The Public Shame of Intellectual Dysfunction

Why is it more acceptable, generally speaking, to be intellectually dysfunctional while being socially functional than to be socially dysfunctional while being intellectually functional? And yet why would most people take greater offense at being called intellectually dysfunctional than socially dysfunctional (or equivalent terms)?

I ask this in all sincerity. It seems strange.

Our society seems to value social skills more than intellectual skills. In fact, a large part of our society attacks people for being a part of the intellectual elite in a way they wouldn’t toward the social elite. They ridicule people for being stuck in ivory towers in a way they wouldn’t ridicule a Hollywood or music star for becoming rich from mere popularity.

Being intellectually talented rarely will make you rich or famous. But at the same time no one wants to think they are less than intellectually capable. I’m sure most of the population thinks they are intellectually above average.

If we as a society value intellectuality so little (relatively speaking), then why are we so touchy about it?

* * * *

The label of hardworking is one of the door prizes the losers of society can get just for playing.

You can be a poor uneducated wife-beating alcoholic white guy. But if you are one of the lucky schmucks to have any kind of legal work at all, then you get the privilege of being called hardworking. Then your allowed to look down on everyone less fortunate than you: unemployed, underemployed, homeless, welfare recipients, minorities, etc.

On the other hand, if you are intelligent and well educated while being unemployed, homeless, and/or on public assistance, you aren’t likely to get much respect by society. It doesn’t matter how many other good traits you have, from being kindhearted to generous. This is true even if you were a visionary genius, unless you invent or make something that can be marketed and profited from in our consumerist society, but then you’d be deemed hardworking. Your value would be in terms of your social functioning in a capitalist society, not your intellectual ability.

* * * *

I had a thought last night about how this connects to other issues.

The US has a large economic inequality and a large political power inequality. That isn’t extremely uncommon in the world, but it does make us stick out from rankings of other Western countries.

I was reminded about how scientifically illiterate Americans are on average. We rank among the lowest in the world on knowledge about basic scientific facts such as evolution, despite having some of the best universities in the world. If not for all the intelligent immigrants who keep coming here, our average IQ would likely stagnate or maybe fall drastically.

I realized that this is an intellectual inequality, an educational inequality. Our public schools are not so great, but the upper classes go to expensive private schools with the best education money can buy. Maybe intellectuality is such a touchy issue because inequality in general is such a touchy issue.

10 thoughts on “The Public Shame of Intellectual Dysfunction

  1. It would appear to be a part of American culture. It’s different in other cultures.

    Asian culture for example tends to look very highly on intellectual intelligence. Many of the top politicians come from technical backgrounds. It’s also true in many Western societies. Germany for example has many of their leaders who are technically oriented too.

    It seems to be a deeply ingrained anti-intellectualism embedded in culture. Alexis de Tocqueville observed it as early as the early 19th century.

    It may very well be that American society has a certain tolerance for inequality. Particularly on the right, many seem to view it as a good thing, despite the social indicators otherwise.

    That has serious consequences. To be honest, I’ve always thought that the US became superpower because of special set of circumstances not likely to repeat themselves.

    One was the large amount of land westward that allowed for rapid expansion.

    But the big one especially was the large influx of immigrants that the US has had throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many of whom probably kept the intelligence level higher than it would otherwise have been.

    I suspect that this one is going to reverse rapidly. This is especially true as the US begins to lose its scientific and technological leadership.

    • The inequality part may be the most significant.

      There are countries with populations that are mostly uneducated, but it is more equal for there are simply few people who are well educated. And there are countries where the almost the entire population is well educated because of quality education systems. The US is unusual in having an immense divide between a large population of highly educated and a large population of under-educated.

      This inequality is probably unsustainable. We have only maintained it by the constant influx of highly educated people from other countries. But if that influx were ever to stop or significantly slow down, the US might be in major trouble. We’ve grown dependent on siphoning off from other societies, both their social capital and their natural resources.

  2. People will keep coming so long as the US maintains some degree of leadership in the field of education and basic science.

    When that disappears, then that’s when things will turn for the worse; big time.

    The US rose because of a few things:

    – The vision that a few of the people had. Alexander Hamilton comes to mind as wanting the US to be a manufacturing superpower. The point is that they were long-term thinkers.

    – The large volume of land that was available Westward, along with the natural resources that would bring.

    – The influx of immigrants throughout the history of the US, which brought labor, but also many of the world’s best minds.

    – During the early 20th century, Europe made a series of serious mistakes that led to the World Wars. There was also the fact that China too was at its low point in history.

    Most of this is changing now.

    – Political reactionaries dominate as do servants of the 0.1%.

    – The large volume of land remains an advantage, but there’s not much room for expansion now.

    – Immigration remains possible, but there’s a lot more hostility and less reason to go to the US.

    – East Asia has recovered in the case of Japan, South Korea, and a few others. China is growing rapidly. Europe now has higher living standards than in the US.

    The issue with immigration is, people will keep coming if the see that the US maintains leadership in some areas in terms of its tertiary level education and research. That’s why the best scientists came after WWII.

    If that changes, then it things will change. The other issue is economic opportunity.

    Finally, there’s the issue of the political right. It is quite toxic to the long-term viability and competitiveness of the US.

  3. Revolution could come from the political right though like Germany in the 1930s as much as the political left. The issue is that there’s a large demographic that would support a strongman.

    The other issue is that not everyone seems to understand who is “screwing” them over, so to speak, particularly on the political right.

    • I wasn’t implying revolution would inevitably be a good thing, just that it might become a near inevitable thing. Outcomes will sort themselves out, and the ruling elite won’t necessarily be any happier about it than those who actually want real reform. But change happens by force when change by other means is denied. A revolution is a game of 52 card pick-up. There can be a certain thrill in throwing the cards in the air, but then someone has to pick them up.

  4. One other problem.

    A revolution would not change the ingrained anti-intellectual sentiment in American society. It’s deeply embedded in culture and will only change slowly over time.

    At best we could expect something like a Northern Europe social democracy.

    Generation Y, my generation, does offer some reason for hope in this regard though.

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