5 Thoughts About What Intelligence Means In An Age Of Specialization


There’s a lot of talk about anti-intellectualism and intelligence in politics and much of it, like these comments from Kathleen Parker, manages to miss the point.

Are Republicans stupid?

This seems to be the question du jour. Chris Matthews entertained this idea with guests recently, pointing to several Republican presidential candidates as evidence. How else to explain why so many in the GOP seem proud of their know-nothingness, as Matthews put it?

There are, of course, lots of ways to be smart and lots of ways to be dumb. We often talk about book smarts and street smarts, as though the two are mutually exclusive. We know from experience that brilliant book people can be nincompoops when it comes to common sense, while people lacking formal education can be brilliant problem-solvers.

We know these things, yet we seem to have fallen in love with the notion that only book smarts matter when it comes to the nation’s problems. At least Democrats have. Republicans, despite having a few brainiacs in their midst, have taken the opposite approach, emphasizing instead the value of being just regular folk. In GOP circles, being an ordinary American is viewed as superior to being one of those egg-headed elitists.

…It is far easier to say what is pleasing to the ear than what is true. Even so, anyone who thinks Republicans are stupid is missing the point. What those dummies Bush and Perry have in common, other than having been Texas governors, pilots and cheerleaders (what is it with Texas?), is that they’re not stupid at all.

This doesn’t mean they’re right about everything or even most things. But they’re smart enough to know that most people in this country didn’t go to Ivy League colleges – or any college for that matter. Most haven’t led privileged lives of any sort, but nonetheless have unspoiled hearts and are willing to help any who would help themselves.

Five points.

First off, one of the funny things about Parker’s “question du jour” is that most conservatives already think Democrats are stupid. As Charles Krauthammer famously said,

To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.

The reason most conservatives think Democrats are stupid is that most liberals are perfect representations of another famous quote by Talleyrand, “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” To conservatives, liberals seem to be utterly indifferent to whether their policies work or not and learn nothing from the failure of programs they advocate.

What do you call that other than stupid?

Secondly, I don’t think that conservatives are hostile to people who’ve been to Ivy League colleges. Actually, I think that impression has come about because some people, including most liberals, tend to be OVERLY impressed with Ivy League degrees. For example, when I think Harvard graduate, I don’t necessarily think “well educated” so much as I think, “wealthy, well-connected parents.” If I had kids, would I like to see them go to Harvard? Absolutely — but that’s because I’d be thinking about the connections they could make there, not because they’d receive a superior education. Maybe there was a time when Ivy League schools were head and shoulders better than other schools, but I see no evidence that’s true anymore. Again, that’s not a slap at the people who’ve attended our “elite universities,” but from what I’ve seen, there’s no qualitative difference in smarts or performance between intelligent, motivated people who’ve attended top universities and students who’ve gone elsewhere.

On a related note, what many people seem to consider intellectual no longer seems all that tightly connected to actual brain power. To many people, going to the right school, holding the right political positions, or having the right job makes you an “intellectual.” Barack Obama has been hailed as a genius, for example, based on what? Intellectually, his biggest accomplishment seems to have been learning to read a teleprompter with feeling. There’s nothing about Obama’s mental acumen that should particularly impress anyone. The same could be said for many college professors out there — like Ward Churchill. He comes across as a goof, but everyone is supposed to acknowledge his brilliance just because he’s a professor? Then there’s evolution and global warming. Extremely intelligent people who are making science-based decisions can come to completely different conclusions about those issues. Yet, there’s a snobbish, “Only people who agree with me believe in science” position that’s embraced by one side of those debates, that is actually….well, a little dumb and anti-science. In other words, what represents “smart” in the first place is increasingly in dispute — and for good reason.

Fourth, we have long since passed the age of the “Renaissance man” where a person who’s smart enough can have a deep understanding of a wide variety of complex issues. Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, was an extraordinary painter, inventor, engineer, scientist, and he even made significant contributions to medicine. No matter how smart you are, you can’t do that anymore because the modern world is so complex and specialized. So, even if you come across as a staggering genius in one field, you may be considerably dumber than the average person in another field. The question isn’t just, “Are you intelligent,” it’s “Are you intelligent in the field you’re talking about.” Incidentally, this is one of the many reasons big government works so poorly. It’s because even if you have extremely intelligent people making decisions (which is always a really big “if”), they often have only a surface-level understanding of the areas they’re going to impact with their legislation.

Last but not least, there are lots of extraordinarily intelligent conservatives who are not only popular, they’re popular because they make intellectual arguments. Just to name a few, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Jonah Goldberg, Michael Barone, George Will, Larry Kudlow, Victor Davis Hanson, etc. If you go to a Tea Party, you will hear speaker after speaker talk about history and the Constitution, which again, is a very high-minded and intellectual way to appeal to a crowd. That’s not to say that every argument on the right is emotionless and intellectual, but as a general rule, intellectual and policy-based discourse is considerably more common on the Right than it is on the Left. Moreover, as often as not, the people who complain about anti-intellectualism aren’t particularly intellectual themselves. For example, if you were looking for the smartest guy on cable news, Chris Matthews who was wondering if Republicans were stupid to open Parker’s piece, certainly wouldn’t be one of the guys you’d consider.

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