hawaii tourism people.

Anyway, you probably remember from a few posts back that I was reading a book called The Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War by Perry Miller.

I’ve been meaning to say something about this for days now, and I’ve been circling around it like my cats circle birds.

Perry Miller is a writer I’d recommend to anybody who wants to know how America got to be the way it is.  He’s a better writer and a better thinker than most of the more modern writers on American intellectual history, and he still manages to hit all the things I think about as if he’d been living in my own head.

Okay, that’s a recommendation for why I should read the stuff, not you, but you know what I mean.

Or maybe not.

There are some complicated things going on with this book, though, so before I get to the point, let me outline them.

The most important one is the fact that the book was never finished. 

Miller was in the middle of writing it when he died, and his students and widow put together what he had–a completed first two sections and a partially completed third, plus the outline for the next six chapters of that third, plus the general outline of what were supposed to be nine complete sections.

In other words, this was going to be an immense book, much like his two volume intellectual history of New England, and what we have instead is an incredibly interesting but truncated fragment.

Granted, it’s longer and more comprehensive as a fragment than most people’s books are finished.  Miller seems to have been an incredibly methodical writer, finishing each section before going on to the next, moving from point to point and year to year like–well, I don’t know what it’s like.  Something to do with engineering, rather than something having to do with prose.

The book traces what Miller saw as two separate and largely antagonistic approaches to knowledge–to education, yes, but also to knowledge itself, to what kind of investigations into the natural world are good and right and proper, to–

Hell.  When I put it that way it sounds both dull and theoretical. 

But there really isn’t anything theoretical about what he’s talking about here.

The issue he’s discussing is, to a large extent, the same one now animating the animosity between Republicans and Democrats, between the Tea Party and the Progressives, between the coasts and the “heartland.”

It is the antagonism between people who think that knowledge is good in itself and should be pursued for its own sake and those who feel that knowledge is worthless unless it has some “practical” application.

It is the antagonism between people who are perceived as “intellectuals” and people who define themselves as “just plain folks.”

It is the difference between the real equality possible as “equality under the law” and the kind that insists that equality can only mean that we are all equal in fact in every way, and any assertion of superiority or inferiority (especially of intelligence) can never be anything more than a sneak attack on democracy, an attempt to restore aristocracy and to keep the (masses, people, pick your side of the political spectrum) down.

And what hit me in the face while I was finishing this up was a phrase from the long outline of what would have been the next six chapters of part three:

“…that there does exist in the country a deep, angry, sullen hatred of the concept of intellect maintained by the advocates of pure, unproductive science.  The democracy and the religious community both sense that it [pure, unproductive science] is their enemy.”

And now, I’m sure, everybody’s going to yell at me.

But Miller was no left wing kook.  He didn’t sit in his office sneering at dumb hicks. He was looking back on a century and a half of American life, on the growth of the country and its institutions, on strands of American thought that ranged from the Puritan to the utilitarian to the abolitionist to the Revivals.

And he recognized there, as he recognized in his own time and as I recognize in mine, “a deep, angry, sullen hatred” of the idea of learning for its own sake.

I will say here what I’ve said before–that this attitude does not seem particularly “left” or “right.”  There’s a lot of it in people the press quotes as being part of the Tea Party, but there’s a TON of it in the kind of public school teacher and administrator who wants to cancel Honors Night because it’s “too exclusive.”

Its existence has been noted–and identified as a hatred of mind and not just of a particular kind of taste or attitude– by liberals like William A. Henry, conservatives like William F. Buckley, and anarchic liberatarians like Ayn Rand.

In fact, the hatred of mind, and of intelligence, is one of Ayn Rand’s favorite themes. 

In other words, if I’m crazy, I seem to have a lot of company.

FWIW, it was this–the recognition of, and naming of, that deep and sullen and angry hatred of intelligence that first drew me to Ayn Rand’s work.   Atlas Shrugged is a lot of things, but it is first and foremost a passionate brief on behalf of “the men of mind.”

The only reason Rand wants an anarchically libertarian world is because she thinks it’s the one form of government in which the people with that sullen anger and hatred won’t be able to get in the way of people with great and superior minds.

Unfortunately, I find myself here, as I have with every other book I’ve come across that recognizes this phenomenon for what is is, stymied.

Miller didn’t live to finish his book. Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life turned out to be about something else.  Rand’s novel did a beautiful job of drawing the picture without actually explaining what such a thing should exist to begin with.

I’m left again with the feeling that, yes, I’m not crazy.  This thing does, in fact, exist, and it exists in quite a few people with university degrees (and LOTS of people who become elementary and high school teachers, and a good number who become university professors).

On the other hand, I still don’t understand why this exists at all, or why it is so prevalent in almost all societies.

