Friday, January 8, 2010

Is the "Educated Class" Losing Its Grip on Power So Soon?

David Brooks is wringing his hands at the New York Times about how the country (the USA) is trending right and the great unwashed are just not listening to what he calls "the educated class."

No kidding. He actually uses that term "the educated class" to describe people like himself who write columns in the NYT and lawyers and doctors and stockbrokers etc. who attended university and vote Democrat and worship Obama, if they worship at all. Who does he think he is talking about? Does he really think the new knowledge class of late modernity is made up of real intellectuals?

Are you kidding me? Intellectuals in the European sense means people who read deeply in Plato and Augustine and the whole Western philosophical and literary tradition, people who actually write books, for heaven's sake. Vaclav Havel is an intellectual. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) is an intellectual. Jurgen Habermas is an intellectual. The guy who went to the University of Pennsylvania and took business and then did an MBA at Harvard and whose idea of reading consists of absorbing Dan Brown novels while the football game is on- that is not an intellectual.

David Brooks writes:
"The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.

The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.

A year ago, the Obama supporters were the passionate ones. Now the tea party brigades have all the intensity. The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy — with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.

The tea party movement is mostly famous for its flamboyant fringe. But it is now more popular than either major party."
So if I have a Ph.D. from Canada's leading university, read 150 books a year, write books, teach Augustine and Dostoevsky to university students and have an IQ that is higher than most people I encounter in the run of the day, but I think abortion is murder and that the idea that a man can marry a man is inherently self-contradictory, then I am not a member of the "educated class?" And God help me if I question sacred cows like global warming or inclusive language. But some guy who attended Columbia and now watches TV every night and trades stocks all day long but has made his peace with all the dictates of political correctness - he is an intellectual? So Robert P. George and John Henry Newman are not of "the educated class" but Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden are?

I'm having a bit of difficulty here. In the Brooks universe all the "educated class" apparently live on a coast and vote Democrat, while all the poor peons in fly-over country cling to their guns and religion and are Tea Party sympathizers. That may not be exactly what he said, but it sure sounds like what he implied. Poor Mr. Brooks; he wants to be a "conservative" but he is so worried that someone might identify him with the great unwashed. Why does he not just give up on the conservative idea and just adjust to the universe in which he lives?

But even if Mr. Brooks "educated class" were really intellectuals, which is a stretch as I've said, that still would not mean that their ideas should dominate politics. Thomas Sowell, who is a lot closer to being a true intellectual than David Brooks could ever hope to be, has just written a book on intellectuals, Intellectuals and Society. I have not read it yet, but it is definitely on the list. I did read an interview in which he was asked why he wrote it and how it differed from Paul Johnson's similar book entitled Intellectuals, he said that he agreed with much of what Johnson had to say but he planned to be harder on intellectuals than Johnson was! That was when I knew I had to read his book.

In a recent column in the Washington Times, Sowell writes:
"Those whose careers are built on the creation and dissemination of ideas - the intellectuals- have played a role in many societies out of all proportion to their numbers. Whether that role has, on net balance, made those around them better off or worse off is one of the key questions of our times.

The quick answer is that intellectuals have done both. But certainly, for the 20th century, it is hard to escape the conclusion that intellectuals have on net balance made the world a worse and more dangerous place. Scarcely a mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century was without his supporters, admirers or apologists among the leading intellectuals - not only within his own country, but in foreign democracies, where intellectuals were free to say whatever they wanted to.

. . . snip . . .

The ideas that Karl Marx created in the 19th century dominated the course of events over wide portions of the world in the 20th century. Whole generations suffered, and millions were killed, as a result of those ideas. This was not Marx's intention, nor the intentions of many supporters of Marxist ideas in countries around the world. But it is what happened.

Some of the most distinguished intellectuals in the Western world in the 1930s gave ringing praise to the Soviet Union, while millions of people there were literally starved to death and vast numbers of others were being shipped off to slave labor camps.

Many of those same distinguished intellectuals of the 1930s were urging their own countries to disarm while Hitler was rapidly arming Germany for wars of conquest that would have, among other things, put many of those intellectuals in concentration camps - slated for extermination - if he had succeeded.

The 1930s were by no means unique. In too many other eras - including our own today - intellectuals of unquestionable brilliance have advocated similarly childish and dangerous notions. How and why such patterns have existed among intellectuals is a challenging question, whose answer can determine the fate of millions of other people."

Sowell is right in saying that intellectuals, who trade in ideas rather than practical knowledge, are dangerous. That is not to say that they are not quite frequently right, eloquent, insightful and brilliant. It is to say that the practical work of governing a state requires character more than intelligence and virtue more than facility with theoretical ideas (assuming an average or above average level of intelligence as well).

It would be very comforting to people like David Brooks if the people who went to the same colleges as he did and spoke with the same accents and wore the same clothes could be counted on to be right about political and ethical issues. But it is a dangerous illusion. Being smart doesn't automatically make you good.

In fact, the primary characteristic that members of the "educated class" that Brooks is talking about share is a common indoctrination in a common set of worldview assumptions that train you in what jokes to laugh at and what images it is bad to be associated with. Contemporary university campuses contain a very high percentage of students who are being trained in narrow technical skills rather than reading the classics that form the essence of a truly liberal education. They could learn what they are learning in the classroom in a technical institute. Their real purpose in being in an elite university is to learn to navigate and conform to the code of political correctness that allows them to be simultaneously casually bohemian (about sex) and self-righteously moralistic (about the environment) and never ever feel any incongruity between the two ways of thinking.

Universities today are bubbles in which critical thinking is seldom required. Students at universities across Canada are banning or trying to ban politically incorrect groups from being registered clubs. Unequipped to be able to win arguments, they resort to fascist methods as naturally as a duck takes to water; this is the legacy of the kind of education they have received. They are the newest members of Brooks' "educated class."

William F. Buckley famously remarked that he would rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard and his remark is so often repeated because it punctures a balloon that David Brooks can't seem to keep from re-inflating. The fact that such drivel gets published in the NYT goes a long way to explain why newspapers are in such a precipitous state of decline and likely won't survive much longer.

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