The Consequences of Democratizing Knowledge: Reconsidering Richard Hofstadter and the History of Education

IN HIS PULITZER PRIZE WINNING WORK, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter set out to trace the social movements that altered the role of intellect in our society from a virtue to a vice. In so doing, he explored questions regarding the purpose of education and whether the democratization of education altered that purpose and reshaped its form. In considering the historic tension between access to education and excellence in education, Hofstadter argued that both anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism were consequences, in part, of the democratization of knowledge. Moreover, he saw these themes as historically embedded in America’s national fabric, an outcome of her colonial European and evangelical Protestant heritage. Anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism were functions of our American cultural heritage, not necessarily of democracy. Hofstadter came to recognize the connection between utilitarianism and anti-intellectualism as his work in the history of education evolved. His initial concern with the role of the university and the intellectual in society developed into a powerful critique of the present purpose of education and the state of public education in the United States.

The role of the intellectual in society and of anti-intellectualism in American culture are not burning issues at present. In fact, Americans simultaneously embrace and belittle intellectuals today. The country seemed quite comfortable with the Rhodes scholar president they identified with as “Bubba.” In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore was both mocked and applauded for the depth and manner of his oratory while George W. Bush was both ridiculed and embraced for his unsophisticated vocabulary. Neither Gore nor Bush claimed to be an intellectual, rather they both chose to downplay their elite educations and to identify with the middle class. Yet each candidate claimed that he was the most qualified to lead, in part, because he was an innovative and creative thinker who understood the problems of the working and middle classes and wanted to solve them. Since the children of the middling classes populate the public schools, a great deal of the campaign rhetoric focused on education and the tension between access and excellence. Not surprisingly, in their acceptance speeches and on their websites both candidates advocated excellence and access. George W. Bush sought excellence through annual testing in reading and math in grades 3-8 and access to better schools through federal aid to parents of children in failing schools. Al Gore promised to increase the number of qualified teachers in the classroom, reduce class size, and end social promotion while making “the first two years of college virtually free for every American.”[1] Both Bush and Gore emphasized the link between education and the economy much more strongly than that between education and citizenship or individual growth. More important, while both Bush and Gore advocated access and excellence, neither considered the dynamics or compatibility of these goals nor discussed the full purpose of education. It is precisely because Hofstadter’s criticisms of the American educational tradition were so prophetic regarding the dynamics and purposes of education that we should revisit them now. It is also because we do not remember Hofstadter’s contributions to the history of education that I would like to reconsider them here.

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In contemplating Hofstadter’s contributions to educational history, one must consider his legacy within the field of history as a whole. One of the more intriguing aspects of this legacy has been the controversy surrounding his place in American historiography. The debate has revolved around his relationship with the earlier “Progressive” historians—Beard, Robinson, Patterson, and Curti—and how much Hofstadter actually differed from those who so clearly influenced him. In 1959, John Higham spearheaded the debate by placing Hofstadter in what was termed the “Consensus” school. According to Daniel Singal, Higham based his judgment of Hofstadter on The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, in which Hofstadter proclaimed “the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophies of economic individualism, the value of competition. They have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man.” Thus, his break was clear from the “Progressive” school, which emphasized the constant, age-old struggle between democrats and capitalists, rich and poor.[2]

A competing school of thought emerged in the following decade when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. proposed that, while Hofstadter recognized a “bourgeois capitalist consensus” in America, he “perceived the consensus from a radical perspective, from the outside, and deplored it.” Followers of the Schlesinger position denounced rival historians’ identification of Hofstadter with a school of thought that portrayed America as “a happy land, adventurous in manner but conservative in substance, and—above all—remarkably homogeneous.” They argued that The American Political Tradition was “actually critical in tone—an expose—and retain[ed] certain categories of Progressive-Marxist scholarship.”[3]

