Just How Stupid is the Intellectual Elite?

I came across an article recently, as linked to in a comment, that is about a topic of great interest to me: ignorance. The article piqued my curiosity because it was a thoughtful analysis of various data and examples, including an insightful view of how geographic location plays into how we prioritize (or not) knowledge of the larger world.

The author begins by discussing Rick Shenkman’s 2008 book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter. It’s a provocative title meant to catch one’s attention. It probably was the publisher, rather than the author, that chose the title. I decided to get the book and have since read it.

I was disappointed and underwhelmed. The book ended up being too much like the title. Maybe I should have paid closer attention to the negative reviews. My curiosity got the better of me and my curiosity remains unsated. Shenkman touches on many worthy issues, but never takes it very far. It felt more like a magazine opinion piece stretched out into a book.

He complains about the stupidity of the American public, going on and on about the failure of “The People”, both in actuality and as a concept. He almost goes so far as to blame democracy itself, with an argument that questions whether The People are worthy of democracy. His discussion is a bit more complex than that, but it does come off as expressing intellectual snobbery and class disconnect. I didn’t get the feeling that he actually knew what he was talking about. His knowledge seemed narrow, and his understanding of many issues, from democracy to liberalism, seemed superficial.

I came to the conclusion that the author is a part of the problem. He is a member of the clueless intellectual elite. He wants to be a public intellectual and so presents himself as an expert, in his role as a professional historian, writer, and tv talking head. Maybe this book wasn’t his best work… I don’t know, but I was unimpressed. His being a historian, I’d have expected more depth to his analysis. He demonstrated even less knowledge about demographics and social science.

I’ve read some great books these past years. There are several that cover the study of ignorance, agnotology, a topic that has often come up in relation to racial prejudice and biases. Another more recent book I’ve looked at focuses the idea and the history of “The People” in great detail. Shenkman’s book doesn’t hold a candle to any of these.

There is nothing I consider more important than the public intellectual. The failure of democracy is directly connected to the failure of public intellectuals, which isn’t identical to just the intellectual elite, but the broader intellectual engagement across class lines. A good example of a newer work by a working class public intellectual is Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado. I’m a big fan of the working class public intellectual, a role that goes back to the revolutionary generation, involving such great writers as Thomas Paine. Even so, I also appreciate the insight that sometimes comes out of academia, such as Michelle Alexander.

There is an important difference between academics like Shenkman and Alexander. He presents his argument as coming from on high, looking down upon “The People”. You never get the sense that he is entirely including himself as part of the general public. He is self-consciously an intellectual elite. As for Alexander, instead of complaining about the disenfranchized and disadvantaged, she seeks to speak for them and to offer genuine sympathetic understanding. Even in terms of pure scholarship, Shenkman just isn’t playing on the same level. Alexander backs her opinions with immense data, something Shenkman doesn’t do nearly as well. What he offers seems mostly to be cherrypicked factoids lacking much in the way of larger context and probing insight.

I almost feel bad for being so critical. Ignorance is a serious problem. For certain, I’m not dismissing the concern. I just don’t think the challenge was well met by Shenkman. If anything, he didn’t take his project seriously enough. This is an issue that shakes our society to its foundation, whether or not we have and are capable of having a functioning democracy.

What relevance does “The People” even have in a supposed representative democracy when it isn’t clear anyone is actually representing them? Who is there to give voice to the voiceless, to offer sympathetic understanding to those lost in a system of enforced ignorance? What does it mean to be a public intellectual at a time when the intellectual elite often seem more clueless than the uneducated and miseducated masses?

7 thoughts on “Just How Stupid is the Intellectual Elite?

  1. Hi, you commented on a similar piece of mine…just wanted to let you know I moved my blogs to this new site http://www.howardischwartz.com. I know you commented on my blog on this topic earlier (I think my agency deleted the comments when they moved it to the new site and I have to restore them…). I enjoy the intersection of our thinking. This is a topic as you know I also am concerned about. Here it is again for reference:

    Wanted to let you know I didn’t disappear, just moved! Thanks for your contributions.

    • Thanks for the link to your new site. I have a hard time keeping track of various blogs and websites I like to visit. The internet can be a confusing place. I’m not even good at remembering people in normal everyday offline life. Keeping track of people I know online is even more challenging. I’m now following you on Facebook and so that should help.

  2. I never really thought too highly of the book either.

    But the other issue that you haven’t addressed is that there is one matter of considerable concern. US knowledge of history, government, geography, and the rest of the world compares very poorly with other nations in the Western world.

    There also seems to be a certain culture promoting this ignorance strong in the US. Other nations are by no means perfect, but it’s a less serious problem.

    • “I never really thought too highly of the book either.”

      I didn’t know you had read the book. It was your linking to the article that led me to the book. The article intrigued me more than the book. A good book about that subject could be written, but that one wasn’t satisfactory.

      “But the other issue that you haven’t addressed is that there is one matter of considerable concern. US knowledge of history, government, geography, and the rest of the world compares very poorly with other nations in the Western world.”

      I didn’t address it here because I didn’t think Shenkman addressed such issues with much clarity and depth. I was mostly responding to the book itself and what it represented, rather than all of the specific issues related to American ignorance. I never argued that American’s weren’t ignorant, relative to some other countries, just that the author was clueless in his attempt to explain why this is the case.

      For example, I thought Shenkman was being ‘stupid’ in his attacking the young as ‘stupid’. The data doesn’t agree with him.

      Americans today are higher IQ than Americans were in the past. The average American from earlier last century would today be considered functionally retarded. Our abstract and critical thinking skills have developed immensely over time. Even minorities today who test lower on IQ still test higher than whites did in the past. Every generation is getting smarter.

      This is seen with current events. Consider this recent study:


      “Accuracy varies across demographic groups. In general, younger Americans tended to provide more accurate responses than their older counterparts: 27 percent of 18-24 year olds correctly identified Ukraine, compared with 14 percent of 65+ year-olds.”

      Attacking the young generation as being more ignorant is total bullshit. Yes, all Americans aren’t as informed as one would hope. But we should acknowledge that improvement is happening, generation by generation.

      “There also seems to be a certain culture promoting this ignorance strong in the US. Other nations are by no means perfect, but it’s a less serious problem.”

      I fully understand that. However, maybe this is yet another issue that should be put into post-colonial context. The countries doing the best in educating their citizens are the Western countries that have never were colonies. Many of those highly intelligent and well educated Northern European countries, in fact, were never either colonies or colonizers.

      Post-colonial problems are something we forget about in this country. We also forget that we are as much part of Latin America as we are part of Anglo America. This country in many ways may more in common with Mexico than with Canada.

      • You are right that the younger generation does better.

        I was the one that linked you that Washington Post study (I believe in relation to military spending, although it’s been a while and I cannot remember), although it’s possible that you may have picked it up before I did independently.

        However, this does not mean that the generation Y of other nations is doing even more favorably in this regard.

        But the issue right now is not that generation Y and X are better educated on average or better informed than their parents or grandparents.

        The issue right now is that the Baby Boom generation is very much in control and American Baby Boomers don’t do so well on average compared to the rest of the Western World.

        As far as your original question on who represents “the people”, the answer is nobody represents the very poor. Only the very wealthy are represented and perhaps the upper middle class (top 10% anyways). You could argue that it is a very grim conclusion to be making. But is a reasonable conclusion though?

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