The Problem With “Intellectuals”

Intellectualism has become the readiness, willingness and ability to call dangerous things safe, and safe things dangerous. — Morgan Freeberg

What’s wrong with “the new elite?” Forget cultural insularity or smugness. The main problem with the “new elite” is that they’re not an elite at all. That is, they aren’t particularly smart, or competent. — Glenn Reynolds

Walter Russell Mead wrote a piece called The Crisis of the American Intellectual. It has a particular paragraph that really cuts to the heart of “anti-intellectualism” in America:

Almost everywhere one looks in American intellectual institutions there is a hypertrophy of the theoretical, galloping credentialism and a withering of the real. In literature, critics and theoreticians erect increasingly complex structures of interpretation and reflection — while the general audience for good literature diminishes from year to year. We are moving towards a society in which a tiny but very well credentialed minority obsessively produces arcane and self referential (but carefully peer reviewed) theory about texts that nobody reads. Political science is becoming more mathematical and dogmatic — while fewer and fewer Americans understand the political foundations and ideas behind American institutions. Similar problems unfortunately exist in many disciplines. Academic discourse becomes more self-referential and remote from public concerns; the public discussion suffers from the absence of the intellectual rigor and historical perspective that serious students and thinkers can bring to it. (The natural sciences are in much less bad shape as the process of empirical verification imposes a certain necessary honesty on the intellectual process, but those who try to connect the sciences to the world of philosophy, policy, theology and politics suffer many of the same problems as intellectuals in the humanities and social sciences.) At the same time, the edifice of academic studies is becoming so expensive and top heavy that except at a relative handful of very wealthy institutions the whole system of tenured teaching appointments looks steadily less sustainable.

It has been often noted that conservatives seem to have lost respect for “intellectuals.” This is called “anti-intellectualism,” but that’s not quite accurate. Conservatives have tremendous respect for people they believe to have great intellects. Just to name a few examples, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman, and David Horowitz have first rate minds and are loved for it by conservatives. There’s no hatred of brilliance on the Right.

Unfortunately, “intellectualism” and brilliance are far from synonymous these days. All too often, we get the impression that those who consider themselves to be intellectuals are less competent and less capable than the common man. All that brainpower, all those IQ points aren’t spent on coming up with real world results. This is why people believe most intellectuals have “no common sense.” Do you think that’s unfair? Okay, let’s say you have to go into business with someone: Would you prefer it be the average middle-manager at a Kmart or a philosophy professor from the University of Colorado? Let’s say you’re stuck on a desert island for a year. Would you rather it be with a private in the military or an African American studies professor at Yale? If you were forced to choose between a 16-year-old girl or a 40 year old women’s studies professor at Berkeley, whom would you rather have influencing your kids as a babysitter? Most people wouldn’t take the intellectual in any of those situations, which begs a question: If “intellectuals” are inferior to the average person in almost every area other than playing trivial pursuit or coming up with oddball theories to explain how Lincoln was gay, why do they deserve respect? If you understand that, you understand why “anti-intellectualism” has become so mainstream in America.

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