Proposing that Hofstadter’s course was in fact a “zigzag” between the consensus and post-consensus schools, Singal sought to find Hofstadter’s “real significance” through the focus of his “lifelong quest to comprehend the relationship between politics and ideas in America.” Singal identified Hofstadter with the post-consensus historians, those who denounced dualistic analysis in the name of complexity, who emphasized the irrational and “animalistic impulses” of human nature, and who saw all knowledge and moral judgments as tentative. Singal viewed the early Hofstadter as an opponent of consensus, but gravitating towards the characteristics of that school as his career proceeded. Yet, Singal recognized that as Hofstadter came to share some of the consensus assumptions, he was also moving in a direction that was “breaking a path for the post-consensus historians whose concern was ideological change.”[4]

Though the debate focused primarily on his political works, one cannot divorce Hofstadter’s thoughts, attitudes, and perceptions of politics from his thoughts, attitudes, and perceptions of education. Consequently, much of his work on education, particularly Anti-intellectualism in American Life, was subject to charges of anachronism, and of creating “an elitist myth of the American past that might somehow serve as a lifeline to beleaguered intellectuals in a scary present.”[5] Taken as a whole, Hofstadter’s work in education fits best into Singal’s “zig-zag” school, where his earlier works resemble the consensus model and his later works suggests the concern with ideological change that marks post-consensus history. Nowhere did Hofstadter argue against the democratization of education. However, he did illuminate the dichotomy between access and excellence and suggest that we could have chosen in our public schools to nourish intellect, the playfulness of the mind, rather than intelligence, the sharpness of the mind.

Nevertheless, Hofstadter placed tremendous faith in the powers of education, especially the university. To him, the university was the “intellectual and spiritual balance wheel” of modern civilized society—the only institution committed to the values of inquiry, integrity, discussion, rationality, and freedom. He described universities as “citadels of intellectual individualism,” communities devoted to research and criticism, governed by the ideal of academic freedom. “The very possibility of civilized human discourse rests upon the willingness of people to consider that they may be mistaken…the possibility of the modern free university rests upon the willingness of society to support and sustain the institutions part of whose business it is to examine, critically and without stint, the assumptions which prevail in that society.”[6] It was from this perspective, then, that Hofstadter wrote his educational histories during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, in the heat and the immediate aftermath of McCarthyism.

Hofstadter once said that “a sense of engagement with contemporary problems” was the catalyst to his becoming an historian.[7] That sense of engagement was clearly evident in his four major works on education: The Development and Scope of Higher Education, The Development of Academic Freedom in America, American Higher Education: A Documentary History, and Anti-intellectualism in American Life.[8] In each work, Hofstadter viewed limits to academic freedom and the tradition of anti-intellectualism in America as two very serious “contemporary problems.” Moreover, each work emphasized the importance of education to the health and development of society as it analyzed the problems created by the democratization of education. While Hofstadter’s argument regarding the relationship between the school and society was in keeping with the political rhetoric of the Progressive historians of his day, his view that the democratization of knowledge was leading to utilitarianism and vocationalism in education directly challenged Progressive notions of the inherent value of universal education.

Hofstadter’s interest in the formation of America’s defining ideas and the consequences of the democratization of knowledge grew with his work in educational history. His first book on the history of education focused on the university. The Development and Scope of Higher Education, written in 1952 with C. DeWitt Hardy, was the outcome of a research project of the Commission on Financing Higher Education. In exploring the relationship of the university to society, Hofstadter illuminated a “widespread ignorance of what higher education is, of how it developed, and of what it tries to do.” He argued that Americans failed to conceptualize higher education in terms of its reciprocal relationship with society; that they did not recognize what higher education “has meant to American society and what American society has done for it.” The Development and Scope of Higher Education critically analyzed the inherent philistine, vocational, and utilitarian intentions in American higher education. Here Hofstadter first illustrated the powerful influence of utilitarianism in defining and directing higher education away from the liberal arts and the pursuit of truth.

