Do Ideas Matter in America?
Americans like to think of themselves as a pragmatic people, with little use for professors and fancy ideas. Yet they also live and die for abstractions such as freedom and equality. That’s not just some inexplicable paradox but a key to understanding the American intellectual landscape.
In his classic study, Childhood and Society (1950), the psychologist Erik Erikson observed that “whatever one may come to consider a truly American trait can be shown to have its equally characteristic opposite.” Though a similar ambivalence can be found in many national cultures, traceable to a variety of causes, Erikson insisted that the bipolarity was especially pronounced in the modern American instance. In none of the other great nations of the world, he contended, were the inhabitants subjected to more extreme contrasts than in the United States, where tensions between individualism and conformity, internationalism and isolationism, open-mindedness and closed-mindedness, cosmopolitanism and xenophobia were powerfully felt.
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Wilfred M. McClay teaches history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he also holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities. He is a former Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow, and the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (1994). This article will appear in an extended and adapted form in The Blackwell Companion to the Twentieth Century, edited by Stephen J. Whitfield, to be published later this year.more from this author >>