In defense of the faculty lounge

Why, then, this urge to attack both university faculties and the lounges where they gather for coffee and argument? One answer was offered half a century ago by Richard Hofstadter in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” The disdain for the highly educated, he points out, stems from the supposition that the dominance of the intellectual is undemocratic.

This concern is as old as the U.S. It was present in the age of the Founders, who were seen as part of a “patrician elite” that oppressed the common man. Those fears flamed into the movement of Jacksonian Democracy, which burned across the young nation in the first half of the 19th century. Among its legacies is the requirement in many states that judges face the voters.

Conservatives tend to dislike Hofstadter, whose contempt for those whose politics differed from his own was legendary. But on this point — that the public distrusts elites — he is correct. Consider the case of Abraham Lincoln who, although fiercely intelligent, lacked formal education. In part because of this, Republican Party leaders viewed Lincoln with skepticism, but as biographer David Herbert Donald points out, Lincoln’s handlers intentionally packaged their candidate as the self-made rail-splitter to enhance his appeal to voters who were suspicious of elites.