John Parker's piece about our "age of mass intelligence" in the winter issue of Intelligent Life sparked a heated response from readers. We invited George Balgobin, a commenter, to expand on his dissent ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
The commute is just long enough to be useful. Over the speakers comes the reflective voice of Harold Bloom, telling the businessman as he sits in traffic about the “The Art of Reading a Poem". Across town on the subway, a student spends the first day of spring break on a visit to the Guggenheim. And overhead, as a plane clears the skyline, a woman unpacks her Oprah edition of "Light in August".
As a still life, the "Age of Mass Intelligence" is compelling. No one doubts that reality TV and gossip journalism increasingly share mental space with Joyce and Ravel. But intelligence is not a matter of pressing more pieces of culture into the great jigsaw puzzle of the mind. Unless operas and concerts are prophylactics against a churlish existence, we are not wising up. We are merely trying to buy wisdom.
This is an Age of Commodified Intelligence, a time of conspicuously consumed high culture in which intellectual life is meticulously measured and branded.
Equal measures success and hubris are to blame. By the end of the last century, exponential gains in science and in living standards made advancement seem inevitable, progress a matter of putting one scientific foot in front of the other. The intellectual horizon felt flatter, more intelligible, more accessible. A rise in intellectual exuberance is therefore unsurprising. Enrichment has certainly been on the march.
Facebook is devoted to cataloguing this cultural rebirth. Here people curate their personas and project them at the world. Characteristic of the younger generations, the mood strains for the eclectic while feigning nonchalance. The alchemist arranges lists in search of gold: Shostakovich, Dresden Dolls, Justin Timberlake, Miles. "Mrs Dalloway" is popular, perched between "Harry Potter" and, simply, “The Russians”. Status updates remind you that a friend has just returned from an “HD Mozart Opera” while another is “getting into Herzog films”. This is an achievement panopticon; the participants are its prisoners.
It is tempting to confine these observations to a narrow class of posing dilettantes. But a belief that intelligence is gained through acquisition has reoriented all of society.
A 15-year-old cousin of mine was recently considering taking a year off between high school and college--an unorthodox idea among American middle-class students. Instead, she explained that she had decided to postpone the break to one between college and graduate school. Of course she had already assumed graduate school was in her future, though she hadn't yet decided on a career. The advanced degree itself had become the career goal.
Of course higher education has always meant a chance for greater economic success, and more careers now require such certification. But degrees are also more readily pursued as status symbols. We are not growing more intelligent, only more obsessed with its outward markers.
We engage in an elaborate credentials kabuki. Our graduate schools are filled with students forcing out narrow, irrelevant dissertations. They labour to be professors, not to spend lives devoted to their fields. Writers and librarians now seek graduate degrees to prepare for jobs that have existed for thousands of years without such hurdles. Even dogwalkers take classes for certification. We’ve become so reliant on checklists of accomplishment that we’ve lost our ability to make independent judgments. We no longer pursue passions or interests without quantifiable reward.
But there is a difference between cultivating the intellect and developing an appreciation for high culture. And by high culture, I don’t mean just the polite décor of the Louvre, but also outdoor murals, Ukrainian folksongs--really any human expression that provokes thought. Cultural acumen is not merely a matter of looking at and listening to prescribed pieces of art or music, or force-feeding yourself a menu of great books. No matter how many museum turnstiles we pass through, if we value our exchange with art only as a means to impress others, we mistake the chaff for the wheat.
Statistics, on their own, do not tell the story of a great intellectual awakening. They only tell us where the market for culture stands. Grand statements about the dawn of mass intelligence are belied by everyone's obsession with making their erudition public. No quicker is a book read than it appears in a personal profile online or is wedged inartfully into dinner party conversation .
The public's taste for culture seems to correlate strongly with familiarity. Concert halls fill for Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, less so for Messiaen and Schoenberg. The latter, of course, belong to the market in recognisable obscurity, which enjoys currency among those who chafe at being told by Oprah what to read.
Some years ago David Brooks wrote about a similar phenomenon in the Atlantic. He visited Princeton University to check in on the future leaders of the country, and found them efficient, disciplined and encyclopaedic in their interests. In a word, they were extraordinary. And in another word—good. When they’re in charge, he wrote, “it will be a good country, though maybe not a great one.” A sense of personal virtue had been lost in all this achievement. These students, he wrote, had a hard time understanding how the plagiarist, alone in his room, could really be doing harm even if he never got caught.
What Brooks found holds true for the broader world of aspirational consumption. There is nothing innately wrong in gobbling up great art, important novels and educational credentials. Attending a performance of "The Rite of Spring" does no one harm. But if we fail to distinguish between attendance and appreciation, we may end up poorer for it, left with a corporate caricature of our cultural richness. The “intelligent” masses will work hard mining the store of culture artefacts, but will they read the texts and learn from them, or only use them as objects for trade?
In truth, we live far from the age of mass intelligence. As Shakespeare said and Faulkner later echoed, “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Picture credit: Ross_Angus (via Flickr)
(George Balgobin is a writer based in Chicago.)