The influence of utilitarianism continued to be a theme Hofstadter explored as his interests in education intensified during the heat of the McCarthy era. In fact, Columbia University’s American Academic Freedom Project commissioned Hofstadter and Walter Metzger to write a response to the attacks upon intellectuals and the academic community by Senator McCarthy. Recognizing the threat McCarthyism posed to intellectual pursuits, Hofstadter expressed his own “commitment to freedom,” and argued that “academic freedom is the central issue of our time.”[9] Believing that scholars worked towards the expansion of freedom, Hofstadter felt that an exploration of the nature of members of the academy and the “complex circumstances” in which they work would illustrate their civic value. The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States explored which social forces traditionally opposed academic freedom, to what degree they succeeded, and which factors in academic life and American culture (including the political, religious, and intellectual), created and sustained academic freedom. The work was divided into two distinct parts; the first, written by Hofstadter, discussed the European roots of academic freedom and the circumstances of its development in America prior to the Civil War; the second, written by Metzger, analyzed the modern and contemporary problems of academic freedom in “The Age of the University.”

While the book made numerous contributions to educational historiography, perhaps the most important came from Hofstadter’s analysis of the antebellum college. In portraying the competition for students and funding amongst the innumerable fledgling colleges founded between 1800 and 1860, Hofstadter reiterated the theme of utilitarianism and for the first time connected it to issues of anti-intellectualism, academic freedom, and the democratization of knowledge. In order to attract students and benefactors, the colleges founded during this period devoted themselves not to the acquisition of knowledge and the pursuit of truth but to the development of sound principles and moral character, the prerequisites necessary for economic success and social mobility in antebellum America. According to Hofstadter, the increase in the number of colleges during this period marked a “great retrogression in American collegiate education, a decline in freedom and the capacity for growth that universally afflicted the newer institutions and in all but a few cases damaged the older ones.”[10] Hofstadter’s analysis directly challenged the Progressive myth of the beneficial nature of the democratization of knowledge. The new Hofstadter-Metzger paradigm, that the popularization of education and the democratization of knowledge were detrimental to America’s intellectual development, set the tone of educational history for the next thirty years. Feminist and revisionist historians, such as Patricia Palmeri and David Potts, have challenged Hofstadter’s interpretation of the period, arguing that higher education in the antebellum period was resplendent with possibilities and was beneficial to the nation’s intellectual development, particularly to the nation’s women.[11]

Hofstadter’s interest in educational issues, particularly those affecting the university, had immersed him in great quantities of primary sources. It is not surprising, then, that his next work was an edition of documents. American Higher Education: A Documentary History, edited with Wilson Smith, was sponsored by the Committee on the Role of Education in American History in order to present a more accurate version of the educational past to contemporary policy makers and provide students of educational history with a much needed anthology. Through their selections and introductory prose, Hofstadter and Smith documented the influence the democratization of higher education had on the nature and purpose of the university. While a truly collaborative effort, work on the anthology expanded Hofstadter’s earlier concerns with the problems created by religious affiliations and “sectarian afflictions,” with the character and function of presidents and trustees, with the development of academic freedom, with the evolution of educational ideals and controversies over curricula, and with the role of the intellectual in the university and society.[12] Most important, it was a reflection of Hofstadter’s thoughts on the purpose and nature of higher education and of his belief that while a liberal arts education would not necessarily create an intellectual, a vocational education certainly could not.

By the time he wrote Anti-intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter had been reading, thinking, and writing about educational issues for over a decade. Written in response to the political and intellectual conditions of the 1950’s, Anti-intellectualism in American Life emerged as a grand attack on the institutions to which society historically entrusted the nurturing of intellect. Though generally perceived more as a work of social criticism than of educational history, Anti-intellectualism in American Life can also be viewed as a comprehensive work on education. Two years before Hofstadter published his book, Bernard Bailyn had called for a broader interpretation of education, one that included institutions other than schools in the development of attitudes, beliefs, and values.[13]Anti-intellectualism in American Life answered the call by exploring how the traditional values of commitment, refinement, excellence, practicality, and self-help were transmitted from one generation to the next via social, political, religious, and educational institutions. Both Bailyn and Hofstadter were interested in the social milieu and the ideas that created and influenced American culture. Hofstadter, however, was particularly interested in the forces of science, business, religion, utilitarianism, and egalitarianism. These he identified as the major causes of anti-intellectualism in society, mediocrity in the public schools, and attacks on academic freedom in the universities.