My little Darwinian soul wants to know what the evolutionary adaptive advantage was in such an attitude. 

There has to be something going on around here, and it can’t be the “I met lots of teachers who looked down on me thing,” because THOSE teachers are the ones, above, who have this attitude in spades.


Written by janeh

June 14th, 2014 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'The Book I Wish He’d Written'

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  1. It begins in childhood, Jane, as we try to define ourselves as part of a group separate from our family. It begins with accusations of “teacher’s pet” and “brainiac,” accompanying all those other terms that set one child apart from the approved group dynamic. It’s the attempt to level ALL appearance and behavior so that the *group* can function as smoothly as possible.

    The group was, back in the days of genetic winnowing, the survival unit. For a long time, our groups consisted of extended family, then they expanded to community as a whole.

    You’d think, wouldn’t you, that innovative and superior thinking would be valued as survival mechanisms in themselves, but the group doesn’t operate that way. Most often, in the social groupings we’re talking about (not groups that come together for the specific purpose of encouraging innovation) the outliers disrupt group functioning, challenge group leaders, and make the average member vaguely uneasy by holding up an alternative behavior for consideration.

    Innovation comes from the loner, the outlier. Groups adopt innovation after it has been proven by the risk-takers to be survival positive. In the meantime, though, first-graders are still ostracizing classmates with “you think you’re so smart!”

    Kinda pathetic that so much of our society is no more socially advanced than six-year-olds, huh?


    14 Jun 14 at 12:21 pm

  2. You need the interplay between the group and the risk-takers to reduce the chances of either extreme – worthless or dangerous innovations, or traditional approaches that are now worthless or dangerous.

    And if the group shouldn’t mock the `brainiacs`, neither should the intellectuals mock the proles for being too stupid to have an opinion on the new ideas. Surely we`ve all met non-intellectuals who function quite well, and intellectuals who come up with really terrible innovations. Or worse, innovations that aren`t new, but that they are still convinced will work this time.


    14 Jun 14 at 2:56 pm

  3. Many things are involved. Does an individual dislike high intelligence? Abstract knowledge? Or some linked trait? The Blog post seems to be using high intelligence, The Mind and science without practical application as one thing. They are not, or not necessarily.

    Please note first that we are NONE of us trustworthy in discussing the motives of our attackers. We can’t tell what they’re thinking, and we’d all rather be attacked for those things we’re proud of than those of which we are ashamed. No one’s ever going to say “he belted me because I’m an officious little twerp who made his life miserable” when he can possibly say “he hates me because I’m smarter than he is.”

    There is in a genetic sense, a perfectly good argument for kicking everyone with a higher IQ than mine out of the gene pool—and all the more attractive ones, too. After all, I’m trying to replicate MY DNA. If I find a beautiful member of the opposite sex, my best genetic strategy is to have sex with her, making my offspring more attractive. But a beautiful member of my sex not only competes with me for said beautiful woman, he’s going to produce more attractive children to compete with mine. I HAVE to kill or disfigure him: I’m doing it for the children. The same basic argument applies if the high IQ helps him to bed more women—and if it doesn’t, we ought to have stopped evolving no later than Home Habilis. The counter argument is that the brainy one, by inventing fire or the wheel, is going to help me have more descendants too—but both arguments are valid. It has to be decided case by case, I think. I can’t come up with a good male genetic argument for letting a heterosexual Rock Hudson survive: presumably the women protect such a one. This argument on the basis of intelligence would be true, presumably, for everyone high enough on the evolutionary scale to recognize the threat posed by competition, so it’s not specifically American.

    There is not, I think, a genetic case for disliking the pursuit of abstract knowledge—but depending on how the term is used, there can be a pretty good social case. Some of what we call “abstract”—understanding the physical sciences or the habits of government—is intensely practical in the right time and place. Other bits—which of two statues or two books is the more aesthetically pleasing, for example—scarcely even has meaning, which is why I try not to use the term.

    My people—German-Americans—used to have what we called “Latin farmers”—people who had failed their practicum in Central European Politics and wound up practicing agriculture in North America. They could conjugate irregular verbs in three or four languages but couldn’t keep the cattle out of the corn or build a roof which wouldn’t leak. (Their sons, of necessity, were often quite good at these things. One thinks of Daniel Buehne—or Boone, as he is better remembered.) They didn’t face lynch mobs, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t get the respect from the community they felt was their due.

    But there is a stronger case. If your community is in urgent need of a better-designed stockade or an efficient water mill and the cleverest fellow in the village would rather study Astronomy while his fellows are massacred or starved—well, shirking might be the polite term. No one loves a man who won’t hold up his end—though there are places you have to take you hat off to such.

