For a Kinder, Gentler Society
In America, Intellectuals Are Suspect
By Bruce J. Schulman

LOS ANGELES - Hidden among the sordid details of sex, lies and videotape, the president's impeachment and trial pointed up the miserably low standing of intellectuals in American life. Congress and the media treated experts with scorn. 'Me public, for its part, greeted the erudite pronouncements of historians, legal scholars and political scientists with yawns. The nation ignored its scholars, viewing their research as irrelevant technicalities or partisan propaganda.

When Bruce Ackerman, a professor at Yale Law School, testified that the constitution forbid a lame-duck House from sending articles of impeachment to a newly elected Senate, the Judiciary Committee dismissed his contention without a second thought.

When Sean Wilentz, a historian at Princeton, explained that the charges against President Bill Clinton, even if proved, did not meet the Founding Fathers' standards for impeachment, the committee reproached him for his insolence and warned him against criticizing the people's representatives. Even more respectful committee members nervously thanked the scholars for their "opinions," rejecting Mr. Wilentz's assertion of a fundamental difference between informed scholarship and mere opinion.

This anti-intellectual streak has deep roots in America's democratic, anti-aristocratic heritage. Americans have long viewed the learned with suspicion and challenged their intellectual authority.

A healthy contempt for the life of the mind, Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1830, flowed naturally from America's fluid social boundaries and passionate democratic creed.

The young nation, Tocqueville observed, "escaped the influence not only of great names and great wealth, but even of the natural aristocracy of knowledge and virtue."

Americans focused on getting and spending, moving and building; they associated the "taste for intellectual pleasure" with the decadence and stagnation of Europe.

Throughout much of America's history, intellectuals maintained an elitist, snobbish contempt for the hurly-burly of American life and the character and capacities of ordinary citizens.

Modem political forces, however, have allowed a healthy historical skepticism to fester into a dangerous disregard for scholarship. A number of factors account for this trend.

Intellectuals have not always distinguished themselves in U.S. politics, especially during the 1910s and 1960s. President Wilson, a former professor and president of Princeton, pursued his reform agenda with the aid and counsel of the nation's most prominent intellectuals, including the New Republic editor and political journalist Walter Lippmann and the nation's most prominent philosopher, John Dewey.

When Wilson took the nation into World War 1, a conflict the president and his brain trust had regarded as repugnant, atavistic, the vestige of an uncivilized past, American intellectuals marched behind their leader. Affirming the "social possibilities of war," Dewey described the conflict as a "plastic juncture in history," one he and fellow intellectuals could mold into a struggle against barbarism and unreason, a battle for democracy, a war to end war.

This hubris, set against the harsh realities of a bloody war and a harsh, disappointing peace, left a bitter taste in American mouths. It confirmed the earlier skepticism of Randolph Bourne, who had warned Dewey, "If the war is too strong for you to prevent, how is it going to be weak enough for you to control and mold to your liberal purposes?"

Half a century later, President John Kennedy again lured the nation's finest minds to Washington. Kennedy and later President Lyndon Johnson assigned the conduct of the Vietnam War to the national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, a former Harvard dean; the presidential aide Walt Rostow, a distinguished economic historian; and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, a cerebral auto executive famed for his quantitative analysis and operations research.

But the war frustrated their plans and confounded the certainties of the nation's best and brightest. Working Americans could not help but note that these policy wonks retired to foundation presidencies and endowed professorships while many of their sons never returned from Southeast Asia.

Second, after World War 11, the nation's universities opened to previously disfranchised Americans. Immigrant Jews and Catholics enrolled in the nation's most prestigious colleges, eventually storming the highest citadels of U.S. intellectual life. After 1970 a new generation of dispossessed -- blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and women - entered academe. 

This democratization inject enormous vitality into America's intelligentsia, but diminished the professoriat's social status and cachet. No longer tethered to the WASP ruling class by family, club and alma mater. U.S. intellectuals could not command automatic attention and respect from the power elite. Unlike earlier generations of gentleman scholars, the new ethnic intellectuals challenged the comfortable assumptions and cultural conservatism of their to-the-manner-born predecessors.

Third, and most relevant to the imbroglio, the metamorphosis of the intelligentsia, its ethnic diversification and political liberalism, sparked a counterrevolution. For three decades. conservatives have launched an unstinting attack on the nation's scholars and critics.

President Richard Nixon began the assault in the late 1960s. "In this period of our history, the educated class are decadent," Nixon instructed his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. The learned had become "brighter in the head, but weaker in the spine. " With campuses protesting its policies, the Nixon administration sent out its attack dogs to discredit the weak-kneed Ph.D.s and their muddle-headed proteges. In one interview, Attorney General John Mitchell tore into "these stupid kids" on campuses. "The professors are just as bad, if not worse. They don't know anything. Nor do these stupid bastards who are running our educational institutions."

Meanwhile, Vice President Spiro Agnew roasted the "effete corps of impudent snobs that characterizes themselves as intellectuals."

Since the late 1960s, conservatives have continued their assault on the " tenured radicals" who fill the universities and think tanks. Right-wing politicians have depicted U.S. intellectuals as destructive partisans rather than disinterested seekers of knowledge. They have dismissed most humanities and social science scholarship as left-wing advocacy, undercutting the credibility I of scholarly pronouncements.

In this environment, America treats Mr. Ackerman's original constitutional scholarship as nothing more than a paid political advertisement for the president. 

Mr. Wilentz's extensive, prize-winning research into the history of U.S. democracy becomes no more than leftwing propaganda.

In the battle for public opinion, Congress manipulates and escalates the nation's historic antipathy toward intellectuals for its own narrow ends. In media reports, the Princeton professor, as much as the congressmen he challenged, stands convicted of cravenness and partisan calculation.

In a vital, vibrant democracy, intellectuals should not insist on deference, on automatic, uncritical acclaim for their ideas. But a healthy, functioning political system requires rational discussion, a willingness to heed reasoned arguments and respect thorough scholarship.

Without knowledge, political debate lacks vision. It descends into self-serving cynical wrangling. Without vision President Franklin Roosevelt put it, "The people perish." The impeachment crisis pushed the United States farther down that dangerous, slippery slope.

The writer, a professor of U.S. history and director of the American Studies Program at Boston University, contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.