Stupidity: A Malady of the Cultural Elite

We live in something of a meritocracy, and our rulers believe they are by far the most enlightened and well-informed people who ever lived. For that reason they feel entitled to make the aspirations of the present day, or what they consider such, the compulsory standard for public life. They view the claim that there are principles that transcend those aspirations as the sort of thing that led to 9/11, and treat the past as worth considering only as something to escape from or a foreshadowing of the glories of the present.

Nonetheless, a variety of conditions, from the state of education and the arts to that of political discussion, makes it evident that Western society is growing less and less able to think clearly and effectively. That’s a big problem, and one that’s hard to deal with, because it is difficult to cure oneself of mindlessness. Still, we should do our best to understand what’s going on.

A basic part of the problem is that the kind of meritocracy we have leads to stupidity. Its effect is that local and subordinate groupings are deprived of talent and respect, and the leadership at the top becomes unable to think or function outside established understandings. The people at the top mostly went to the same highly competitive schools, where they were all told the same things, and it’s taken all their effort and devotion to get where they are today. The result is that they’re absorbed in their social function and setting, and would find it very difficult to adopt an independent perspective if the desire to do so ever entered their heads.

The results are evident in our public life. How often do our leaders say or write anything that would be of interest if a different name were attached? Can anyone imagine Hilary Clinton thinking something she isn’t supposed to think? And to get to the bottom line, do our rulers give the impression that they know what’s going on or what to do about it?

Naturally, meritocracy isn’t the only culprit. There are other factors at work that also stem from the nature of a society ruled by technology and technocratic ideals. Their effect is that the understandings that guide thought are becoming increasingly nonfunctional:

  • Electronic diversions train people out of the habit of consecutive thought. Tweets, texting, and multitasking mean discussions never get to the point and are hardly discussions at all.
  • Rejection of transcendent standards leads to denial of the good, beautiful, and true in favor of rhetoric and power. That means the subordination of thought to politics, propaganda, and partisanship.
  • Bureaucracy, commerce, and the media absorb functions once performed by individuals, families, and tradition. Instead of the arts of life, which require thought, we have consumer goods, social programs, and industrially-produced pop culture. The result is that thought becomes less important as a day-to-day matter.
  • Thought requires engagement with reality. Electronic entertainment and the distance between cause and effect in a complex globalized society mean people do not engage reality, while skepticism as to truth means they consider it theoretically impossible to do so.
  • A technological approach to society means mechanical unity of components, and thought and discussion are not mechanical. Common histories, understandings, and commitments, as well as freedom of association, are necessary for complex and subtle activities such as scholarly inquiry and speculative thought, and technocracy disrupts such things.
  • Thought depends on recognizing and applying patterns, and technology rejects pattern recognition in favor of simple relations of cause and effect. To make matters worse, relating individual cases to patterns means stereotyping and discrimination. Ideals of diversity and inclusiveness, which draw their institutional strength from the technocratic desire to turn people into interchangeable components, thus require suppression of the habits of mind that make thought possible.
  • Thought also depends on standards of cogency, which are disfavored because they are at odds with diversity. People want to include marginalized voices, so they feel called upon to treat thoughts nonjudgmentally, as long as they are politically acceptable.
  • In any event, standards require effort, so they’re at odds with consumerism, comfort, and lifestyle libertarianism, and the technological outlook makes those the goals of life. Such an attitude may help explain the recent startling decline of academic achievement among thoroughly assimilated Jewish and Japanese Americans.

If America and the West are getting stupider as a result of the basic nature and tendency of our society, including the measures that have been adopted to increase the intelligence with which it is run, we have to ask about the future. Some say that the no-nonsense Chinese will take over everything, others that genetic engineering will save the day, still others predict a period of general disorder, something like the Middle East but on a global scale.

