More Intellectual Than You Thought

Author discusses her new book, Reimagining Popular Notions of American Intellectualism.

July 12, 2016

Conventional wisdom holds that American society is and has long been pervasively anti-intellectual, with only elite academics embracing the life of the mind. Kelly Susan Bradbury challenges that view, arguing that there have long been institutions outside of elite intellectual circles that have in fact nurtured intellectual life. She outlines this view in her new book, Reimagining Popular Notions of American Intellectualism: Literacy, Education and Class (Southern Illinois University Press). Bradbury, who teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado at Boulder, responded via email to questions about her book.

Q: Many people think of Americans as, on average, anti-intellectual -- throughout American history. Before you did this book, did you share that view?

A: I first started thinking about anti-intellectualism in American culture when I began teaching college-level writing and encountered widespread student apathy in the classroom. Curious about the roots of student apathy, I became fascinated by all the existing research on American anti-intellectualism, past and present. Much of what the critics argued resonated with my experiences in the classroom, but I didn’t necessarily believe a majority of Americans were anti-intellectual. The deeper I got into my research on the topic, the more I wanted to flip the lens and look for evidence of American intellectualism, particularly in places and spaces not routinely associated with intellectualism (in other words, outside academia). So much time and energy was being spent on labeling Americans anti-intellectual and pointing fingers at the latest and most damning culprit.

What might we find, I thought, if we spend more time looking for evidence of Americans engaging in intellectual practices? And, I wondered, how do our definitions of intellectualism shape what people and educational practices get labeled intellectual -- or, more commonly, anti-intellectual? It’s a form of tunnel vision, I believe; if we look only for evidence of anti-intellectualism in our society, that’s all we’ll see. If, however, we challenge ourselves to turn our attention to Americans demonstrating a genuine interest in and engagement with learning, knowledge, deliberation, critical thinking and inquiry (the definition of intellectualism I propose in the book), we can find an equally rich set of examples.

Q: What was the significance of the lyceum, one of the institutions you discuss? Are there institutions today that reflect that institution?

A: What is so unique -- and inspiring -- about the 19th-century American lyceum is that it was designed to engage the public (not only academic elites) in lifelong learning. By promoting the “diffusion of useful knowledge” in community settings (including town meetings, lectures and periodicals), the lyceum made knowledge more accessible to those previously excluded from formal educational institutions and sent the message that learning was an important and worthy pursuit throughout life. In addition, contrary to what some believe, the “useful knowledge” disseminated by the various factions of the lyceum was broad in scope. At times, lectures focused on practical knowledge useful in daily life (understanding electricity, biology, weather, the eye, etc.). At other times, the lectures and local meetings targeted some of the central social, political and cultural issues of the time (racism, gender inequality, slavery, capital punishment, etc.). Sparking thought, debate and inquiry about such topics among the public, the lyceum created an environment ripe for cultivating intellectualism.

Today, there’s a traveling lecture circuit of sorts, with a variety of speakers talking about significant issues in our time. However, these types of lectures typically take place on college campuses. And while they are sometimes open to the public, what’s implied here is that college campuses are still the birthplace and primary residence of American intellectual life (and yet there’s much talk of how little students engage in intellectual work at colleges). What the lyceum did, in contrast, was send the message that intellectualism is something the general public can and should participate in routinely.

It’s possible, too, to credit the internet with a “diffusion of useful knowledge,” similar to that of the lyceum. But unlike the lyceum of the 19th century, the internet doesn’t bring us together -- physically -- as a local community to share and discuss ideas. The physical and local focus of the lyceum was unique.

Q: Similarly, how did the labor college promote intellectual life?

A: The American labor college of the 20th century promoted intellectual life by inspiring workers to be active, analytical learners who could not only successfully perform the work of the labor movement but also think critically about the issues directly tied to the movement (economics, law, labor history, modern industry, etc.). With a curriculum composed of both “tool” and “informational” courses, labor colleges worked to prepare students to find information, interpret it and problem solve based on that information. Labor colleges further promoted critical thinking and intellectualism by eliminating the traditional authoritarian relationship between students and teachers, structuring the school so it empowered students to actively participate in the design of their education. Brookwood Labor College (the focus of my case study on labor colleges) demonstrates well how making activism a significant part of the learning experience positioned students to themselves become cultivators of intellectualism. More specifically, through their work as labor journalists and their participation in labor drama, students educated the public and, in some cases, inspired them to further investigate, research and deliberate issues concerning 20th-century labor practices.

Q: Many think of GED programs, another focus of your book as promoting basic skills, not intellectualism. What do these people miss?

A: Certainly, GED programs promote basic skills. But, I argue, they can cultivate intellectualism as well. It’s important to recognize that the teaching of basic skills and the cultivation of intellectualism are not mutually exclusive. As I demonstrate with my case study examining a specific set of 21st-century GED writing workshops, the curriculum as well as the teaching and learning practices at the center of any educational institution can encourage an interest in and engagement with learning, knowledge, deliberation, critical thinking and inquiry (again, intellectualism as I argue we should define it). The problem is that widely accepted notions of intellectualism conflate it with academic success, with the study of highbrow ideas (and canonical texts) at elite institutions of higher education, and with living a “life of the mind.” Such a definition of intellectualism automatically relegates the study of basic skills -- as well as the students studying those skills -- nonintellectual. Instead, I argue, if we focus our examinations of intellectualism on a person’s interest in and engagement with learning, then the “practical” content at the heart of a GED program need not prescribe the intellectual possibilities of the educational experience.

Q: For academics who bemoan a lack of support for intellectuals or intellectual life in the United States, what do the institutions in your book suggest for promoting a more vibrant and widespread intellectual life?

A: What the institutions I highlight in Reimagining did to promote intellectual life (over time and place) was incite an interest in learning; disseminate knowledge; and facilitate discussion, inquiry and debate. And they did this among populations of people typically denied access to the elite educational institutions we equate with intellectualism.

What you hear from the contemporary college students I cite heavily in the final chapter is that parents, educational institutions, popular culture and society at large send the message that intellectualism is not important -- that getting a degree, maintaining a particular GPA and getting a “good” job are what’s important. They also are inundated with messages that they -- and most Americans -- are unintelligent and anti-intellectual. We need to alter this message. We need to reconsider and rethink what it means to be intellectual (or practice intellectualism) in the 21st century so it is accessible and appealing to all Americans, not just the culturally elite.


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