The recent US presidential campaign brought forth many attempts to explore and possibly define terms we tend to view too narrowly, words with worlds of meaning behind them; for example, “expertise”, “intelligence”, and “wisdom”. It seemed to me that one common ingredient in these articles was the admonition to stretch the subject into a large enough frame so that the search for a mutually agreeable definition would be one that lassos a three-dimensional point of view, succeeding in seeing all that there is to see.
Thomas Sowell’s November 11 column, “Intellectuals”, is the latest article I was reading on this topic. Citing fellow columnist Bill Kristoff’s definition of an “intellectual” as “[someone] interested in ideas and comfortable with complexity," and as someone who "read the classics”, Dr. Sowell lists several political leaders who were painted as “intellectual” or “anti-intellectual” through superficial and selective observation. People saw only what they hoped to see, rather than what was truly there to be seen:
Historian Michael Beschloss, among others, has noted that [Adlai] Stevenson "could go quite happily for months or years without picking up a book."
As for reading the classics, President Harry Truman, whom no one thought of as an intellectual, was a voracious reader of heavyweight stuff like Thucydides and read Cicero in the original Latin. When Chief Justice Carl Vinson quoted in Latin, Truman was able to correct him.
Yet intellectuals tended to think of the unpretentious and plain-spoken Truman as little more than a country bumpkin.
Similarly, no one ever thought of President Calvin Coolidge as an intellectual. Yet Coolidge also read the classics in the White House. He read both Latin and Greek, and read Dante in the original Italian, since he spoke several languages. It was said that the taciturn Coolidge could be silent in five different languages.
Sowell’s short list brought back up to the surface some half-submerged early childhood memories of my own mother, after a hard day of housework, cooking, and child-rearing, curled up in her favorite chair to end her day reading Josephus on some occasions, Thomas Aquinas on others, and C.S. Lewis for the times when we kids had really wore her out and her mind needed rest. Who would have imagined that the quiet lady tending her garden on sunny days would study such books on rainy ones?
His examples also reminded me of another personal anecdote. Once upon a time I participated in a Toronto Scrabble tournament, where the money from my ticket of entry went towards a charity for literacy. There were to be four of us per table, and the enticement was that among the four we would get to play against a “Canadian Celebrity”. My ticket led me to the assigned table, and upon sitting down we all introduced ourselves to each other. First up was our “celebrity”, a novelist and journalist of many years experience. Next was a middle aged psychiatrist, followed by his wife, a magazine editor (names all withheld to protect the innocent.. :). Last in the group was myself, in my mid-twenties at the time, happily employed as a laborer in a warehouse, loading boxes onto trucks for a living. I was forthrightly excused from much of the rest of the ensuing conversation, as they discussed the books and articles and plays that they all shared common interest in, and the colleges and universities they had attended. At the appointed time, the game began, and guess who won.....? Me, the only one who hadn’t graduated from college or university. If they had bothered to ask me I could have told them that my family had played Scrabble together at least once a week from the time I could read to the time I moved out on my own, in fact it remained a fun family ritual we enjoyed whenever we found ourselves re-united at holidays and birthdays. I’ll forever smile at pairing the memory of the eye-rolling that greeted my introduction at this charity Scrabble game, with the incredulous looks in those same eyes when the final score was announced. “Why are you working in a warehouse??”, one of the losers couldn’t resist asking me after the game, as if such a position was an embarrassing curse, rather than a reasonable and honorable occupation.
That was a demonstrated lesson in humility that I go back to whenever I sense myself failing similar temptations to be presumptuous today; is my initial reaction really an informed one? What is involved in coming to an informed judgment about a problem that requires a decision? What is everything that should be observed, when I’m trying to size up a worthy applicant for my team at work, or who should be promoted, or who should be let go during the inevitable downsizing. What do I really know about this other person, and what is it that I believe without sufficient observation? What will I learn if I think about a situation a second time?
Presumptions seem to be as common a malady to the human mind as the common cold is to the human body. It’s a simple matter to look at something and presume that a first glance at a part is actually a complete scrutiny of the whole. It’s no accident that all great art rewards a second look, all great books offer renewed meaning through repeated reading, all great music grows on us as we dare add to our first impression.
Watching the anecdotal collection of Obama voters in the John Ziegler video that Truepeers wrote about this morning, there’s some good lessons for our side to learn from, as we watch confident people confronted with so much new information that it challenges their self-perceptions as “intelligent” citizens. What to do about the holes that such revelations bring about? Dismiss them, as the voters seem to do in this video, or struggle to embrace them, as we would wish them to? I concur, in principle, with a point that regular reader na makes in the comments thread: how much more successfully would John McCain supporters do in such a test of perception? Can it really be said that one side does indeed possess a more rounded understanding of what that long civic debate was meant to resolve? Does one side have the full picture and the other side have all the holes?
I think Ziegler's addition to the ongoing measurement of "intelligence" is to reveal how common an ailment it has become to not even know how to determine what we don't know. Evidently these voters don't spend a lot of time talking to people who disagree with their views, otherwise how else to explain that so much of this information was "news" to them, on the day of their vote? Is it really so humiliating to talk to someone who sees things differently than they do, and to ask them why that is? And how are they to handle the humbling that should come with the revelation that there is more to a subject than may at first meet the eye..?
Well, I'd like to think I know how I would handle it, because I undergo it each and every week, at our Thursday night gatherings in the Atrium of the Central branch of the Vancouver Public Library. We three Covenant Zone bloggers meet in front of the Blenz coffee shop from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm once again to debate the issues we blog about, wearing our blue scarves in solidarity with our French colleagues in France who, in their own way, try to test and sharpen their understanding of how they perceive the challenges of the world as they see it. We don't agree about much, which is what always makes it a learning experience.
Sufficiency of perception, achieved through the cultivation of the humility to observe the limitations of our understanding, and an appreciation (rather than dismissal) of the “holes” that allow for continued growth of that understanding; there’s my long-winded, three-sided contribution to the challenge of proposing a three-dimensional definition for intelligence.