It seems unlikely the Chinese will take over, since they have their own problems. For starters, selective abortion and the one-child rule mean they’re going to have a huge population of young men with no prospect of marriage, and an even huger population of elderly people with no one to support and look after them. Nor does genetic engineering look like a cure-all for stupidity, if only because the problems are mostly cultural and grow out of an understanding of man and society that reduces human life to an engineering problem. So the obvious outcome of present trends in the West is growing incoherence of thought, leading to nonfunctional public life and a retreat into inward-turning networks of survival. We’ve tried to turn Iraq into Minnesota, but it’s more likely we’ll turn Minnesota into Iraq.

What’s needed, then, is a basic change of cultural direction that allows better things to develop. That’s not impossible. Intelligence is more functional than stupidity, and cooperation works better than chaos, so why shouldn’t they have a competitive advantage?

What’s caused the problem is the habit of viewing the world exclusively as a mechanical system. That approach has been fruitful in the physical sciences, but it has no place for intelligence, meaning, or agency, so it defeats itself when applied to the world as a whole. It can deal with protons, but not with physics as a science carried on by intelligent human beings, so in the long run it undermines even science.

Man is rational, at least to the extent that if he drives intelligence and meaning out of his understanding of the world he will eventually drive them out of his way of life. What we need, then, is a fundamental change of understanding that makes intelligence and meaning integral to how things are. To be functional and stable the new understanding must be concrete enough to give determinate results, and to deserve confidence it must have a way that can be counted on to settle disruptive questions.

That sounds a lot like Catholicism. Things haven’t been going well for the Church lately, but we’re not the only ones with problems. In the long run basic principles determine results, so if we can remain true to what we are then even from a purely this-worldly standpoint we have advantages that the forces of secular modernity can’t match. The conversion of the Roman Empire became final when thinkers like Augustine found they needed the Church to make sense of life and the world. What works best wins out, so there are reasons to expect something similar to happen again.

Editor’s note: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Paul Tran

    Great article !!! However, I wouldn’t blame technology as being a part of the downfall of society. Technology is an inevitable part of progress, it’s how we use it that’s the important thing. Sadly, we often tend to misuse technology. And the downside of the misuse of technolgy is that it is created as a convenience and we have become too reliant on it. Thus anything convenient one is less likely to put any effort into it. So, this is probably why society & individuals are so disconnected.

    • But don’t forget MacLuhan’s discovery that “the medium is the message”!

      • LisaRanger


        McLuhan also observed that the “closer” media allows us to become, the farther apart we become in fact. IOW, the immediacy of FB posts are the merest semblance of an actual rapport. Today, it is a barrage of the quick and superficial, but quantity does not make up for lack of quality in terms of analysis and understanding.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Contrary to popular belief, Newton did not ask himself what caused the apple to fall; he asked how fast it fell. This is something that is not only observable, but measurable.

    That is a great point gained, for one measurement can be correlated with others: of mass, distance, time. By treating them as variables in differential equations, the constant relationship between them can be expressed and they can be used to make predictions.

    Such an approach to Nature is thoroughly scriptural, for Solomon says, “Thou hast ordered all things in measure and number and weight.” (Wisdom 11:20)

  • Robert Bellah already said this in “Habits of the Heart.” He also says that religion is the only real hope. A lot of what the author describes are the consequences of our highly aggressive capitalist culture.

    • Micha_Elyi

      The Puritans had a “highly aggressive capitalist culture” and religious fervor. (Throw another witch on the fire…)

      No, stupidity is not due to capitalism. To err is human. And humans with monster IQs are capable of monstrous stupidity.

      However I do agree “religion is the only real hope.” If you want to improve your nation, get a few more of your neighbors going to weekly worship of God – even if where they worship is just a bit outside the visible boundaries of the Church.

