I have met very few parents or grandparents who have not characterized at least one of their offspring as “extremely bright” or even “brilliant” – usually beginning at the age of 2. The emphasis on the importance of the intellect is greater than ever.
That is why people were persuande into having their babies listen to Mozart after it was reported that listening to Mozart -- even in utero -- would make babies smarter. As an occasional orchestra conductor, I am delighted when anyone of any age is exposed to classical music. But love of music was not an issue here -- the Mozart-for-babies craze was about love of brains, not love of music. Likewise, those who can afford to do so vie with one another to have their children admitted to prestigious preschools and elementary schools.
This preoccupation with brains and intellectual attainment extends into adulthood. Most Americans upon hearing that someone has attended Harvard University assumes that this person is not only smarter than most other people but is actually a more impressive person. That is why, for example, people assume that a Nobel laureate in physics has something particularly intelligent to say about social policy. In fact, there is no reason at all to assume that a Nobel physicist has more insight into health care issues or capital punishment than a high school physics teacher, let alone more insight than a moral theologian. But people, especially the highly educated, do think so. That’s why one frequently sees ads advocating some political position signed by Nobel laureates.
Intellectuals, e.g., those with graduate degrees, have among the worst, if not the worst, records on the great moral issues of the past century. Intellectuals such as the widely adulated French intellectual Jean Paul Sartre were far more likely than hardhats to admire butchers of humanity like Stalin and Mao. But this has had no impact on most people’s adulation of the intellect and intellectuals.
So, too, the current economic decline was brought about in large measure by people in the financial sector widely regarded as “brilliant.” Of course, it turns out that many of them were either dummies, amoral, incompetent, or all three.
The adulation of the intellect is one reason President George W. Bush was so reviled by the intellectual class. He didn’t speak like an intellectual (even though he graduated from Yale) and for that reason was widely dismissed as a dummy (though he is, in fact, very bright). On the other hand, Barack Obama speaks like the college professor he was and thereby seduces the adulators of the intellect the moment he opens his mouth. Yet, it is he, not George W. Bush, who nearly always travels with teleprompters to deliver even the briefest remarks. And compared to George W. Bush on many important issues, his talks are superficial -- as reading, as opposed to hearing, them easily reveals.
Take, for example, one of the most complex and compelling moral issues of our time -- embryonic stem cell research. This is an excellent area for comparison since both presidents delivered major addresses on the exact same subject.
Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post has compared the two speeches. He has particular credibility on this score because he is a scientist (he has a medical degree from Harvard Medical School), a moralist, and has special interest in stem cell’s possibilities because he is a paraplegic from a diving accident. And, as he points out, “I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception.”
“Bush's nationally televised stem cell speech was the most morally serious address on medical ethics ever given by an American president. It was so scrupulous in presenting the best case for both his view and the contrary view that until the last few minutes, the listener had no idea where Bush would come out.”
“Obama's address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men.”
“Unlike Bush, who painstakingly explained the balance of ethical and scientific goods he was trying to achieve, Obama did not even pretend to make the case why some practices are morally permissible and others not.”
In a similar manner, I devoted two columns to analyzing Barack Obama’s widely hailed speech in Berlin when he was a candidate for president. I found it to be both vacuous and, to use Krauthammer’s words, “morally unserious in the extreme.”
But Obama sounds intelligent. As indeed he is.
The reason we have too few solutions to the problems that confront people -- in their personal lives as well as in the political realm -- is almost entirely due to a lack of common sense, psychological impediments to clear thinking, a perverse value system, to a lack of self-control, or all four. It is almost never due to a lack of brainpower. On the contrary, the smartest and the best educated frequently make things worse.