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?