  • Excellent article. I was in fact thinking about something similar last night, as I shut a book I’ve been reading — a bound volume of Century Magazine, November 1889 to Apri 1890. What’s fascinating to me is how much general knowledge the writers presuppose, about the physical world, Scripture, history, modern languages, the arts, and literature; yet I don’t think it is written for a professorial readership. For example, the magazine features pleasant short stories and poems, and there was a very long article — I’d guess about 20,000 words — on the construction of the New Croton Aqueduct, with maps and blueprints and photographs. Then I asked myself, “What was the sum of the ‘knowledge’ of the young people I went to school with at Princeton?” Now that I look back upon it, it was a mess. A smart mess, if that makes any sense; islands of real knowledge, boasting a couple of palm trees of wisdom, in a great sea of ignorance and misinformation. Some of us knew about the music of Prokofiev, and some of us knew about the Civil War, but none of us really knew history, none of us had read more than a smattering of the great authors in English, and certainly none of us knew a darned thing about philosophy or theology or the Church. But Princeton trained us in supposing that we were meant to rule the world. It’s “meritocracy,” with the “merit” measured in IQ, not in understanding, and quite divorced from tradition or community life or the real achievements of the human intellect, outside of those things that can be put to use for dominating nature and other human beings.

    • “Now that I look back upon it, it was a mess. A smart mess, if that
      makes any sense; islands of real knowledge, boasting a couple of palm
      trees of wisdom, in a great sea of ignorance and misinformation”
      Yes, give us back the trivium and quadrivium (and I mean it)!

    • Micha_Elyi

      …”merit” measured in IQ…”
      Tony Esolen

      You’ve put your finger on a contradiction deep in the structure of our modern America, Mr. Esolen. It was never so clear to me before. IQ only measures a kind of potential. Demonstrated real-world understanding and achievement is the measure of “merit”. Misunderstanding IQ and merit has led this nation into giving over to the long-schooled and clever tasks best offered to those who are accomplished and wise.

  • This is quite beautiful and intellectual. I salute you, sir. 🙂

  • Jeff

    I find this article very anti-social. Clearly the author disagrees with much opinion that is modern, but he is “shooting the messenger.” The claim that “those who disagree with me are stupid” is a very lazy and sloppy one. People are not becoming stupider. We are becoming measurably more intelligent (google “the Flynn effect”). We are demanding more rigorous rationalizations and are less inclined to accept previously unanalyzed assumptions. Our greater understandings prove to us how little we know, so we are more inclined to consider new ideas. I don’t see modern people as more sure of themselves, necessarily — rather they are less reactionary, more analytical and open to new ideas.

    • Scott Waddell

      Excellent demonstration of Kalb’s thesis.

    • Romulus

      I don’t recognize these people you describe. What I see is a steady and accelerating erosion of the possibility of being human. It is a consequence of the loss of faith. The dehumanizing of man is a spiritual project, with social manifestations.

    • David_William

      In other words, need I flog a very dead horse, your moderns are exactly what Mister Kalb has described. How insightful. How sad of you not to notice what the essay was about.

    • The quantity of information, given to us by modern technology, doesn’t necessarily mean that the quality of accuracy is obtained. The information age is filled with disinformation on truths and science.

      • Bono95

        Tell me about it. This November I did an internet search for St. Thomas More, and printed 2 of the articles I found, 1 was from Wikipedia and the other was from a Catholic website. The Catholic article was very helpful, informative, and consistent. The Wikipedia article contained a lot of sound info too, but it contradicted itself in a few places, saying that “St. Thomas More was a great man even though his religious fanaticism may distance from fighters for religious freedom today” and stuff like that.

    • asa2222

      I’m not sure “rationalization” means what you think it means…

  • crakpot

    Very well said. Private, independent thought is where we take what we’ve heard or read and try to juxtapose it with what we hear in the voice of conscience. Indoctrination teaches people how to build a shell around that voice, to muffle and distort it. The truth, however, can be most piercing, not so much when heard from the strong, who are easily discredited, but when heard by the weak.

    I’m fascinated by conscience. What I see more and more is people, particularly powerful people, blaring out the indoctrination they’ve recorded as loudly as they can to drown out the quiet but persistent voice of conscience. Their idea of accomplishment is perfect memorization, and what they fear most is a small voice in the crowd triggering an uncontrollable public display of being bothered by conscience, a conscience they will have to wrestle with once alone.

