Saturday, December 6, 2008

Anti-Intellectualism? Well....

I've been making a mental tossed salad of many things I've been reading--and sometimes just sensing--over the last few weeks. Here are some of the ingredients of the salad.

First: Much has been written lately about the "anti-intellectualism" of Americans in general, and of the political right in particular. The observation that there is a distrust of the over-educated, of the professional academic, of the policy wonk, is a valid one. This observation is usually made with an air of disdain on the part of the observer toward those poor, benighted souls who don't recognize what's good for them. If people would just recognize who was smartest and most educated, and put them in charge, that would be good for the country, wouldn't it? And the fact that a big chunk of the population resists doing this is taken as a sign that we don't have a mature, sophisticated electorate yet.

Second: Along these lines, we have this column by David Brooks of the New York Times. Despite the fact that Brooks is generally conservative, he is highly impressed by the personnel choices the incoming Obama administration is making. They all have very impressive educational pedigrees: Harvard/Harvard Law, Yale/Yale Law, Stanford, Princeton, Oxford. Brooks sees this as something noteworthy, and praiseworthy.

Third: Well, Brooks' column provoked something of a backlash. With a hat tip to Carol Platt Liebau at Townhall, here's a column by a professor named Joseph Epstein, writing in the Weekly Standard. He reflects on the students who have passed through his classroom, and notes that the ones who got the best grades weren't necessarily the ones who were most insightful or intellectually curious, but the ones who were so focused on making the grade that they did as they were told. The highest-scoring students were often those who had such stupendous ambition that they were willing to adopt the teachers' worldviews, temporarily--just long enough to get that A so they could go on to graduate summa cum laude and then get into Harvard Law so they could become full partners at prestigious law firms, get rich, and then go into politics.... And he suggests that many of these "good students" are not particularly to be trusted.

Fourth: And along these lines, there's that column by Victor Davis Hanson that I linked to and wrote about in Thursday's post. Very briefly, Hanson alleged that the colleges aren't really what they used to be, or what they could be; they have abandoned the "Core" model of classical education in favor of a smorgasbord of trendy, politicized course offerings that indoctrinate instead of actually expanding the mind.

Fifth: Here's a post from Daniel MacIntyre, whose blog I link to, from a couple of weeks back. He acknowledges that Obama shows every sign of being highly intelligent, but warns that intelligence does not necessarily equate to wisdom, and questions whether Obama has shown many signs of the latter.

Thus, the salad.

I suspect that if my own views were laid out for the whole world to see, I would be pegged by many observers as an "Anti-Intellectual". I do tend to sympathize with the proportion of the population that's suspicious of their intellectual "betters" and skeptical of schemes that give them too much authority over the important stuff. But I've given at least a little thought to the reasons I think this way. I'll let you decide for yourselves if you think this makes me an Anti-Intellectual, and just how negative you consider that term, anyway.


I would like to present three definitions, and compare and contrast them.

The first one is Intelligence. I like the definition that David MacIntyre gave in his post, so I'll use that as a starting point:
Intelligence is simply the effectiveness of your thought processes. If you can reason effectively, analyze communications accurately and draw inferences easily from various data, you are intelligent.

The second one is Wisdom. Again, here's the definition that David MacIntyre gave:
[W]isdom is the set of rules, guides and/or habits you have developed as "best practices" for life. When you choose not to [pee] on an electric fence, when you stick to a set budget and pay off credit card debt, or when you decide to go ahead and pay the extra money for the snowboard lessons rather than seeing if your limited experience on skis will translate to skill on the board, you are using wisdom.
"Wisdom" is a little harder to define than intelligence. It's a broader concept. And as much as I'd like to define it using words like "understanding", I have to stop myself; some of the wisest people in the world don't necessarily know why they make the decisions they do, they just do what seems right--and it turns out to be right. Think of a mother who knows just the right thing to do when one of her kids has become disappointed or hurt. Is that understanding? Well, maybe... but sometimes it's just plain maternal instinct. It counts as wisdom nonetheless, in my book, because she's still choosing the right thing to do.

Wisdom includes the ability to see ahead to the consequences of current trends and actions, but it's more than that. It also includes such things as experience, and it includes such things as self control, and it includes the discernment to see through distractions to whatever the core issue happens to be.

The third concept is Goodness. This, simply stated, is the desire to act for the defense and betterment of one's fellow man, and for the defense and betterment of society. If I care about the people around me enough that I'm willing to take the time and effort to build them up, that's Goodness. If I don't care about their well-being--especially if I'm willing to benefit at their expense--then I possess a distinct lack of Goodness.

I think most people will agree to this last definition, with the possible exception of the Objectivists. And even with them, I suspect they will have a different definition of goodness that can be substituted in place of the one I just gave without affecting the main point I'm trying to make here.


Now, here's the point that most American "Anti-Intellectuals" instinctively realize: Intelligence, Wisdom, and Goodness do not always show up together in the same person. It is common to find people who lack one or another of these three.

What does it look like when one or another of these virtues is missing?

Consider a person who possesses great Wisdom and Goodness, but is of merely adequate intelligence. Such a person will not necessarily be the font of scintillating conversation. Such a person may not be able to contribute much to the sum total of human knowledge. But on the other hand, such people are usually loved and respected by the other people in their lives. These are the ones who so often are willing to take care of the people around them who get sick or otherwise fall on hard times. When these individuals get older, they are often full of good advice, for anyone who will listen, on everything from having a good marriage, to how to fix a carburetor. When you think of this combination, Forrest Gump comes to mind. These people may not be very smart, but they are often very successful at life.

Now consider a person who possesses great Intelligence and Wisdom, but lacks Goodness. These people are clever, but they are also often disdainful of those around them. Often corrupt--but the corrupt ones aren't the worst. These types can also be ideologues, to whom the people around them are but pawns in their grand schemes. Their intelligence allows them to see and understand how the world around them works, giving them the power to manipulate; and their wisdom often gives them such virtues as courage, fortitude and patience; and these things, coupled with a lack of empathy for the ones around them, make them very dangerous. When I think of this combination, Vladimir Putin comes to mind.

Now consider a person who possesses great Intelligence and Goodness, but lacks Wisdom. What about these? Well, the Goodness of these people leads them to want to assist their neighbors. And their Intelligence gives them the ability to study a matter and come up with theories about how they work. But in many cases, the understanding necessary to do something worthwhile isn't there. Often these types of people mentally construct their own internally-consistent "realities" that allow them to think they are doing the right thing, while they remain oblivious to the negative consequences of their actions on those around them.

Examples of this sort of thing abound; consider "New Math", which as I understand was an attempt to completely rework the scope and sequence of the elementary-school math curriculum, so that it started not with simple counting and arithmetic, but with set and number theory. Such a program could only have been developed by some very intelligent people--who lacked understanding of the way kids actually think and learn.

For another example of this sort of thing: here's a fairly long article about attempts to clean up the original Skid Row (in Los Angeles), through the use of improved policing and social service efforts, and how these attempts were (are) routinely thwarted by well-meaning "homeless advocates" who use the courts to block them in the name of freedom and dignity of the homeless, without any comprehension of the damage their actions do to the very people they're hoping to help.

To put a name with the phenomenon of someone who possesses Intelligence and Goodness while lacking Wisdom, the one who comes to my mind--fairly or unfairly--is Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose 1946 book Baby and Child Care kicked off a revolution in societal attitudes regarding child rearing. His work ran against the grain of what was then considered conventional wisdom, and eventually came to supplant it almost completely. Whether or not he personally intended his work to be interpreted this way, it led widely to a much more permissive, much more obliging, less disciplined approach to child rearing than what has gone before, which has been cited (again, fairly or not) as one reason for the widespread social disfunctions that appeared with the Boomer generation in the 60's--narcissism, rebellion, moral and family breakdown, and the like.

So after looking at these three virtues--Intelligence, Wisdom, and Goodness--it should be apparent that if you can't have all three in a leader, if you have to leave out one of them, Intelligence is more dispensable than the other two. Highly intelligent people who possess goodness, but lack wisdom, are the ones to pave the road to hell with their good intentions. Highly intelligent people who lack Goodness are monsters. High intelligence lacking either Wisdom or Goodness is downright dangerous, both to the person who possesses it, and to everyone around him.

And the typical American man-or-woman-on-the-street instinctively knows this. From this, I think, follows the reluctance of the electorate to trust the supposed "best and the brightest" with too much power.

Any housefrau can bake a delicious, filling, nutritious loaf of bread. But it takes a scientist to make a Twinkie. ;-)


There's much more to be said on this topic, which (considering the late hour) I can't really do justice to. For example, I happen to think there are plenty of intellectual pitfalls that are particularly tempting to those who are highly intelligent and who know it. To name a few, they tend to overestimate their own competence, and underestimate the competence of the people around them to manage their own affairs; they tend to overstate the strength of their pet theories, and underestimate the value of experience (especially experience that runs contrary to their theories); they tend to undervalue the opinions and values of those they deem less intelligent; they tend to be afraid of being thought unintelligent by their peers, which makes them vulnerable to groupthink and intellectual fads; and they tend to see themselves as the natural leaders, who should be giving orders instead of taking them.

And all of these pitfalls are a manifestation of Intelligence coupled with lack of Wisdom, which can lead to all the consequences I mentioned earlier.

The late William F. Buckley--who was obviously very well educated and very, very smart, understood all this: that's why one of his more famous quotes is,
I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.
(That's not the only good WFB quote to be had. If you've got the time, read anything by WFB that you can get your hands on--starting with the rest of the quotes at that site.)

