The Myth of the Ignorant Poor
When I was a child, I heard that black people were genetically inferior to whites, even less intelligent. The belief was so common that my parents felt it necessary to teach me specifically that this was not so. By the time I had reached high school in the 1930s, most of my generation no longer believed in genetic inferiority. But two decades later in Bolivia, I was surprised when a middle-class Bolivian woman of Spanish descent told me that the Indian was impassive, mute, capable of hard work, but lacked the intelligence for higher education, to conduct a business, or to hold a government job.
Since that time, I have heard the myth of the ignorant poor in many guises. Mostly in planning offices and international institutions, where good people confuse illiteracy with ignorance. I found it among radicals who wanted to "sensitize the poor to their condition." In a discussion at Harvard, my co-panelist, a Harvard professor, was explaining the rural credit institutions needed to promote economic development. "Why not leave those to the local people?" I asked. He was horrified. "You wouldn't just leave them to fend for themselves?" he asked.
To explore the myth, we start not with the poor but with the champions.