Is the definition of smart going down the drain?


There’s these things called books, it’s like television for smart people

Bill Bryson, Movie A Walk in The Woods


A few days ago, we watched the movie A Walk in the Woods, bearing some similarities to Wild (a much better movie in my opinion). It, however, had a wonderful exchange which I jotted down immediately and reproduced as the quote above.

At first, I found it funny but it also occurred at the same time Sarah Palin gave her approval of Donald Trump for his bid to be the Republican candidate to the next presidential election. Suddenly got a bit more depressed…The current debates among the Republican candidates are about at the same intellectual level as an episode of the TV show the Big Brother. It does make for a good spectacle but really?

There was a short snippet of the Republican campaign between George Bush (father) and Ronald Reagan on Facebook about a week ago where the level of the exchange was not only extremely good but apparent that these guys would now be considered too much to the left of the political spectrum for the 2016 Republican Party.  If fact considering the level of the discussion on the various social media when it comes to USA politics, it is clear that many have not had basic rhetoric education growing up: personal attacks and name calling is now the first line of response. Well, that and the fact that a large fraction of those who write on those forum does not seem to know what is right and left on the political scale or what is communism and fascism for that matter. So there might be indeed some basic book reading time missing somewhere along the way…

Back to the topics, we are citizens of the most developed countries where our education systems are supposed to be among the best. Children can usually read by their first year of elementary school (I know simple texts but still). Yet, a new definition of smart people, corresponding to those who read books, truly seems to make inroads in our culture…

Considering that it should obviously be the norm, I find it quite sad. It this a sign of a possible collective failure?


  1. I would agree with you but there really seems to be an anti-intellectual movement in the USA (I have been here for a few months now) that was not as evident as when I was doing my postdoc twenty or so years ago. And I think social media actually help that fringe to get more vocal. The irony of all the technology needed to make all of it happen is lost on them but that might be another debate…


    1. I’d assume that anti-intellectualism isn’t anything new (unfortunately), there are a lot of examples where ideology (tried to) triumph(s) over science. But I’d agree that social media gives these fringe voices a lot more voice.

      I stumbled upon a quote by Michael Bellesiles a long time ago: “The web does this amazing thing. There’s an instant community. The isolated wacko can become part of this international movement.” There are advantages to bringing people together, esp. those with fringe views, but suddenly they appear larger than they are. Esp. considering they can gang upon people who criticize them (incl. deserved criticism). It’s fine when they find like-minded people, realizing you are not alone is usually nice. But it stops when small groups start bullying others to make minority views mainstream without any discussion or evaluation of the merit of those views.

      And (my impression) many government groups and companies not understanding that a couple of thousand people on Twitter aren’t *actually* that relevant. At least if you just ignore them (or play with them, like Protein World did). Perhaps Linda Evangelista’s “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day.” could be applied to social media: “We don’t change our policies for less than 10.000 customers … and we don’t do it due to the events of a day.”

      As for the irony … yup, there’s a lot, e.g., activists fighting capitalism with their iPhones is a classic. Sometimes I wonder whether there is any understanding that power doesn’t just come out of the socket …

      Hmm, and not to end on a depressing note, I think there is a strong counter movement growing. More people are starting to point out that some emperors (and empresses) do not wear any clothes. Frankly, I’m strangely optimistic again …


  2. The quotations reminds me a bit of:

    “Why did you come here anyway?”
    “I love old things. They make me feel sad.”
    “What’s good about sad?”
    “It’s happy for deep people.”
    Kathy Nightingale and Sally Sparrow in Doctor Who “Blink”

    and my intuitive criticism of that quotation that sadness isn’t (necessarily) deep.

    At first glance, there might be something to the book-smart-link, considering the “television is easy, print is tough” attitude. But then I remember that “50 Shades of Grey” is also a book, but I wouldn’t see reading it as a sign of being smart. Well, it might be, depending on your *other* goals, but I doubt this is usually the case.

    But the quotation might not cherish books per se, perhaps it simply condemns television. And books with all their flaws (*hust* print on demand *hust*) are still better than television.

    Then there’s the irony that the comment was made on TV (or cinema, anyway, might end up on the TV), which provides a nice question: If a “dumb” medium like TV tells you that the smart people read books, can you trust it? 😉

    So all in all, I would be skeptical of the quotation as well. Whether you are smart or not depends on the kind of books you read, and — mostly — what you get from them. Or to quote Thoreau:

    A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint … . What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.
    Henry David Thoreau

    And if you finish it by acting, then the book should better be damn good.

    P.S.: As as aside regarding rhetorics — the smart thing might be to provide a spectacle if you want to win. After all, you are not there to convince the opponent, but the middle ground. No matter the politics, Ben Shapiro makes this point very well: This approach shouldn’t be applied to science, or anywhere where ‘finding truth’ is the goal (with the awareness that it can never be achieved). But then again, ‘finding truth’ isn’t a goal in politics.


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