And the thing is... The general population of the USA knows all this, at least at some deep, instinctual level. So any time they hear an intellectual--whether a politician, or an academic, or a bureaucrat--proclaim something along the lines of, "We could solve all these problems if we just put the smart people in charge!"; or when they hear mutterings about how foolish they are to hang on to their time-tested values instead of putting academic theorists in charge of their priorities, they have a way withdrawing all trust from the intellectual in question.

This often gets them labelled "Anti-Intellectual". But I'm not always convinced it isn't the wise thing to do.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking to my article! It made me re-read it and I noticed a glaring omission.

I meant to point out that, while people tend to equate intelligence with rationality, very often, that intelligence is used to rationalize one's own irrational behavior rather than to figure out what the logical course of action is.

To that extent, highly intelligent people are more likely to lock in their biased or backward behaviors and attitudes, and worse, convince others that these are rational positions, since it is so difficult for others to get past their mental defenses.

Also, after I wrote the article, I found an interesting statement by Edward Feigenbaum of Stanford University:
"The first principle of knowledge engineering is that the problem solving power exhibited by an intelligent agent's performance is primarily the consequence of its knowledge base and only secondarily a consequence of the inference method employed. Expert systems must be knowledge-rich even if they are methods-poor. This is an important result and one that has only recently become well understood in AI. For a long time AI has focused its attentions almost exclusively on the development of clever inference methods; almost any inference method will do. The power resides in the knowledge."

In other words, it's not how "intelligent" an AI construct is that determines its success, it's the data it's working with.

Somehow that DOES seem to apply in a more general way too.

B. Durbin said...

"The most intelligent thing an intelligent child can do is learn to hide that intelligence."

I find that I am deeply reluctant, to the point of obsession, to make the statement, "I am intelligent." It's okay to say "I was in the Rapid Learner Program in grade school" or "I was in the Honors Program in college" but to actually state that I am more intelligent than somebody else seems repugnant.*

I've thought about this a lot and have come to this conclusion: It's a bad idea to claim that one is intelligent in America, not because Americans are anti-intellectual, but because somebody who claims to be intelligent generally goes on to prove the direct opposite.

*Case in point: It seems really, really snobbish for me to write this.

Roger Z said...

I had an interesting run-in with a professor down in El Salvador on this trip. Suffice it to say, he had the same spiel about American foreign policy that I have now heard from people who live in Asia, the Middle East and Europe (not ALL the people that live in these places, just a couple). The argument boils down to: American foreign policy is ignorant and propels corrupt and broken regimes, and those who want oppose America are simply looking out for the best interests of their people.

There are three things that strike me about this argument. First- it is uniform. It is constant the world over, the only thing that changes are the names of the places where we are supposedly being abusive. It is also, as a corrolary, prone to conspiracy theories. This gentleman told me that it was the CIA that broke up Yugoslovia. This isn't the first time I've heard something absolutely asinine from people like this.

Second, it presumes that America is all-powerful, which is a laugh to any of us who know the American government.

Third, and most importantly, this is what passes for intellectualism. Yet I can tell you right now that most people I know with even a passing interest in foreign policy in the United States have a more nuanced and rational view of global politics than this professor does, or the people I've heard from other continents who have mouthed almost the exact same lines.

The more you hear the same spiel repeated over and over by the so-called intelligent folks, the more you begin to wonder whether they're really intelligent or just subscribing to a group-think that has the imprimatur of intelligence assigned to it. I am moving very rapidly toward the latter opinion. "Intelligence" the way it seems to be defined by people like this and the folks you site nodding their heads in approval about Obama's appointments seem to use signs and symbols as indicators of intelligence rather than more rational indicators like a person actually demonstrating that they are intelligent through words, deeds, or simply humility not to wear intelligence as a buzzword on their sleeve.

In other words, I'm beginning to wonder whether "intelligence" isn't just another marketing ploy, at least the way it's used in society these days.

Anonymous said...

An interesting article, but fraught with the same type of rationalization you rail against...

While your point about education not necessitating wisdom or intelligence is valid - it is only to a degree. Being educated is a process by which you become familiar with the collected wisdom of past generations, it is in fact the culmination of the collected experiences and observations of past generations.

I also feel compelled to point out that you can enjoy the process of learning without becoming a "sellout" or temporarily adopting the politcal, economic or philosophical worldview of your instructors...this point is in fact inescapable, as both our understanding of our world, and our understanding of ourselves
evolves through the challenge to established paradigms.

To be sure, there are those among us who do precisely as you suggest, however I would submit that this sort of short-term self-serving behavior often reveals itself.

It would also be a sign of wisdom to remember that people tend to distrust those things they do not understand. For the uneducated to distrust the educated is not wisdom, or necessarily the lack of it - but rather a simple case of fear of the unknown....

Anonymous said...

In response to RogerZ..

The uniformity of opinion you described could in fact be the "imprimatur" for the vain or it could be that when the dynamic rather the rhetoric is examined, our foreign policy appears to be coercive and reliably counter-productive..

Occam's Razor suggests a common conclusion reached among a group who's common element is education - would result in an educated guess...