    Conscience is the only thought that can reach everyone. The best we can do with many people is to open a crack in that shell, and let Him do the talking.

    • LarryCicero

      Even on threads similar to this, where you try to open that crack, there are censors who can determine that a comment is offensive, and in their wisdom delete it–probably not understanding the point, but fearing that it put the publication in a bad light. I speak of HE which does not allow a fetus to be compared to a slave in respect to personhood, a concept those at Crisis have the intelligence to grasp.

  • ve6

    Silence is the language of God. While not mentioned in this article, the distraction of noise prevents us from communicating with the Lord.

    • Good point. At the level of the article I suppose I’d say that there’s an insistence today on making everything explicit, and ignoring what can’t be made so. As a practical matter that leaves out an essential aspect of good judgment. At a higher level it makes contemplation impossible and incomprehensible.

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  • Romulus

    Of course, meritocracy itself is part of the problem, because our culture understands merit purely as functional competence, and regards its adepts as a priestly class. I would suggest therefore, that our rulers are far from well-informed. If anything they are narrowly specialized technocrats, badly in need of a liberal education.

  • Sarah Byers

    “complex and subtle activities such as scholarly inquiry and speculative thought” vs. “the subordination of thought to politics, propaganda, and partisanship” … an important distinction and a reminder to academics who assume that inquiry and writing should be immediately and *directly* serving the culture wars. The true intellectual views knowledge about the most important things as its own end (so Newman) and this builds a healthy culture as a *byproduct*.

  • An excellent analysis, Mr. Kalb, thank you. I would like to add one very important factor contributing to the mental and moral decadence of our society: emotionalism/sentimentalism. People no longer think, they feel; emotional hyperventilating has replaced logical thinking and common sense. By the way, an excellent and detailed (albeit occasionally somewhat esoteric) discussion of the crisis of Western culture can be found in the writings of Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon (especially in the former’s “The reign of quantity and the signs of the times”.)

    • musicacre

      If you look at the schools, emotionalism /sentimentalism has certainly been used to replace rational thought , from the earliest grades; quite deliberately the way I see it. There has been a plan at work for some time to dumb-down America (and other countries) and the emotional content is part of it. (Near illiteracy is the other). Of course it is packaged in an attractive disguise: sympathy, empathy, inclusiveness, unity and other high-sounding virtues that are being being high jacked from their legitimate places and replacing reasoning. You are made to feel guilty, even as a child if you don’t approach the problem the way the teacher and school has packaged it. When this starts at the kindergarten stage then the predictable result is you really do have a fuzzy “thinker” graduating after 12 years of this and getting out into the world as a new voter. Of course after all these decades, it’s finally rampant among adults under the age of 65…perfect timing for Obama to come on the scene and get voted in by nothing more than his emotional appeal! Yes, schools are where a country is made or broken! Unfortunately.

      • MSApis

        Already more than 20 years ago Sam Francis was deploring “therapeutic voodoo
        masquerading as education”. He considered “affective education” to be the jargon for education aimed at manipulating emotions and feelings rather than the more cerebral sort that actually teaches you something. (From Educational Therapeutic Voodoo by Sam Francis)

    • Guenon is wonderfully lucid. It comes from being a Frenchman and a mathematician I suppose. Still, a Catholic is not likely to think the world is quite so cyclical. We think there’s more room for free will and surprises.

      • Did you read Guenon in French or in English, Mr. Kalb? I’m asking because he is indeed lucid but only in the original French; the English translations, although generally very well done, make for difficult reading. Or maybe it’s just me.

  • David_William

    Alas, when does a “meritocracy” become a “mediocracy”? Why, when it conceives of itself as being superior, of course.
    It is, however, a capital mistake to identify the intersts of the self-selected elite with “liberalism” in any of its form. That is merely a word which they have stolen to lend a “feel-good” aura to their basically selfish agenda. (Ditto for “progressive”.)
    As a matter of negative progression, I recall an essay by one of my favorite authors, Robert Heinlein, in which he stated that his grandfather had been required to study Greek and Latin at college, his father had only been required to study Latin, and he — Robert — had been offered the election of study in Spanish. And thus do we lose out past. And our future.