In many ways, Anti-intellectualism in American Life was a commentary on the increasing influence of Protestant evangelicalism, political egalitarianism, and the rising cult of practicality as the new criteria for assessing our private and public worlds. Hofstadter accused religion, politics, and the public schools of fostering in common people a resentment and suspicion of intellect, of the life of the mind, and of those who devote their lives to it. He charged that local evangelical preachers and small town lawyers and businessmen masked their bias against intellect with the rhetoric of morality, democracy, utility, and practicality. Thus, as the twentieth century chipped away at village culture, it was regrettable though not surprising that common folk, made suspicious of urbanity and learning by community leaders, reacted with a “righteous” vengeance to change and those who celebrated it. However, though Hofstadter deplored the anti-intellectualism of village life, “he sympathized with those whose way of life was being swept away by the rush of events” in the latter half of the twentieth century.[14] He noted the “patience and generosity” of the common American in the face of monumental change. He suggested that the animosity between intellectuals and the common people was not solely the fault of the commoner. He recognized that the life of the villager was at odds with the life of the mind. Where common folk lead hard, belabored lives, intellectuals lead elitist, leisured ones—lives that involved extensive education and time to read, think, and write. Finally, Hofstadter confessed that, intellectuals were at odds not only with their fellow Americans but, quite often, with their democratic beliefs.

Intellectuals in the twentieth century thus have found themselves engaged in incompatible efforts: they have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces. It is rare for an American intellectual to confront candidly the unresolvable conflict between the elite character of his own class and his democratic aspirations.[15]

In considering Anti-intellectualism in American Life within the context of Hofstadter’s previous works on education, it is clear that this work was the culmination and synthesis of his thoughts on education. Where his earlier works included discussions of anti-intellectualism in higher education, not until Anti-intellectualism in American Life did Hofstadter attempt to locate the root of anti-intellectualism, to fully explore its impact on society, or to consider the intricacies of the term. Defining intellect in terms of the “critical, creative, and contemplative side of the mind” that examines, ponders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines, “evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meaning of situations as a whole,” Hofstadter clearly differentiated intellect from intelligence. Intelligence he viewed as “an excellence of mind within a fairly narrow, immediate, and predictable range” that is “manipulative, adjustive, unfailingly practical” and seeks to “seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it.”[16] In these definitions Hofstadter showed his preference for intellect over intelligence, the former recognized as a “unique manifestation of human dignity” and the latter as a quality in animals as well as humans. The role of both intellect and intelligence in society interested him because he came to recognize the transmutation of intellect into intelligence not only as an historic trend but also as a destructive and dangerous form of anti-intellectualism in society. Anti-intellectualism in American Life was a history of that transmutation and an analysis of the forces that perpetuated it.

Anti-intellectualism in American Life was by far Hofstadter’s most encompassing discussion of education. For the first time he looked outside the university to consider the educational impact of the public schools and of the religious, political, social, and business communities on the minds of the people. Further, the themes of his earlier works were integrated, expanded, and developed more fully in Anti-intellectualism in American Life. The theme of utilitarianism, first discussed in The Development and Scope of Higher Education, was shown to reside not just in the university but within America’s cultural consciousness from the time of Anne Hutchinson. Hofstadter’s analysis of the challenge to academic freedom and to intellectual development by the democratization of knowledge, explored in the Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, was extended to the public schools and the curricular reforms of the twentieth century. Finally, his criticisms of the nature and purposes of higher learning, evident in American Higher Education: A Documentary History, expanded into a critique of the growing vocationalism in higher education, evident with the proliferation of business schools and the emergence of the intellectual as “expert.” Moreover, his earlier criticisms of small town life, the ordinary people living there, and the colleges founded there, first presented in The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, became a major lens for his analysis of the forces that created and perpetuated anti-intellectualism in America. All these themes were synthesized into an original interpretation of the development of anti-intellectualism and its relationship to American culture and education.

