Friday, June 03, 2005

What I Learned From A Fish Called Wanda

"Apes don't read philosophy"

"Yes they do Otto, they just don't understand it."

No one should ever claim that the movies cannot be instructive for life. In case you don't remember, the above dialogue takes place between Kevin Kline (the ape in question) and Jamie Lee Curtis. In the film Kline's character is obviously not a bright man, but he likes to spend his free time reading Nietzsche. He believe this is a sign that he is an intelligent man. He is, of course, mistaken in that as in so many other things.

What is instructive about his character is it can make one question how we view intelligence in our everyday life. If you think about it there is more going on than a single continuum from Stupid to Intelligent. I'm not talking about things like "Emotional Intelligence" and the like, which strike me as being more of an operation in simple re-definition of terms than anything else. ("Let's call 'sensitivity,' 'intelligence'- Yeah!") What I mean is that it is clear that when we speak about how "Intelligent" or "Smart" someone is we really are talking about two unrelated things; A) How quick-witted someone is, and B) What they know.

It doesn't matter how much Nietzsche our good friend Otto reads, he will remain the dim-witted creature he is, but that doesn't mean that we won't have knowledge of Nietzsche. Even if he is completely unable to relate his knowledge to any other part of life (intellectual or otherwise) he still knows the work in some real sense. Anyone who reads voraciously, if they are quick witted or not, will gain knowledge of what they read. The only difference is that for the slower-witted the knowledge becomes an end in itself, it doesn't lead to anything else.

In this view there are two dichotomies at work: A) The Intelligent - Dumb dichotomy, i.e. how quick-witted one is, & B) The Smart - Stupid dichotomy, i.e. how much knowledge one has.

In a very real sense these two have nothing to do with one another. You can be super intelligent and be ignorant as they get (Intelligent and Stupid), or you can be a real dim bulb but be very knowledgeable about something (Dumb and Smart.)

Thinking about people in this way has allowed me to make sense of so very much that otherwise would have been inexplicable, especially among the ranks of academics I've known. 99.9% of academics you meet are going to be smart, at least about their speciality. Far fewer are going to be intelligent. There are real reasons why this is so. A lot of the work involved in graduate school is reading and developing a base of knowledge in the field, i.e. gaining smarts. The surest way to get out of grad school with your Ph.D. is to not be too clever about it. The people I know who had the easiest times with their dissertations basically did a variation of the work being done by their dissertation advisors, which has everything to do with smarts and very little to do with intelligence. Those that had interesting or novel ideas in their work had a much more difficult time of things. Most academics you meet are more technicians than thinkers, and this is as true of French Lit. profs as it is of Chemists.

I bring all this up in way of a long introduction to this article in Inside Higher Ed: Academic Freedom or Intolerance of Faith?

"Moral retards."

That's how a Brooklyn College sociologist described religious people a few years ago. And to some in New York City, that's reason enough why Timothy Shortell should not be allowed to assume the post to which his colleagues just elected him: chairman of the sociology department.


The essay, "Religion & Morality: A Contradiction Explained," critiqued the role of religion. "Modern religion is a fundamental belief in magic," he wrote. The essay also argued that religion had numerous negative consequences.

Of religions, he wrote: "They persist today because they are so effective at constructing group identities and at setting up conflict between the in- and out-groups. For all religions, there is an 'us' and a 'them.' All the ritual and the fellowship associated with religious practice is just a means of continually emphasizing group boundaries."

The essay also compared religious people to children. "It is no wonder, then, that those who are religious are incapable of moral action, just as children are. To be moral requires that one accept full responsibility for one's self.... Morality is a basis for making choices, in the context of a particular political economy."

And in the paragraph with the "moral retards" quotation, he argued as follows: "On a personal level, religiosity is merely annoying - like bad taste. This immaturity represents a significant social problem, however, because religious adherents fail to recognize their limitations. So, in the name of their faith, these moral retards are running around pointing fingers and doing real harm to others. One only has to read the newspaper to see the results of their handiwork. They discriminate, exclude and belittle. They make a virtue of closed-mindedness and virulent ignorance. They are an ugly, violent lot."

While much of the essay does not focus on particular faiths, Shortell specifically noted that his views do apply to Christians. "American Christians like to think that religious violence is a problem only for other faiths," he wrote. "In the heart of every Christian, though, is a tiny voice preaching self-righteousness, paranoia and hatred. Christians claim that theirs is a faith based on love, but they'll just as soon kill you. For your own good, of course."

All of this would be completely inexplicable if you made the mistake in assuming that academics are of necessity intelligent.

Some, like Mr. Shortell, are dumb as a box of rocks.

And you can quote me on that.


The Grand Poobah said...

I actually take offense to the idea that apes don't understand philosphy. Come on man. What about Ape Law. They didn't just pull that out of a hat, you know?

The rest of your point is spot on. It's the main reason I gave up on the whole notion of being an academic.

The Iconic Midwesterner said...

Yes, but "Ape has killed Ape" so evidently it didn't take.