Garlic, vodka, and the politics of gender : anti-intellectualism in American librarianship par Michael Winter


Anti-intellectualism in American Librarianship

By Michael Winter

The topic may seem surprising, because librarians are so obviously intellectual, or at least bookish, athough they have been called, perhaps unfairly, enemies of books (Adams 1937). They are, to use Seymour Martin Lipset’s nice neutral phrase, culture distributors (Lipset 1981: 333). But as Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his famous 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, intellectuals sometimes show a fundamental hostility to the life of the mind, even though it is allegedly more common in people of action. No one is startled when executives denounce the study of history as a waste of time, or when politicians ridicule the efforts of scholars to understand human behavior (Shaffer 1977). Nonetheless, intellectuals occasionally do this too, and sometimes writers duke it out in publishers’ offices. Indeed, it may be one of the favorite occupations of the intellectual classes to show occasionally their anti-intellectualism as a kind of badge of authenticity to the gatekeepers of mass culture. Recently David Bromwich (1996), has suggested that part of the heritage of McCarthyism – a favorite subject of Hofstadter’s also – is the internalization of this hostility (see also Woolf 1964).

Hofstadter’s discussion, however, has a broader sweep. He is concerned with the recurrent cycles of anti-intellectualism that pervade American life, and documents the trend in four basic fields: religion, politics, business, and education. It is, in some periods, much more prevalent than in others (for example, the Ages of Jackson, Harding, Nixon, and Reagan, as opposed to the Ages of Jefferson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy). And while it may not be all that revealing to find this trend in politics and business, a few eyebrows were raised by Hoftstadter’s discussions of religion and education. Surely if there is any room in our society for tender-mindedness, it would be here, but as he shows quite convincingly, in a narrative that is not only highly engaging but closely-argued and rigorously documented, even in the church and in the school a tough-minded pragmatism often drives out the reflective impulse.

Hofstadter and others are quick, of course, to point out that there are reasons for this. The period just following the Revolution was tumultuous in the extreme, and the famous disunity became enshrined as a highly competitive pluralism of interests. Nowhere is this clearer than in our religious history, where denominationalism replaced the established churches of Europe. With vast numbers of the people unchurched, an often brutal competititon for converts became the rule: « In a society so mobile and fluid, with so many unchurched persons to be gained for the faith, the basic purpose of the denominationsÖwas that of gaining converts. » (84)

This is the heart of the famous enthusiastic zeal of American Protestantism, and it survives today in many forms. One of our professional favorites is the evangelical Church of High Technology, with its Liturgy of the Digital Sublime. But more on this later.

In the American Grain: Utility and Decadence

An overriding theme pervades Hofstadter’s argument: in America the supreme value is utility, we play the Philistine as part of our emancipation from the dead hand of European decadence. This was true in the 18th century, when a Federalist named Joseph Dennie attacked Thomas Jefferson’s thought as the philosophical equivalent of reeking French garlic, and in more recent times when right-wingers accused anyone even vaguely left-wing of having addled their brains with too much cheap Russian vodka. For the American philistine, Hofstadter suggests, the European is wholly Other, a kind of voodoo babydoll to be needled with endless scorn.

We might suspect this from the fact that our great contribution to philosophy is a movement called pragmatism, but Hofstadter goes much further than this, and I think we should follow him at least part way along to see how this might apply to our own situation. Utility is a very important value, and no one, least of all Hofstadter, would despise it. But somewhere in the pursuit of practicality a transformation of attitude occurs, and we shift from valuing the useful to worshipping it, and taking it as a kind of substitute for thinking. This of course is Hofstadter’s central concern, and it is one that we should share with him.

Hoftstadter draws a very broad distinction between two types of intellectuals: the ideologue and the expert. Librarians have much less trouble with the first kind, and even show a kind of constant affection for the moralist (witness our embrace of various forms of identity politics and our love of intellectual freedom), but have a suspicion of expertise which shows up most dramatically in our attitudes toward professional education and in our readiness to embrace general management as a kind of value system.

Librarians on Library School

We are a sizeable group; standard data sources reporting occupational distributions show that there are a few hundred thousand of us, a substantial number of which are members of the American Library Association (ALA counts, roughly speaking, between 40,000 and 56,000 members). And like any group of that size, there is a reasonable spread of opinion on matters professional and otherwise among us. But however different we may be, one thing seems certain: many of us didn’t and don’t care much for library school, as it used to be called, or library and information science education, as it is now more commonly called, or information management studies, as the cutting-edge « digerati » call it now.

In one sense, this is unsurprising, since schooling in America is so often seen as a one-way ticket to prosperity. And of course no professionals harbor much love for the academic bootcamps they attended. Even so, it is surprising to learn from Samuel Rothstein, that this carping at library schools has been going on for well over a hundred years; it may well be our most durable tradition. An anonymous student at the Albany School in 1902 felt that the requirement of a second year of instruction was an invitation to a nervous breakdown. Practically everything, noted a library educator in 1949, has been said about library schools in the past five years except a kind word. It would be a bright day for library schools, volunteered a 1966 graduate in a Library Journal survey, if a public bonfire of teachers’ old lecture notesÖcould be lit. (Rothstein 1985: 4). Others continue in a less incendiary vein, but the litany of lament, as Rothstein calls it, rolls on.

In looking at these findings more closely, there is a persistent suspicion of theory that is unmistakable. It seems like the professional equivalent of the garlic and vodka that so troubled the anti-intellectuals of our political culture. In 1906, for example, a student confessed in a letter to a professional journal that the trouble with library school is impractical professors and courses. Similar complaints are found in 1946 (too much theory), 1949 (library school isn’t educating for managerial leadership), 1960 (too theoretical), 1966 (too academic). Still others fault the professional school for librarianship’s perennial crises of self-doubt. No wonder Phyllis Dain concluded, writing in 1980, that one of the signatures of librarianship is a contempt for ivory-tower theoreticians who are not in the real world (43).

