From the Stacks: A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity by Walter B. Pitkin

Tue, 10/01/2013 - 4:14pm -- anonymous


A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity by Walter B. Pitkin; NY: Simon & Shuster 1932 | Cutter Classification Number:  1G +P68

Writing in the Saturday Review of Literature (April 9th,1932), Ellsworth Huntington remarked about this fascinating book, “If he (Pitkin) had written in 1928 instead of 1929 (sic—it was written in ‘32) he would probably have written ‘A Short History of Progress’ instead of ‘A Short Introduction to Human Stupidity.’” Perhaps. Although after reading selected chapters of this rather lengthy, “short introduction” (at a little over 550 pages), I would hasten to guess that Mr. Pitkin would have disagreed most strenuously as there is no lack of historical periods, classes or generalized groups in all regions that escapes Pitkin’s eye for the moronic. As he states early on, “can we find as many intelligent acts as stupid ones in any given period or region? No.”  

So as not to confuse the issue, this book is not written in a “grocery list”-style like the popular “Darwin Awards” books, listing a compendium of the stupid and ignorant, usually ending in tragedy. Rather, it is a sometimes humorously satiric but always serious philosophical exposé on the affairs of mankind and a future outlook of society. Of course, Pitkin’s “future” is our present and he certainly had the gift of prophesy. To wit: he claimed in this 1932 study that the future would see the spread of one super-power “over the white man’s world”; the rise of “super-farms … particularly for the growing of basic foodstuffs such as wheat…”; a rapid decline in the “number of inferior mental types of workers” due to technology; “a steady emphasis on service rather than manufactured commodities”; “the expansion of the new air conditioning techniques…(whereby)…entire cities arise in regions now unwholesome for white people” and  “the tremendous increase of leisure among all classes”. However his suggestion that “during the next five or six generations, disease, noxious living, alcohol, bad food and lack of food are steadily vanquished the relative number of stupid people will fall fast…I would say that the year 2000 will probably see an end of those varieties of mass stupidity in the United States and the Western World…” was perhaps a little too rosy. He then doubles-down on his prophesy: “certainly well before the year 2000 it will be utterly impossible for a son of Cyclops (a Pitkin metaphor for the feebleminded) like Warren Harding to enter the White House, or one like Kitchener to control anything from a war down to a county fair.” Indeed. One wonder’s what Pitkin would make of our current situation in this Year of Grace, 2013.   

From the aforementioned quotes, one gets the feeling, rightly, that Pitkin does not share contemporary views on radical diversity and acceptance; he was a man of his times, after all. Although he greatly admires both the tenants of Buddhism and the progress of science, most of his ire is meted along cultural and religious lines irrespective of all social and economic differences. No one is spared his probing pen. He finds the idea of a World Court and a unified world government akin to the United Nations unsustainable due to cultural and religious differences. He supports eugenics in theory but concludes that, in practice, the rules for such deliberations would  be all too relativistic; he prefers a natural limitation and eventual decimation of the dull and slow-witted through the natural spread of science and  technology: those that can keep up with these changes will be the winners, and the Devil take those that lag; or, 'Happy accidental eugenics', for lack of a better term.  And he doesn’t hold much respect for Christianity’s value of the meek and lowly, “most of whom are dreadfully stupid”, and believes that capitalism’s need for more markets (hence more people) and Christianity’s reverence for "sacred" human life has created a two-headed hydra of “Religious capitalism” and Capitalist religion”. Although he disagrees with those pessimists such as Oswald Spengler who saw the first World War as “the climax of decay” leading to the downfall of the West, Pitkin saw the war years as an example of “fine housecleaning” before moving on to better and brighter days. I have yet to read his opinion of WWII. He died at Palo Alto in 1953.  

This title was last checked out in 1977 after circulating twenty times by the Redwood community. It may be found nestled in our lower-level stacks where we encourage members to browse and borrow.