Dear Liberal Nerds: There’s a Difference Between Intelligence and Wisdom

by David French

I thoroughly enjoyed Charles C.W. Cooke’s piece today about liberal nerd-worship. This part is spot-on:

The pose is, of course, little more than a ruse — our professional “nerds” being, like Mrs. Doubtfire, stereotypical facsimiles of the real thing. They have the patois but not the passion; the clothes but not the style; the posture but not the imprimatur. Theirs is the nerd-dom of Star Wars, not Star Trek; of Mario Kart and not World of Warcraft; of the latest X-Men movie rather than the comics themselves.

And this is, as well:

“Science and ‘geeky’ subjects,” the pop-culture writer Maddox observes, “are perceived as being hip, cool and intellectual.” And so people who are, or wish to be, hip, cool, and intellectual “glom onto these labels and call themselves ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’ every chance they get.”

Which is to say that the nerds of MSNBC and beyond are not actually nerds — with scientific training and all that it entails — but the popular kids indulging in a fad.

I’d describe these self-proclaimed nerds as “smart fools.”

I don’t doubt their intelligence. I spent enough time around my generation’s version of smart fools during my two stints in the Ivy League (first as a student, then a teacher) to recognize the symptoms — which include the ability to assimilate vast amounts of information and the ability to glibly and rapidly communicate this new-found “knowledge” all while enjoying a seeming immunity to humility and self-reflection. The smart fool reads piles of books, attends panel discussions until their ears bleed, and believes that makes them experts in complex human problems. The smart fool attends a speech in Cambridge and a speech in Geneva and thinks they’re well-traveled. The smart fool knows more facts than you and believes his superior grasp of facts makes your opinion meaningless.

Much to my shame, I used to be a smart fool. It’s a stage that quite a few young people pass through, but I’m still guilty of my own brand of youthful arrogance. As I’ve said in other contexts, I used to think I knew about war — until I went to war. I used to think I knew about helping the poor — until I tried to help the poor. I used to think I knew about what it meant to be a husband and father — until I became a husband and father. The list can go on, of course, but whatever intelligence I possessed didn’t make me wise, nor did it prepare me for life’s truly meaningful challenges. For a time, I fear it just made me insufferable.

Intelligence, by itself, is not even a necessary component of wisdom. I like the Oxford definition. Wisdom is the “quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” Biblically, the fear of God is the very beginning of wisdom (liberal “nerds” no doubt snort with laughter at this concept). Intelligence can help in the accumulation of knowledge, but intelligence does not automatically create knowledge. Furthermore, intelligence is irrelevant to experience and has only a marginal relationship to good judgment. Why do so many leading public figures do such crazy, self-destructive things? Not because they’re stupid, but because they’re foolish.

When speaking of the Middle East and the challenge of Hamas terrorism, it would be wise to spend more time talking to a seasoned IDF veteran than the combined Middle East Studies departments of the entire Ivy League. When speaking of inner-city poverty and the challenge of providing real opportunity, there are charts and graphs and then there is the wisdom of a teacher who’s been in the classroom for a generation, or a parent who’s fighting to get her kid into that last charter-school slot. Information is necessary, and I don’t mean to denigrate the importance of facts. We should all endeavor to live in a “reality-based community,” but we hurt our nation and our culture when we lionize the smart fool and elevate his counsel over that of the wise.

One final note: Not to get all embroiled in a nerd-off, but . . . ahem . . . I’ve played World of Warcraft since launch and one of my proudest media moments is a profile a few years ago in an online Warcraft magazine. So take that, you fake nerds of MSNBC. Oh, and while I’m at it, I’ll go ahead and embed the video Mr. Cooke referred to in his piece. It’s a classic: