Intelligence or Intellect

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way
through our political and cultural life,
nurtured by the false notion that democracy means
that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
Isaac Asimov

A friend recently posted on Facebook, “Is there anyone that can explain to me how on God’s green earth some of these people get elected?” While to some a legislature’s behavior may range from odd to reprehensible, for others the same legislature’s behavior is appropriate, admired, courageous. The answer may have its roots in understanding the difference between intelligence and intellect.

Richard Hofstadter in his book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” provides the following definitions to intelligence and intellect.

“Intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust … within a fairly narrow, immediate, and predictable range … is unfailingly practical… works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals and may be quick to shear away questions of thought that do not seem to help in reaching them…”

“Intellect is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of the mind…it examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines… and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole.”

We admire those who through their intelligence get things done, happily when we approve the results and begrudgingly when the results are not to our liking. Seeing the big picture; understanding the impact downstream; connecting the dots are terms we use to describe one with intellect. As with intelligence there is admiration for intellect though not as broadly, and at times with frustration for those who seek a rapid answer or decision that brings closure.

Hofstadter describes how America’s practical culture has never embraced intellectuals. Intellectuals’ education and expertise are viewed as a form of power or privilege; they are seen as arrogant elite who are pretentious, conceited, and snobbish; their cultured view is seen as impractical; emphasis on knowledge and education is viewed as subversive, and it threatens to produce social decadence.

Anti-intellectuals believe the common sense of the common man is more than adequate and superior to formal knowledge and expertise from schools; experience, old-fashioned principles of religion, character, instinct, and morality are more reliable guides to life than education. What is more admired in America than the self-made man?

The roots of anti-intellectualism have been ingrained in our culture since the beginning of our country; have grown and spread influenced by religion, envy, and materialistic motivations. In 1991 sociologist Daniel Rigney reread Hofstadter’s book and in an essay entitled “Anti-intellectualism in the 21st Century” , identified three distinct categories of anti-intellectualism; anti-rationalism, anti-elitism, and unreflective instrumentalism.

Anti-rationalism is the suspicion and hostility toward the value of critical thought and reasoned discourse; with its beginnings during the early years of the Puritans. Today we see conservative religious hostility toward modern science and with it the fear that critical discourse will challenge traditional sources of authority and thus undermine the foundations of absolute belief. Hofstadter acknowledges that critical thinking really does threaten the unexamined traditions of the past.

Anti-rationalism is further demonstrated through slogans, sound bites, and other abbreviated methods of communication easily learned and repeated by uncritical thinkers despite the complexity behind the realities they describe. Anti-rationalism is a strong desire for simple answers in complex times.

Anti-elitism expresses mistrust and resentment toward the educated elite; their presumed claims to superior knowledge and wisdom. Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues were intellectuals; however, opposition came from a grass-roots upsurge led by Andrew Jackson, the rough and ready man of the people.

Anti-elitism from the left can be seen in the blue-collar labor movement, whose educations were often earned in the “school of hard knocks”; the perception that the educated elite “thinks they’re better than we are” survives to this day in working-class culture.

From the right, attacks on university faculties began in the McCarthy era of the 1950’s; and continues with the Tea Party movement effectively mobilizing many of the same resentments from the McCarthy era, fueling hostility toward “liberal elitists” who “think they know what’s good for us.”

Unreflective Instrumentalism
Unreflective instrumentalism is the dismissal of thought that does not promise relatively immediate “payoffs “or serves some “practical” end, which typically means money. While practicality is insisted, inquiries very deeply into the meanings of the word “practical” do not occur; is usually held without much reflection.

“Is there anyone that can explain to me how on God’s green earth some of these people get elected?”

Using the budget deficit as an example, budget reduction through social services elimination at the national level may demonstrate intelligence in addressing a deficit; and for some legislators and voters, this is what needs to get done, get tough, problem fixed, move on to the next task.

With intellect, understanding that the need for social services will continue, that funding requirements will be pushed down to the states, with some states better able to absorb the added financial burden than others, and therefore the likelihood of increased state expenses when aggregated will be greater than that in the original national budget. For some legislators and voters, this is the approach in determining a course of action, together with consideration of other revenue sources and other candidates for reduction. This is arduous work and the analysis at times appears never-ending.

Returning to Hofstadter’s book, he states “a great many intelligent people are not intellectuals, and being an intellectual, conversely, does not guarantee intelligence.”

Does this imply that in some cases a legislator who demonstrates intelligence is incapable of seeing “the big picture” and its broad long-term effects? That a legislator who demonstrates intellect is incapable of transforming thought into action and getting things done? Are voters with similar characteristics, the ones that help get these legislators elected?

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