Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Hofstadter on Horowitz

Of course, Richard Hofstadter has been dead for more than thirty-five years, but his book Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963) can still shed light on David Horowitz and his campaign against American university professors, who he posits as an army (60,000 strong) laying waste to American culture and values. Oddly enough, Horowitz may have once been a student of Hofstadter at Columbia—but we can only imagine what the ex-Communist Hofstadter would have thought of the then red firebrand Horowitz, or what he would make of him now as over-zealous convert to the right.

I am not the only one to make the connection between Horowitz and his current campaign and the subject of the Hofstadter book. Neil Gross, writing in The Boston Globe uses Hofstadter to show that Horowitz’s campaign is nothing new:

Critiques of this sort have a familiar ring. In his 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the historian Richard Hofstadter observed that the tendency to denigrate those who spend their lives in ivory towers is a persistent feature of American culture. The phenomenon owed its strength, in his view, to the evangelical Protestantism and pro-business spirit that had helped define our nation almost from the beginning.

Gary Hess also makes the connection, as have others. Michael Berube, one of Horowitz’s main targets, is sometimes described (not surprisingly) as an intellectual heir of Hofstadter.

Certain comments of Hofstadter’s certainly do shed light on Horowitz. Because of that, for as much as possible, I am going to let them speak for themselves.

Horowitz is no dummy (see below); he plays on a long-standing American mistrust of education, plays on it for his own agenda, an attempt to bring the universities more firmly under legislative control (on the assumption that the right—or the center/right—will generally be in control of American legislative bodies). This mistrust goes back to a period when good teachers were hard to find, but Americans, not particularly rich at that point and thirsting for education, grabbed at whomever they could convince to “educate” them:

American communities had found it hard to find, train, or pay for good teachers. They settled for what they could get, and what they got was a high proportion of misfits and incompetents. They tended to conclude that teaching was a trade which attracted rascals, and, having so concluded, they were reluctant to pay the rascals more than they were worth. (316)

This attitude resonates today, not only in the relatively poor pay for educators, but in feelings toward the profession generally, making it all that much more easy for Horowitz to convince people that there is, indeed, something horribly wrong in our universities. His scare tactics also play on one of the central facts about teachers:

At any level,[…] from the primary grades to the university, the teacher is not merely an instructor but a potential personal model for his (or her) pupils and a living clue to the attitudes that prevail in the adult world. From teachers children derive much of their sense of the way in which the mind is cultivated; from observing how their teachers are esteemed and rewarded they quickly sense how society looks upon the teacher’s role. (310)

As all Americans have had exposure to our educational systems, we all know the truth of this, and the power that educators can have. Horowitz plays on that, scaring people by claiming that this vast group of leftist professors is trying to indoctrinate impressionable youth.

Bright and manipulative, Horowitz recognizes the weaknesses in American assumptions, and plays on them:

The American mind seems extremely vulnerable to the belief that any alleged knowledge which can be expressed in figures is in fact as final and exact as the figures in which it is expressed. (339)

Horowitz knows this, and likes to throw numbers and dates into his work, as though they settle arguments. What Horowitz doesn’t get at all is the basis for the American model of education, one that stems directly from the vision and work of John Dewey. Hofstadter describes the ideal result:

And what would be the characteristics of the democratic school community? The teacher, of course, would no longer be a harsh authority imposing external goals through rigid methods. He would be alert to the spontaneous and natural impulses of the children and would take hold of those that led toward constructive ends, giving gentle direction when necessary. The pupils themselves would take an active part in formulating the purposes of their education and in planning its execution. Learning would not be individual or passive, but collective and active; and in the course of their work the students would learn to share ideas and experiences, would develop mutual consideration and respect, and would acquire a capacity for co-operation. (380)

To a mind like Horowitz’s, schooled in an authoritative, Stalinist tradition and now adherent to a right-wing model no less hierarchical, this model of Dewey’s makes no sense at all. It is unbelievable to him that people could operate honestly to bring about such a learning experience; there must be a hidden agenda, an attempt to indoctrinate, involved.

Speaking of Horowitz’s mind, there’s a passage at the beginning of the Hofstadter book that seems to have described it perfectly:

Although the difference between the qualities of intelligence and intellect is more often assumed than defined, the context of popular usage makes it possible to extract the nub of the distinction, which seems to be almost universally understood: intelligence is an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, and predictable range; it is a manipulative, adjustive, unfailingly practical quality—one of the most eminent and endearing of the animal virtues. Intelligence works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals, and may be quick to shear away questions of thought that do not seem to help in reaching them. Finally, it is of such universal use that it can daily be seen at work and admired alike by simple or complex minds.

Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind. Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines. Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole. Intelligence can be praised as a quality in animals; intellect, being a unique manifestation of human dignity, is both praised and assailed as a quality in men. When the difference is so defined, it becomes easier to understand why we sometimes say that a mind of admittedly penetrating intelligence is relatively unintellectual; and why, by the same token, we see among minds that are unmistakably intellectual a considerable range of intelligence. (24-25)

Part of the reason Horowitz hates the universities so much is that, though teeming with intelligence, he has small intellect.

1 comment:

Tom Hilton said...

Excellent post. As usual, you have Horowitz dead to rights.

You might be interested in this Hofstadter quote (which I posted this morning), which I found eerily descriptive of Horowitz:

"In contemporary right-wing movements a particularly important part has been played by ex-Communists who have moved rapidly, though not without anguish, from the paranoid left to the paranoid right, clinging all the while to the fundamentally Manichean psychology that underlies both. Some authorities on communism remind one of those ancient converts from paganism to Christianity of whom it is told that on their conversion they did not entirely cease to believe in their old gods but converted them into demons."