The Intelligence of a People by Daniel Calhoun is surely one of the most surreal books ever conceived. The word “written” is here less relevant than “conceived”, for written this certainly is and, for much of the book’s argument, “written” is not only highly relevant but essential, since the work addresses literacy in United States prior to the twentieth century. It is also expertly written by its author, who manages to retain an academic precision whilst using a sufficiently populist style to keep the reader wanting more of what soon becomes a rather erudite discussion. Ostensibly this is a book about the history of education and, for two hundred of its three hundred and fifty pages, it reads like a critical review of the teaching of literacy in the United States, philosophically grounded in the century before, but concentrating for its cited examples on mainly nineteenth century practice. And much of this is fascinating, offering limitations into the application of enlightenment, the pre-ordained and often contradictory realities of Hume’s tabula rasa and the role of corporal punishment as incentive.

But perhaps more interesting to the reader in the twenty-first century is the material that refers to assumption on class, gender and racial stereotyping. Here we not only have frequent description of nineteenth century attitudes towards the poor, women and people of non-European origin, we here have these considerations presented through a lens that focused in the middle of the twentieth century, a lens that might produce different effects if used today.

And then, after two hundred pages comes the bombshell. Anyone reading this text without having first researched the book is in for a shock that will require several visits to the text in question just to confirm what is being said. After several chapters of rather tight argument mixed with copious examples of philosophy and practice, Daniel Calhoun blithely announces that anything expressed via a culture gives expression to intelligence. As examples of such activity, he cites the selection of political candidates, the invention of household gadgets, or the writing of philosophical treatises. He then sets a paradigm for the rest of the study by continuing: “For the sake of focus,… , this chapter treats in some detail changes that took place between 1750 and 1870 in two extreme kinds of professional product: the sermon and the design of load-bearing structures.” It could more easily have been weightlifting and knocking a reader over with a feather. At face value, it perhaps is not the most obvious or the most interesting source of meaningful contrast.

But what eventually is communicated by The Intelligence of a People is a remarkable human ability to conceive the apparently inconceivable. And to do that with interest. While the structural engineer grapples with measurable strengths and weaknesses, without actually at the time having the technology to much measuring other than by trial and error, the sermon writer uses essentially political skills to appeal to the strengths and weaknesses of a congregation that is ultimately malleable, whose opinion can be formed in a manner metaphorically similar to that of the smith hammering a horseshoe. The structural engineer, however, did come to realise that materials and methods of fixing them did have definite and indeed measurable limits and, as their knowledge progressed, learned to harness these limitations to advantage. The sermon writer, on the other hand, was presented with a permanent and perhaps inexhaustible source of power, being individual psychosis related to the fear of death. The challenge for the sermon writer, it seems, was to channel this individual response to create a social or community norm than could then engender cooperation or acquiescence to a defined common good. Whether that common good might be in the interests of those who accept it is for other writers to examine, but in essence, the metaphor here is that the engineer assembles objects according to demands exacted by materials, whereas the sermon writer assembles social structures that bind communities into common action.

The structural engineer is forever pressing limits but is also developing new materials that challenge existing understanding and practice. The sermon writer, on the other hand, can lead his or her (rewrite this as “his”) probably guilty audience in whatever direction of manipulation that political profit might be gained. Whoever the author might be, there is always an ultimate unknown that can be trawled into any argument to secure any desired effect. The intellectual efforts involved in the two areas are therefore quite distinct. Though the metaphor that allows the comparison remains interesting, it does break down in the face of evidence. These are surely two very different forms of intellectual activity and perhaps rely on different sets of skills. Eventually, the reader is forced to consider the role of testability, communicability and transferability in the one area of human intellect and the lack of it in the other and it is this that comes to dominate a reader’s thinking as the argument progresses.

But what does shine through Daniel Calhoun’s text is the potential of intellectual activity. Whatever the successes or failures of his project, it is the ability to conceive of such juxtapositions and then to pursue them to their conclusions that triumphs, however logical or illogical they may be.

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