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.