The way in which Hofstadter defined and addressed the problems within the history of American education deserves further study. Admittedly, he wrote from “a sense of engagement with contemporary problems,” and his works suggest that he enthusiastically entered into “the disclosures of contemporary thought” and examined “his own frame of reference,” clarifying and enlarging it in so doing.[17] Subsequently, by focusing on the connection between ideas and events, Hofstadter reinterpreted the present view of the educational process and the climate of academic freedom which is necessary for ideas to initiate action. As Lawrence Cremin suggested, Hofstadter spent his life reexamining the place of higher education in American society, especially its role in creating a literate, intelligent, critical, and humane political public.[18] Moreover, his perceptions of the relationship between power and intellect, mind and culture, informed his portrait of American educational history. More than once Hofstadter argued that the traditional institutions of American society suppressed and confined intellect. But never once did he suggest that it need be this way.

Historians like Hofstadter, who openly write out of an engagement with the present, leave themselves vulnerable to attack. Yet, because of his engagement with the events and circumstances of his times, Hofstadter was able to reevaluate the past and to criticize liberal traditions without denying their value. For many, this is what makes Hofstadter so appealing and so powerful. “He reminded us that the awakenings meant John Davenport as well as Jonathan Edwards, that the common school was as hostile to art as it was hospitable to arithmetic, and that progressive education popularized the vagaries of Dewey as well as his more tough-minded reforms.”[19] Hofstadter is powerful also because he was right. His suspicions and fears have been realized in the decades after his death, with the shift from the liberal arts towards more vocational and professional education in the high schools and universities. In reading Hofstadter, we can better comprehend what may be required to democratize education without loosing its intellectual integrity and to reform education without denying its historical traditions—two particularly valuable lessons as university and public school policies increasingly resembles corporate practices and focus more on the economics of education than the purposes of education.


1 For more on the educational proposals of Al Gore and George W. Bush, see For a full discussion on Mr. Gore’s proposal for higher education, see Ben Gose, “Gore’s Controversial Priorities for Higher Education: Some educators say his agenda favors the middle class, but many prefer him to Bush,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 48, no. 3 (September 15, 2000): 24-25.

2 Daniel J. Singal, “Beyond Consensus: Richard Hofstadter and American Historiography,” American Historical Review, 89: 4 (October, 1984): 976.

3 Ibid, 977.

4 Ibid, 978.

5 Kenneth S. Lynn, “Elitism on the Left,” Reporter, 39 (July 4, 1963): 38.

6 Richard Hofstadter, “The 214th Columbia Commencement Address”; American Scholar, 37 (1968): 584-585.

7 David Hawke, “Interview: Richard Hofstadter,” History 3 (1960): 136.

8 Many of Hofstadter’s major works addressed educational issues; one certainly cannot dismiss his discussions of early academic sociology in Social Darwinism in American Thought and his analysis of muckraking as political education in The Age of Reform when considering his contributions to the history of education.

9 Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger, The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), ix.

10 Ibid, 209.

11 See Paul Axtell, “The Death of the Liberal Arts College,” History of Education Quarterly, 11 (1971): 339-352; Joan Burstyn, Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984); Patricia A. Graham, “Expansion and Exclusion: A History of Women in Higher Education,” Signs 3 (1978): 759-773; Natalie A. Naylor, “The Antebellum College Movement: A Reappraisal of Tewksbury’s The Founding of American Colleges and Universities,” History of Education Quarterly, 13 (1973): 261-274; Patricia Palmeri, “From Republican Motherhood to Race Suicide,” in Education Men and Women Together: Coeducation in a Changing World, ed. Carol Lasser (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); David B. Potts, “American Colleges in the Nineteenth Century: From Localism to Denominationalism,” History of Education Quarterly, 11 (1971):363-380.

12 Richard Hofstadter and Wilson Smith, American Higher Education: A Documentary History, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), vii-ix

13 See Bernard Bailyn, Education in the Forming of American Society, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1960).

14 Daniel J. Singal, “Beyond Consensus: Richard Hofstadter and American Historiography,” 992.

15 Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1962), 407-408.

16 Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, 25.

17 Susan Stout Baker, Radical Beginnings: Richard Hofstadter and the 1930’s, (Westport Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1985), xiv.

18 Interview with Lawrence A. Cremin, Teachers College, Columbia University, April 28, 1987.

19 Lawrence A. Cremin, Richard Hofstadter: A Biographical Memoir, Washington: National Academy of Education, 1972.

BY: Deborah M. De Simone