  • I only wish Mr. Kalb would read my “Venezuela XXI, La Revolucion de la Estupidez” (Bogota, 2011). The stupidity malady affects Everyone, not just the “cultural elites”.

    • Sadly, this is true.

    • Oh, I agree. There’s a whole culture of stupidity, and I think the body of the piece makes that clear. The point of the title is to highlight a specially destructive and startling feature of the problem.

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  • Excellent article. Thank you!

    “In the long run basic principles determine results, so if we can remain true to what we are then even from a purely this-worldly standpoint we have advantages that the forces of secular modernity can’t match.”

    Faithfulness – yes!

  • Consider the case of Nick D’Aloisio, the 17-year-old inventor of the “Summly” app, which he just sold to Yahoo! for millions of dollars. Apparently, when studying for history class, he was using google (his first mistake), and determined that he had neither the capacity nor the desire to digest large amounts of information on his own. So instead of developing his own abilities to think critically, he wrote a computer program to do it form him. He’s now a millionaire because of it.

    Is this where our society is headed — rewarding with millions of dollars those whose goal is to relieve us of the burden of thinking for ourselves?

    • Sadly, yes. I do love technological advances, but I do not support the reduction of human reason. 🙂

  • cestusdei

    When they say that “Obama is the smartest guy in the room” we know there is something wrong.

    • If you replace Obama with Dawkins, it’s going to be even more true.

  • asa2222

    Mostly good article, but I think the criticisms of technology go a little too far. Social media usually is shallow, yes. But for those who truly want to learn, the internet is probably the greatest invention since the book. Never before have so many resources, again, some of it merely shallow information without much wisdom, but not all of it, been available to people of limited means. Granted, the number of people who really utilize it to study the great achievements of civilization will be few, but they are out there. Of course this article itself wouldn’t have been read by most of its readers without technology.

  • I certainly agree with the article’s major points and it’s all well-stated. However, this gives me pause: “The conversion of the Roman Empire became final when thinkers like Augustine found they needed the Church to make sense of life and the world. What works best wins out, so there are reasons to expect something similar to happen again.”

    Except, the Roman empire was falling (for which Christianity was subsequently blamed, thanks, Gibbon!) as Augustine was converting and Europe underwent several hundred years of social and political disorganization, strife and hardship. Certainly, “in the long run,” the Faith springs from a Source that won’t run dry and, consequently, has resources that arid rationalism can only dream of. But, I worry about a very long, ugly, cruel run.

    • I note in the piece that it’s a hard problem to cure, and I agree that things may become very bad indeed. Still, the good is bigger and more real than the bad and it seemed worth pointing that out too.

  • “Gentlemen, what has been the practical error of the last twenty years — not to load the memory of the student with a mass of undigested knowledge, but to force upon him so much that he has rejected all. It has been the error of distracting and enfeebling the mind by an unmeaning profusion of subjects; of implying that a smattering in a dozen branches of study is not shallowness, which it really is, but enlargement, which it is not; of considering an acquaintance with the learned names of things and persons, and the possession of clever duodecimos, and attendance on eloquent lecturers, and membership with scientific institutions, and the sight of the experiments of a platform and the specimens of a museum, that all this was not dissipation of mind, but progress. All things now are to be learned at once, not first one thing, then another, not one well, but many badly. Learning is to be without exertion, without attention, without toil; without grounding, without advance, without finishing. There is to be nothing individual in it; and this, forsooth, is the wonder of the age.”
    John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (“Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Learning,” part eight).
    Now then — take from Newman’s description of those ills the “mass of undigested knowledge,” and replace it with a “mass of lies, evasions, stupidities, and reductions.” Take away even the “acquaintance with the learned names of things and persons” (“Hannibal Lecter? That’s the only Hannibal I’ve heard of!”), and replace it with “worship of the ephemeral idols of celebrity”). Take away “attendance on eloquent lecturers,” and replace it with “sitting through fifth-rate spritzes of political hackwork.” Take away “membership with scientific institutions,” and replace it with “volunteering for Save the Whales.” Take away the “specimens of a museum,” and replace it with “looking upon toadying banners sporting the visage of Che Guevara.” Take away the duodecimos and replace them with tweets. Then you have our modern education. We would have to struggle up a most strenuous intellectual climb to reach the state of dissipation that Newman decries.