Three Kinds of Anti-Intellectualism

More recently it has been pointed out that Hofstadter, having distinguished between ideologue and expert, identified three generic styles of anti-intellectualism and it is instructive to look at these here. Daniel Rigney’s 1991 discussion identifies 1) religious anti-rationalism, 2) populist anti-elitism, and 3) unreflective instrumentalism. The first of these doesn’t apply much here, except in the figurative sense mentioned above in the Liturgy of the Digital Sublime, but populism and instrumentalism are much more closely-related to developments in contemporary librarianship, and in fact they sometimes go together. The populists want to serve the tyrannical majority that writers like De Tocqueville and John Mashall feared (for an extreme example see Pearl 1996); and the instrumentalists are often technocrats or members of a large and growing group showing the symptoms of a raging epidemic disorder, which we may refer to here as CWS, or Corporate Wannabee Syndrome.

Librarianship’s Love Affair with Corporate America

If librarians don’t much like library school, there is a popular infatuation with corporate America and its no-nonsense focus on calculation, bureaucratization, and tough-minded attention to the bottom line. In the icy grip of the management ethos, and encouraged by official pronouncements, they must love Richard M. Dougherty’s (1966, 1982) Tayloristic approach to libraries as work organizations, although many librarians would, no doubt, rather see his Fordist vision restricted to support workers and library assistants. The history of library administration since the late 1960s is in part a succession of cookie-cutter management philosophies: remember Management by Objectives, the cult of excellence, and more recently Total Quality Management and the various habits of the highly successful. Can twelve step programs be far behind? When do we get to nurture our inner child?

Typical signs of CWS include the Board Room Look, admiration for glossy magazines reporting the brave exploits and huge salaries of CEOs, an excessive preoccupation with image, much emphasis on official secrecy, and a deep-rooted suspicion of reflective thought. Other observable symptoms can also be noted by the alert diagnostician and fall into familiar categories. I’ve collected a few of these over the years. Job security is for wimps, I once heard a tenured administrator say. But my personal favorite is: I can’t meet with you on Thursday afternoons because that’s when I get my massage. Consider also certain typical behaviors (moving freely throughout a large organization but requiring all visitors to one’s own space to run a gauntlet of clerical gatekeepers while publicly announcing an open door policy); occupying palatial private offices overlooking deep green lawns and tree-lined quads while herding others into windowless cubicles that allow for easy surveillance of their activities; and of course the economic benefit of a salary which is only three or four times the average employee’s income. And don’t forget the stale and self-serving observations about how executives make so much more in the corporate sector.

Librarians and the Digital Sublime: The Lure of New Technologies

Closely-related to CWS, we have adopted corporate America’s uncritical love of high technology. To borrow here from American historians David E. Nye and Roland Marchand, we have made the transition from viewing technology as useful to technology as sublime. With its luminous promise of mystical belonging it has acquired a totemic significance, a talisman that we touch and fondle at frequent intervals.

According to Nye and Marchand, the roots of this lie in the cultural transformations that marked the arrival of mature industrial society in the 1920s, with the arrival of fabulous technologies framed and staged by the political theater of big advertising, later harnessed to radio, movies and television. What American is not moved, they argue, by the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, and the extraordinary spectacles of Hollywood and Broadway? By extension, who does not admire the highways, the ocean liners, the trains, the airplanes, and the skyscrapers of the American megalopolis? They induce in us a feeling of reverential awe; this is our glittering Babylon, our city on the hill.

And now, just when we were beginning to feel jaded and spent, here is a deus ex digita to our rescue, giving us a new shrine. The excitement which has greeted the arrival of these new technologies is nothing short of erotic, but that is clearly a subject for another discussion, one which is unlikely to be convened. I’d like to close with a suggestion of historical sweep, even though I can’t match Hofstadter here and won’t even try. But I can’t resist entertaining the thought that one of the more obvious tropes in the current technological environment is the recasting of the gender politics of librarianship.

Dee Garrison’s work reminded us that this was part of a larger feminization of American culture in our recent past. In some of the more recent work on librarianship and gender, there is a suggestion that the feminization process may have peaked and perhaps even reversed (Williams 1995). And of course this reversal, if that is what it is, is linked to the coming of new technologies, in ways that writers like Roma Harris have indicated. In her book Librarianship: The Erosion of a Women’s Profession this is discussed at some length, and can best be summarized here by her use of Michael Gorman’s observation that an information scientist is a man who doesn’t want to be called a librarian (Gorman 1990: 463; Harris 1992: 36). This suggests that our dislike of ideas and theory, and our current fascination with corporate culture, may be more than temporary spasms of anti-intellectualism; they may also indicate some seismic shifting of what have been, for the last hundred years, the foundations of our gender politics.

What does seem clear is that the newest areas of our field, those involving networked digital technology, are looking much more male-dominated than the older types of information work. In a recent set of case studies, for example, Schneider (1994) reports that women trying to move into these areas are met with much more resistance than they get when they stay in traditional specialties. Technology-oriented jobs, Suzanne Hildenbrand recently noted, are identified as male and service-oriented jobs as female (Hildenbrand 1997: 45). And while Schneider is certainly progressive in urging women in libraries to become amazons with laptops, it is evident that many men on the computing side of information-handling do not share her enthusiasm. This is not surprising, given computer science’s affiliation with engineering, which remains even today a tightly-controlled bastion of reactionary gender politics. Thus the pursuit of this new, very avant-garde technology may, in other ways, be moving us backwards.


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