One of the most intriguing and valuable books I read in 2011 was Catherine Liu's American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique (University of Iowa Press). We have billionaire antielitists, tenured antielitists, rightwing nutjob antielitists, leftwing wacko antielitists, famous artist antielitists, multi-platinum antielitists, and Congressional antielitists, and Liu wants to know: Why is everybody on this bus? The book articulates some ideas that have been knocking around, inchoate, in my own head for a while. I asked the author to tell us why she wrote it.
— Tom Lutz
I WROTE THIS BOOK BECAUSE, all through college and graduate school, I found academia hypnotized by largely pointless but bitter struggles about "elitism." At the beginning of the Culture Wars, Allan Bloom and William Buckley were clearly the elitists and they were clearly the bad guys; but then again, anyone who read and liked literature more than listening to Madonna was cast as an elitist too. In graduate school, and then as I started my first job at the University of Minnesota, everyone was drawing lines and taking sides, for or against canons, for or against Deleuze, for or against Habermas, for or against Derrida, all using the word "elitist" to cudgel their opponents. I found it all infuriating and enervating.
"Elitist" is used as an all-purpose insult by both the culturally reactionary and the culturally progressive: people who speak foreign languages are elitist (if they learned them in school); recently on NPR, a Wisconsin Republican called union members "elitist." How did this term come to be so useful and meaningless at the same time? My generation of academics also throw the word "deconstruction" around all the time, and so I thought we should take up the "deconstruction" of knee-jerk antielitism.
(I also wrote this book because I wanted to understand the Midwest and the U.S. in general. I wanted to understand why my bicoastal existence and my parents' immigrant self-obsessions had led to me to reach largely mistaken conclusions about the U.S.)
I decided deconstruction and discourse analysis weren't quite enough. That is when I discovered Richard Hofstadter and C. Wright Mills. In history departments, they were thought of as being passé, but reading Hofstadter and Mills blew my mind. They outline the historical, material, and institutional conditions under which notions of research, critique, and autonomy were forged in the 20th century American university. In graduate school I was too busy reading Foucault to read Hofstadter, and I probably would have considered Hofstadter's account of conspiracy theory and "paranoia" as hopelessly "normative." In other words, I would have proved him right. An ingrained suspicion of formal knowledge, of formal education itself, runs like a red thread through Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. (Hofstadter saw the anti-intellectual suspicion of the life of the mind as aligned with reactionary political formations; in this he was greatly influenced by the work of Adorno on the Authoritarian Personality in the context of McCarthyism. Hofstadter abhorred the romanticization of agrarian life, so he didn't see that the Populist revolt of the 1890s was probably less instrumentally anti-intellectual than he considered it to be. In fact, the People's Party was for self-education, especially about economic matte...