    Which bring us to the third aspect—“impractical” education as class marker. (Jane, you’re no use here: a degree in the humanities is either practical or not depending on the point you’re making in a particular argument.) A young person can learn Classical Greek for the sheer love of the language, to hear Aristotle and Xenophon in their own words—or to be able to insult yokels in a way they can’t even understand. But unless it’s being done to further a career—the ministry, say, politics or teaching—it’s the equivalent of those eight-inch fingernails on Chinese mandarins. It’s proof that they’re above having to fit themselves for a job. I’m with William of Occam here. There is no need to introduce hatred of The Mind (of The Life of the Mind) when envy and class resentment explain things nicely.

    Miller started teaching at Harvard in 1931. Some of his students were brilliant. I’ve read some of their work. The majority were the children, grand-children or great-grandchildren of wealth and privilege. And by the time he died, the last of them had given up on the idea that this entailed some obligation to the community.

    There are lots of reasons to hate the wealthy and connected products of a handful of schools as they enrich one another at our expense which have nothing to do with their intelligence. And it’s a good thing, too—because mostly they aren’t all that bright.

    So back to where I started. It is entirely possible to be disliked for being intelligent–or for being swift, or strong or beautiful. Envy is deep in our DNA. It is also possible to be disliked for reasons we’d be a bit more reluctant to own up to. On balance, (a) I’d try to avoid generalizations on the “they” hate “us” level until I was forced into them, and (b) I’d make sure none of the less savory explanations applied before I started claiming people hated me for being brilliant.

    Oh, and Lymaree? I don’t care how smart he is, the first person to break up the unity of the warband gets tossed out of the tribe. He won’t be as bright as Socrates who carried his own spear in the phalanx—not because he always agreed with his fellow-citizens, but because he knew what happened to the polis when the phalanx’s ranks were disordered. There is a serious difference between being smart and being a smart aleck.


    14 Jun 14 at 5:10 pm

  4. But what explains the difference between the coast states and the heartland?


    15 Jun 14 at 4:16 am

  5. jd, not quite, which may help. Conservatives do nicely on the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic coast south of DC. But from DC north to the Boston suburbs, inland to the Philadelphia suburbs and along what’s called the “Northern Tier”–Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota–you get serious votes for a more European-style government. Along the Pacific Coast, you get votes for something a little wackier than even the Euro elites would put up with. Cities–even inland ones–usually vote for more government and less freedom than rural and suburban areas, and that’s part of it. I think that David Hackett Fisher is right in attributing much of the New England attitude to patterns set in colonial times, reinforced in the Northern Tier by Scandinavian immigrants. The Pacific Coast may be where the native American utopians finally ran out of frontier and settled.

    But usually the difference applies to politics and culture. In response to intelligence, I’m not sure there’s a difference. In response to education, some of the progressives’ favorite schools are despised in conservative country precisely because they’re the training academies of our enemies. The Gores, Obamas and Kerrys would love to confuse contempt for Harvard and Columbia with hatred of intelligence, but no one who’s had to live under their rule is going to confuse “educated in a prestigious school” with “highly intelligent.”


    15 Jun 14 at 6:47 am

  6. a few random thoughts.

    The distinction between intellectuals and other people goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle.
    And is echoed in the snobbish beliefs of old money versus new money and Gentlemen do not engage in trade.

    Could the city versus rural difference be based on remoteness from nature? If you have lived in a large city all your life and your parents also grew up in a city, then it may be easy to think that food comes from a supermarket.


    15 Jun 14 at 10:16 pm

  7. Or that “global warming” is catastrophically anthropogenic.


    15 Jun 14 at 10:59 pm

  8. There’s a lot of interesting things written about the development of ideas about nature in the west, although I haven’t read all that much about them. Basically, agriculturalists tended to be suspicious or a bit fearful about the dangerous forests. This was exacerbated when people migrated to ‘untamed wilderness’ and talked a lot about taming it. After all, they couldn’t support themselves by hunting and gathering – not the numbers of people they had, and not if they wanted to develop an economy that would provide all the comforts of modern life. Meanwhile, more urban types started to develop a very romantic view of the wilderness, complete with Noble Savages, and the descendants of those views are alive and well today.

    About all I can recall from a long ago course on Canadian literature is that if winter is mentioned, it’s probably a symbol of nature and death and destruction.

    And that Maria Chapdelaine has to be the most boring and uninspiring heroine in all of literature, in any language – possible because she was apparently created as the perfect type of female in the perfect type of society – a rural farm.


    16 Jun 14 at 7:17 am

  9. I think the anger may be due to the circumstances which allow some people the luxury of pursuing “pure, unproductive science” without worrying about where the next meal is coming from. Class resentment of a sort. Some people do manage to have it all and make a living whilst gathering “useless” knowledge. But it’s pretty rare.

    Susan Nash

    19 Jun 14 at 12:07 pm

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