  • Theorist

    This article was very concise and just as brilliant. I think that it touches on themes which Tocqueville mentioned, and which I think are traceable to the centralization of American culture.

    America, was founded as a league of states with their own religions and cultures. As such, the league served no higher cultural purpose but a mercenary one -economic and military coordination/protection. As such its elites must always be of a mercenary and pragmatic character.

    But when the central gov. became powerful enough to force the states to change (basically Marshall court onwards) their natures then, as a corollary, the pragmatists in DC and in New England were proportionately empowered. And so our elites became men who wish to wield power, not to protect high culture and religion but to dismantle any type of individual or philosophy of superior value, in favor of the most crass and mundane of human elements. So the cultural elite are only elites in so far as they represent the anti-cultural elements of the people, considered as useless proletarians. This can be no better exhibited than in the phenomenon of freemasonry, which is none other than a bourgeois religion for the bourgeoisie; for it exposes the adherent to esoteric knowledge by means of the most weak-minded tales and in the end even this knowledge is just warmed over gnosticism or neo-platonism!

    They are an anti-nobility nobility and they are also anti-constitutional guardians of the U.S. constitution. That is, they are the embodiments of the worst parts of Americanism.

  • Sue Korlan

    One of the basic problems with the modern world is that most students are not taught the basics of logic, and therefore think that their thought makes sense and that some ideas have been proven or disproven, when in fact they have not been. So a return to one of the basics of education would be extremely helpful in fixing this problem in my point of view.

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  • CTW

    Very good article. Another good one from a few years ago that many of you may have read is “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr (The Atlantic, July 1 2008)

  • Seduction by the Siren Song of Reason/fear of action’s consequences: Malady of the putative opposition to the Cultural Elites.

    They act, they win by default. The Vandals are in Carthago before Augustine gets his pants on…BTW …Augustine is not the person to refer to in actual defense of everything, never mind rolling back Evil. During the Siege he was a hopeless neurotic old woman. Quite useless.


  • Pete Maplewood

    BTW, Jim, this article got noticed by Foseti, the Scribe of the Dark Enlightenment.

  • Pete Maplewood

    “Nor does genetic engineering look like a cure-all for stupidity, if only
    because the problems are mostly cultural and grow out of an
    understanding of man and society that reduces human life to an
    engineering problem.”

    … Not to mention regression to the mean, which (as 1000s of years of dog breeding might suggest) seems to bound what you can get with genetics alone. And also happens to give rise to at times rather unsavory unintended consequences. (cf. this hale and hearty fellow with this one (not so much). According to La Wik, 80% of Bulldog litters are delivered cesarean–that is pretty much a textbook definition of maladaptive.)

    This issue of intelligence was getting some discussion a couple weeks ago at Nick Land’s blog. I pondered, under my Dark Enlightenment pseudonym, whether culture itself wasn’t some sort of meta-intelligence, i.e., an intelligent way to build, foster, and reward intelligence as an adaptive strategy. Darker parts of the Dark Enlightenment crowd has a fascination with cybernetic enhancement, a la Technology Singularity. Of course, I tend to be skeptical of all chiliastic ideas, even Nietzschean ones. But I don’t think it is necessarily invalid to think of culture as an adaptive “algorithm” that maximizes natural adaptive advantages (e.g., “intelligence”) of individuals within the society.

