America’s intelligence dependent on non-fiction sales?

When I was scrolling through the daily news a few days ago, I came across an interesting piece from The Daily Beast listing America’s smartest 56 metropolitan areas.  Now, I find The Daily Beast highly informative, useful and amusing, but I’m never quite sure how seriously I should take it.  If the New York Times ranked the intelligence of America’s cities, I probably wouldn’t be questioning their metrics.  But The Daily Beast…eh, they write articles about famous college roommates alongside serious political commentary.  The level of “seriousness” can be a toss up, but they never run short of the provocative and attention-grabbing.

However, their ranking of America’s intelligence makes some sense.  They looked at both education and intellectual environments, considering the number of bachelor and graduate degrees for the education half.  For the “intellectual environment” qualifications, they considered the ratio of institutions of higher learning, political engagement and the amount of non-fiction book sales.  Sounds legitimate, right?

Maybe.  One can’t argue with counting the number of bachelor and graduate degrees–I’m all for people getting their education on.  However, this inherently disenfranchises areas with strong industrial histories, since the poll doesn’t count those with “some college” or “some grad school.”  This country depends on the hard work of people who work low-paying jobs, and may not be able to afford a college education.  This doesn’t mean these people are any less “intelligent” than those brainy folks in Seattle or New York.   This country needs its industrial cities, just like it needs its smart cities.  But does that mean the citizens of the latter are worth more than those of the first?

But that’s just my opinion of the poll, and it’s slightly condescending overtones.  What I really question is its qualifications for an “intellectual environment.”  On the surface, it makes sense, but still, something doesn’t sit right with me.  The three big cities in Ohio didn’t score too well (Columbus scored the highest), but TDB consistently commented that intellectual environments were weak statewide.  That makes little sense to me, considering that Ohio has the most universities and colleges than any state in the country.  For goodness sake, you can’t travel 20 minutes in Ohio without running into some college (I know–despite growing up in the country, I’ve lived near them my entire life).  Now, whether TDB’s poll includes small and private schools remains to be seen.  In their general assessments, they only mention the “big schools” (OSU, Case Western, etc), without mentioning the incredible number of quality institutions outside the purview of the national media.  Of course, these smaller schools may have been overlooked due to their location “in the country” rather than in proximity to major metropolitan areas.  My alma mater is located squarely between Cincinnati and Dayton–and is often forgotten by both–but I can assure you that Miami University graduates certainly add to the “intellectual environment” of both cities.

I can’t argue much about political engagement, especially in concern to my hometown, Cincinnati (which came in at #43, by the way).  This town has always been pretty conservative (not exactly a point of pride, but what can you do?), and conservatives don’t get riled up unless Barack Obama is in town.  When you’re dealing with a complacently conservative, Midwestern population, what’s the point in getting active when things are hunky dory as is?  Again, this isn’t exactly my favorite part of living in Cincinnati, and so I’m not condoning this behavior, but explaining it.  However, this means “conservative” towns are going to inherently score lower on the list than traditionally liberal cities.  Does this mean that the citizens of Cincinnati are less intelligent than those on the liberal coasts?  I certainly hope not.  I’m not a conservative myself, but it’s a bit pretentious to assume liberals are smarter than conservatives.  And what about the liberal minority stuck in the conservative quagmire?  Does our choice of living locations somehow dumb us down?

And finally, there’s the non-fiction book sales.  TDB claims that they chose non-fiction books to be an “imperfect proxy for intellectual vigor because overall sales are dominated by fiction works that, while entertaining, aren’t always particularly thought provoking.”  OK, I agree:  the droves of people who purchased Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol or Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series shouldn’t be considered among the intellectual elite.  And I also agree that these two authors, and a few others like them, are dominating book sales right now.  I wish it were otherwise, but alas, we do not live in a perfect world where everyone’s literary tastes are as pretentious as mine (note: sarcasm).  And it’s true, people who read A LOT of non-fiction books are pretty smart.  But people who also read A LOT of fiction books are pretty damn smart as well, generally because prodigious consumers of fiction tend to read a lot of quality, literary fiction on top of the occasional beach read.  Plus, what defines “non-fiction” anyway?  I’ll tell you what: everything that’s not fiction, which is a lot.  When people ask me at Half-Price where our non-fiction section is, I tell them that 75 percent of our store is non-fiction.  Non-fiction includes: self-help books, cookbooks, Windows for Dummys, coffee table books, anything written by Glenn Beck or Michael Moore, and books on potty humor (a perennial bestseller at Half-Price Books, by the way).  It also includes college textbooks, which again lend weight to cities with a large number of public universities within city limits.

So you bet your ass it’s a “imperfect” proxy.  In fact, if TDB were examining me, they might find my reading habits merely “entertaining, but not thought-provoking,” since I choose to read the works of Shakespeare, Sophocles and Virginia Woolf instead of the latest celebrity bio.  The great works of literature are, after all, merely fiction.

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