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Reflections On Intellectual Indifference

November 10, 2006

After reading this insightful article on today’s underclass in Germany, I began thinking again about America’s underclass. What are its characteristics? How do they get there? How do they remain there? What does it mean to be poor in the U.S. in 2006? Are they neglected? What can be done? What about their education?

There is a lot of literature out there on aspects of this subject. A popular example is Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book, Nickel and Dimed (2002). For the moment, however, let me return to the article on Germany. The author of that Spiegel.com essay, Gabor Steingart, reflected on what he called the “intellectual neglect” of Germany’s poor in this passage:

“What stand out [today] are the symptoms of intellectual neglect. The poor of today watch television for half the day. These days, television producers even refer to what they call “Underclass TV.” The new proletariat eats a lot of fatty foods and he enjoys smoking and drinking — a lot. About 8 percent of Germans consume 40 percent of all the alcohol sold in the country. While he may be a family man, his families are often broken. And on Election Day, he casts a protest vote for the extreme left or right wing party, sometimes switching quickly from one to the other. But the main thing that sets the modern poor apart from the industrial age pauper is a sheer lack of interest in education. Today’s proletariat has little education and no interest in obtaining more. Back in the early days of industrialization, the poor joined worker associations that often doubled as educational associations. The modern member of the underclass, by contrast, has completely shunned personal betterment.”

I do not agree with all of Steingart’s presentation or points, and concede there are differences between Germany’s and America’s underclass, but I sympathize with the phenomenon he calls “intellectual neglect.” It applies here in the U.S. as both an internal and external phenomenon. With regard to the former, this exists as a form of laziness or indifference. All too often I’ve seen family and friends neglect books and introspection out of sheer intellectual laziness. These are people who are certainly not ‘lazy’ or ‘dumb’ by any stretch, but they choose to remain both uninformed and unable to process complex situations. A medieval analogy exists in the term ‘acedia.’ Acedia is a subset of one of the seven deadly sins, sloth, and is also known as ‘spiritual laziness.’ According to today’s Merriam-Webster, acedia is synonymous with “apathy” or “boredom.” The last we can connect with the literature on Western modernity by cultural historians, sometimes coming under the topic of ‘ennui.’

As an external phenomenon, intellectual laziness is passively fostered by the government. The U.S. government does little to continue the education of its adult population. In terms of the material poor, intellectual development is a little studied and infrequently remedied problem. Earl Shorris has begun to make us aware of the societal rewards of stimulating the poor intellectually, but his programs are not widely known or implemented. The U.S. government has indirectly supported his programs through grants to organizations like the Illinois Humanities Council and its Odyssey Project. You can read more about Shorris’ ideas here, here, and here (a .pdf). The last link is perhaps the best because it’s a reprint of an influential Harper’s Magazine article first published in 2004. Shorris’ most famous books are New American Blues (1997) and Riches for the Poor (2000).

Like the term ‘acedia,’ we need a pithy word for intellectual laziness (too many syllables). Having a good marketing term would be effective in the U.S. Due to its long history of disrespect for the intellectual life, America suffers from a general aversion to anything connected with the term ‘intellectual.’ Moreover, Steingart’s term, “intellectual neglect,” has a paternal ring to it. If we recast his phrase as combating intellectual ‘indifference,’ I think the program may come across as politically neutral – or at least only mildly leftist.

But how do we combat intellectual indifference? Perhaps a start could be offering free adult education courses and aggressively advertising them. To gain instructors, one could make it a funded service program/opportunity for aspiring humanities graduate students? This could also be a way around the current funding crisis for humanities students.

There are models in American history for such endeavors. Long before Shorris’ program, education projects such as the People’s Institute existed. I covered both Shorris and the Institute in my dissertation (on the great books and Mortimer Adler), but the People’s Institute engaged in much, much more than great books-related projects. They offered public lectures and lecture-style courses on science and technologically related subjects.

Overcoming intellectual indifference is ultimately a personal choice, but our government could be more active in combating the phenomenon. By aggressively promoting and supporting free adult education, more people might become interested in “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” – TL

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2 Comments
  1. How interesting–I was just thinking about this myself, reflecting on some of my adult students. Now, in this case, the issue was not indifference (since the students in question have enrolled in an MA program), but rather, utter lack of preparedness, and little interest in opening ones mind. These students are “history hobbyists” as i call them and are not interested in engaging the idea of history as created or interpreted. Instead, they wish to debate topics of personal interest in a superficial, “history channel” level. I know it is not the same thing you are describing, but it is bad all the same.

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  2. CM: I'm glad you liked the topic – and that my presentation didn't diminish the topic's importance.

    Your note on upper-class intellectual indifference is certainly relevant.

    As a caution, I would say that students in all forms of graduate programs – MA or PhD – are not immune to indifference. Are the MA students you mention enrolled in history or education programs? I seem to remember your teaching an education graduate class.

    In some ways history graduate students are more likely than others to possess this air, to have contracted this virus, of intellectual indifference. Because history often appeals to the antiquarian – my term for “hobbyists” – it acts a carrier subject for anti-philosophical thinking. These are people who think that history is only about particulars and not generals. They forget that the nature of story-telling involves asserting a theme – known to Aristotle, Plato, and others as an argument.

    Still, as with the underclass, what do we do with upper-class intellectual indifference? Is it still combated both internally and externally? What can those who are not intellectually indifferent do to stimulate the upperclass? Could free adult education courses, courses not strictly concerned with academic assessment, foster the joy of learning for all economic classes? – TL

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