    Intelligence (g) is largely heritable (~70%), so after nutrition (check) and language development (check), and not bonking people on the head (check), there’s probably not a lot we’re going to do about that, certainly not over wide populations. Obviously it would be great if the dice of public policy were loaded in such a way that the “smart” out-breeded the “dumb”, as opposed to the other way around that we have today–which we may regard, without imagining or referencing Sanger or Hitler, as dysgenic. It isn’t good for an economy to have a large population of dumb people. That is not tantamount to saying we should exterminate all dumb people or prevent them, by force or device, from reproducing. It violates to none of God’s laws to suggest that we should not, at least, subsidize bad behavior (i.e., bastardy, divorce, petty crime), nor at least raise the question of how much social safety nets may in general subsidize bad behavior.

    One of the most relevant (amateur) studies I’ve seen on this question is Audacious Epigone’s look at Education, IQ, and Fertility. His correlations suggest convincingly (IMO) that it is education and not intelligence per se that is dysgenic. I would guess further that it is female education, delaying marriage, delaying childbearing, most especially that is dysgenic.

    How do you stop that? Well, you have to pop the College Bubble. And how do you that? You look at why we have a College, i.e., credentialing, Bubble in the first place. We have a Credentialing Bubble, first, because, employers cannot simply give IQ tests and hire the smartest (“fittest”) applicants. Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971) indeed set the stage for the mess we have today. Employers still require IQ tests, only to get around Griggs, they now cost $80k-$250k and take 4 or 5 years to complete. (Girls Gone Wild Ft. Lauderdale appearance optional.) A bigger boon for tenured educators, and multiplying administrators and deans, could not have been invented.

    The second contributor, and I don’t know whether this came before or after Griggs, is the Cargo Cult mentality of a college education. This is what I (the first in my family to be college educated) was raised with: College Grads make more money, ergo go to college and make more money. The idea, especially strong among the uneducated, that there could be a hidden causal factor (e.g., “intelligence”) in there, never occurred to my folks. The Credentialing Bubble is a regressive tax on the dumb.

    The third contributor to the College Bubble is the oodles of government grants and loans to send people to college. As with medical care, whenever more money chases finite resources, the prices go up. Some win. E.g., the actually smart, who will (statistically) make back the cost and more. Some lose, the dumb who, following Cargo Cult Education, go into debt and either fail to graduate or get a worthless credential. Since the Bubble sucks in mostly from the bottom (left half of the bell curve), there’s only one way for the bubble to keep growing.

    The fourth contributor is feminism, which ignores our dimorphic sexual natures, and sells young women an idea that education and career will make them happy. For many, for most, this is simply not true, as self-reported metrics of happiness, and increasing statistics of social pathologies, suggest.

    –Steve N.

    • 1. The point of education today is to substitute technological for normal modes of human functioning. That’s why e.g. it suppresses pattern recognition. So it’s not great for fertility.

      2. Part of the answer is better education (e.g. classical education, apprenticeship to a trade) that develops rather than suppresses the natural. What works better and leads to better and more functional people eventually gets noticed, but the trillion dollar subsidy to the educational-industrial complex not to mention the rising tide of stupidity does distort things a bit.

      3. It seems unlikely genetic engineering can do much to improve intelligence, for the same reason linguistic studies are unlikely to do much to improve literature. The methods of modern natural science aren’t that helpful when you’re trying to improve the basic functioning of immensely complex evolved systems. They’re even less helpful when you’re trying to create something equally functional de novo. So we’re not going to have techno or transhumanist singularities.

      • Steve Nicoloso

        I’m not so sure that that is the POINT of education, so much as an unintended consequence of expanding the role of to provide vocational training.

        I absolutely agree that a return to classic education and apprenticeship (UNDER SEPARATE INSTITUTIONAL oversight) is the way to go. The question how do you MAKE that happen? As you hint, we suffer from massive market distortions. I’d argue we suffer more from market distortions than from any particular agenda on the part of the Academic Left (but I repeat myself).

