Tuesday, October 14, 2014

October 14, 2014: New NEASA Books: Inventing the Egghead

[It’s been a while since I spent a week highlighting the amazing work done by my fellow AmericanStudies scholars. So for this week’s series I thought I’d highlight five recent books by scholars with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the NEASA Council. I’d love to hear in comments about books and scholars, recent or otherwise, that have inspired you!]
On the book that demonstrates how much scholarly debates can inform our biggest issues.
If I told you that one of the central contributions made by Aaron Lecklider’s wonderful Inventing the Egghead: The Battle Over Brainpower in American Culture (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) lies in its disagreement with another scholarly work published 50 years prior, you might think that (for those who are not themselves scholars of AmericanStudies or history, anyway) things are getting a bit too inside baseball here. It’s true that one of Lecklider’s chief goals in Inventing the Egghead is to advance a different scholarly analysis than that offered by Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963)—but also true that in so doing, his book proves just how significant such intra-scholarly disagreements can be.
For one thing, Hofstadter’s book has been one of the more enduring and influential scholarly analyses of American culture. I know that I, like many of my fellow AmericanStudiers, have long been convinced by Hofstadter’s assessment of a longstanding, enduring American anti-intellectualism, by his arguments that such attitudes have been part of the American landscape for much (if not indeed all) of our existence. While Lecklider doesn’t dismiss the existence of such attitudes, however, he makes a convincing case that prior to the Cold War era, American culture and society contained at least as many pro-intellectual narratives as anti-intellectual ones, and thus that the Cold War’s widespread disdain for “the egghead” represented something distinct rather than simply a continuation of those existing attitudes. Given my own recent arguments for our need to recognize how recently created the concepts of legal and illegal immigration are, it’s fair to say that I see great value in properly locating prominent national narratives.
There’s also another layer to the importance of Lecklider’s pushback. Just like recognizing the recent nature of legal/illegal immigration allows us to think differently about the prior history of immigration policy in America, so too would shifting our sense of anti-intellectualism change our broader national narratives as well. For one thing, if American anti-intellectualism was more a creation of the Cold War than a longstanding attitude, it would be much easier to recognize how political and agenda-driven (rather than, for example, ingrained) such an attitude always is. And for another, related thing, such a shift would make it much easier to imagine changing our current, far too widespread anti-intellectualism, and returning to what Lecklider convincing argues is our more longstanding national attitude.
Next NEASA book tomorrow,
PS. Books or scholars you'd share? I'd love to hear about them!

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