IN 2008 Northwestern University Press published a collection of essays by Lionel Trilling edited by Leon Wieseltier under the title The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. Wieseltier chose the title because one of Trilling’s teachers, John Erskine, had once published an essay by that title. The problem I have with this title is that it makes no sense whatever and given that Trilling was a brilliant man he would have known this. The collection is in some way an insult to the man Wieseltier hoped to praise. There is no question he held Trilling in very high regard, but he should have given the title of the book more thought.

The title makes no sense because we cannot have an obligation to be intelligent. We either are or we are not intelligent. As Immanuel Kant argued many hears ago, “ought implies can.” We cannot choose to be intelligent, though we can choose to be as intelligent as possible. Thus the title “The Moral Obligation To Be As Intelligent As Possible” would have made sense. But it is a bit cumbersome and was doubtless rejected on those grounds. Again, we can try to be intelligent. Indeed, according to much of the collective wisdom of the Western tradition, we have a moral obligation to develop our potential, including our mental capacity, and not to waste it.

Our president and his minions have set the benchmark for intelligence at a very low level. In addition, the electronic toys the kids are addicted to have been shown to diminish intelligence. Popular culture and the entertainment industry have replaced “high culture” and civil discourse. And our schools don’t see intelligence as having any real value. But then intelligence in this country has never been regarded as an especially good thing, a thing to be sought after as desirable in its own right. Ours is a nation of practical folks who have always been suspicious of those who exhibit intelligence, those “eggheads” so derided not long ago. The notion that we should pursue knowledge for its own sake and not simply because it may someday translate into greater profits for ourselves and the companies we might happen to work for is anathema in this culture. And, to a lesser extent, it always has been, despite the fact that the founders of this nation were a remarkably intelligent group of men, as were the two presidents we revere most highly — namely, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. But, then, consistency has never been our strong forte.

Moreover, it makes no sense to say that we have a moral obligation to do something we cannot do. I cannot tell you, for example, that you really should leap off the highest building in town and fly — where “should” reflects the moral obligation to do just that. This makes no sense whatever. Thus, if intelligence is something we are either born with or not, then it makes no sense whatever to tell someone that they really should be intelligent. Even the phrase reflects the nonsense at the heart of the demand. But the notion that we should all, in this day and age, try as hard as we can to become as intelligent as possible makes perfectly good sense — despite the current cultural pressures to be as stupid as possible. Wasting our time and our minds on electronic toys, social media, violent movies, and listening to mindless people shouting at one another on television is not designed to make us smarter. It is tantamount to wasting our talents, our potential as human beings, our potential as a specific human being with specific abilities and talents.

We pay lip service to this idea when we note that “the mind is a terrible thing to waste” (or as Dan Quayle said in this regard, “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. . .”  Quayle knew whereof he spoke.) And our sitting president who spends his time tweeting inanities and taking mulligans on the golf course at the expense of the American taxpayer is certainly not my choice to be captain of the intelligence corps. But he is revered by countless Americans who see him as the Great White Hope, a man of extraordinary intelligence (as he insists he is) who will lead us to a brighter tomorrow. Probably not. Certainly not if we continue to waste our minds on trivia and toys and ignore the obligation to try to be as intelligent as possible and to elect politicians in the future who exhibit at least a modicum of intelligence.


11 thoughts on “Intelligence

  1. They are counting on the public to waste their minds, and for the most part, they do…sadly. Apathy, laziness and willful ignorance will ultimately destroy everything

  2. IQ is the potential your born with , your gift at birth ; you can use it or leave it just like money in the bank. To use it you need time and effort and you may not have much of that if you are bent on getting on or maybe surviving.
    Some devote themselves to sport , are they using their intelligence? Should Tiger Woods have spent more time reading. I remember hearing Daniel Baremboim warning potential concert pianists not to neglect all else except playing the piano. There is an old adage ‘ an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less and ends up knowing everything about nothing.

  3. A timely “rant” that makes much sense. He probably meant ‘the moral obligation to practice intelligence.’ Circumstances may work against us with dreams of “higher” education (poverty and family obligations locked university doors for me) but they cannot stop someone from learning. Like a blocked stream, the desire to learn opens other channels. Whatever the term is, there is a difference between intellectual acuity and will power.
    There is a very good reason why ‘capitalism’ which has infected all aspects of civilization, seeks to dummy down people: stupid people are easily manipulated and are much more likely to accept blatant lies as truth, hence the high rate of success of advertising, corrupt politics and business/banking practices.

  4. “We either are or we are not intelligent. ” – oh my; when I read that sentence, my creative voice aka ‘are poets mad?’ snatched that thought like a bluegill with a cricket, but before careening off on another runaway non-ending sentence, my tired eyes demanded, “NO!”

    I slept little last night and am now home and about to make up for that sleep deficit! Signing off just past noon on Sunday, I will be back whenever online again!

    “. Wasting our time and our minds on electronic toys(1), social media,(2) violent movies,(3) and listening to mindless people shouting at one another on television (4) is not designed to make us smarter.
    1. aside from the computer and the truck w/electric gauges, I own no other electronic gadgets – not even a watch!
    2. drives my friends nuts that i am not on facebook or face time and don’t have a phone!
    3. unless I’m on a long-distance bus ride, no movies…
    4. ah, the television was dumped over 20 years ago. I do miss good programs and at times a play-by-play on the weather – or plate tectonics!
    “…It is tantamount to wasting our talents, our potential as human beings, our potential as a specific human being with specific abilities and talents. ”
    Exactly! It’s time for the human species to ‘squeeze the marrow out of life!’

    Six weeks before the solo show opens, so I’ll be offline even more. I’ll be reading your posts offline, however and will send smoke signals when time permits!

  5. Hugh, Kant’s quote says it all. We need to be the best version of ourselves, be it intelligence, ethics, kindness, etc. Two interesting data points is the significant majority of universities and colleges have a much higher percentage of female students than male. Females are valuing education more so than men. The other is we better continue to be safe haven for immigrants, especially the smarter ones who come to our collegiate system. Innovation creates jobs, but it is also portable. If we don’t allow that to happen here, it will happen elsewhere.

    My point is there is real competition for future jobs going on. The key is do we all wish to be a participant. So, we better be at our best. Keith

  6. Something in your last paragraph has made a clicking sound in my head that I must investigate further. But on the whole, this is a very thought-provoking piece. Far too many people confuse ‘intelligence’ with ‘knowledge’, or even ‘education’. My late, ex-husband, who was scornful of my education, once said, while I was working on my MA, “you think you’re so smart because you’ve got all that education”. And I replied that no, I was smart before, the education just helps me learn how to put the ‘smart’ to work to do something of value.

    And you are right, sadly so, that our nation no longer seems to value intelligence … nor education, I think. Instead of teaching young people how to think and reason, we are simply teaching them job skills. Sad, because it is those who learn to think for themselves, who learn to question the way things are and seek better solutions, that become the inventors, the scientists, the writers and artists of tomorrow. I’m not sure I want to think about this nation in another 50 or 100 years. Heck, I don’t really want to think of it as it is today.

    Good post!

    • Thanks! We were once warned to beware the thugs in the colleges and universities who teach the young what to think not how to think. The thugs have taken over and run the show — just as the inmates are now running the country.

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