        Most people go to college to get a credential. Among the best and brightest, the credential (by college selectivity or difficulty of major or both) will actually be worth something; for the rest, they subsidize the smart. After two generations of obsessing over social inequality, we are at or near historic highs. Assortive mating by class exacerbates this inequality, which if allowed to go unchecked for a few more generations will begin to look very much like a caste system. (It already does for those with the eyes to see it.)

        Eliminate the market distortions and you get back at least to an equlibrium of self-interest with rational market actors. Maybe that is not the classical model, but it is at least sane.

        Of course, the question then is HOW DO YOU ELIMINATE the market distortions? The Educational Cargo Cult is still very much alive, and preached vociferously from every organ of propaganda from PTA meetings all the way up to POTUS… we need MORE opportunity, MORE equality, MORE money, all so we can lead the world… but hey a bunch of cigarette-smoking white guys in crew cuts put a man on the moon, back before anyone in NASA gave a tinkers dam about the PC Shibboleths. After two generations of ideological striving, we seem to be far worse off (normalizing for Moore’s Law at least).

        The Massive Market Distortions happen to benefit a small class of people: tenured faculty and administrators of US colleges and universities (all of whom want to be JUST LIKE Harvard! The ideological uniformity of the US academic landscape would be really quite Orwellian if it didn’t happen to represent the Virtuous Timeless Truth that it does </sarc>). These are, in the Molbuggian hypothesis, the Clergy of the Cathedral. They also happen to be the ones in control of the opinions of J-school middle-brows, who happen to be in control of the opinions of the general public. Turning these bastards into the bad guys, by some competing propaganda organ is the thing to do. But you have to come up with a competing propaganda organ.

        • It looks very much like the point if you look at the functioning of the system and consider the implications of the principles authoritative within it. Rationalized utilitarian arrangements (bureaucracies and regulated markets) designed to be transparent and controllable when viewed from above are good. Natural, evolved, and traditional arrangements (family, religion, cultural tradition) that go their own way without much consideration for public policy or maximizing preference satisfaction are bad. So obviously young people have to be trained to function within the former and reject the latter.

          • Pete Maplewood

            I simply meant that, i.e., “to substitute technological for normal modes of human functioning” is not explicit in the daily lives and work of very many educators from K-12 thru tenured university faculty. Obviously, that IS happening, but the revolution proceeds apace from good intentions quite far from its effects.

            There yet remains, especially in America, a great deal of educational freedom. Homeschooling, to name one, remains legal in all 50 states and almost totally unplugs young people from the technocratic/meritocratic grip of the totalizing central state. On the other end, colleges and universities try desperately to RE-program their wards, but really how successful are they? Sure, in order to be a member of the Cultural Elite™ , you need to abide by Cathedral Orthodoxy, lest you lose your job and thus your power. But vast unwashed middle cares little for such matters. If you poll them, they will of course tell you the answers their Masters want to say. But it’s mostly a gloss: an ideology a mile wide and an inch deep.

            So, yes, the “Prussian” education model has long out-lived its usefulness. So long in fact, that very few can imagine anything else, and if they do, they probably think more about medieval torture devices, women chained in kitchens, and very bad oral hygiene than they do about genuinely humane models. But there are limits to how well human persons can be socialized to be cogs in the GDP machine… I think we are already well past those limits and well into the regime of diminishing returns.

      • MSApis

        Speaking of “better education that develops rather than suppresses the natural” I have always loved what the teacher Miss Brodie had to say: “The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust.” (From The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark)

  • Joe DeCarlo

    Today, we have many more educated idiots. If they can’t get an answer from a book… As Voltaire said, common sense isn’t so common.

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  • Robert

    You note the dangers of electronic diversions. I wonder if there is a process by which these people believe they are actively encouraging stupidity in the population.

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  • JediWonk

    I sharply correct my two children whenever they use “stupid” and “smart” as perfect synonyms for “bad” and “good” respectively. America’s elites are not “stupid”, they are “unwise”.

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