To complement my list of most overrated things, here’s my list of the most underrated things in the same categories. The same rules apply: everything I recommend has to be significantly worse-known or less supported than it should be.
Literature: Pushkin. In Eastern Europe he’s of course not underrated, but here in the US surprisingly many people haven’t read Eugene Onegin.
Leaders: Hamilton. At a time when common wisdom was all about free trade and agricultural wealth, he favored industry and nurtured it with protective tariffs. Jean Chretien, whose austerity program was one of the few that either balanced the budget or promoted growth, and the only one that did both. And Seretse Khama, the only postcolonial leader whose country has remained democratic since independence (though his economic record is conversely overrated: Botswana may have a five-figure GDP per capita, but its social development is disappointing, especially when compared to South Africa’s).
Political movements: third-world liberalism. Because of Singh and Lula, it’s in charge in the majority of the democratic world by population, but in the first world people are dismally ignorant of it, arbitrarily assigning its leaders to either neoliberalism or populism.
Political issues: urban planning. Surprisingly many social problems, such as American and French race riots, owe a lot to dreadful urban planning, which created the modern ghetto.
Linguistics: the comparative method. It’s painstaking and not very sexy, but it teaches us things about ancient cultures that we could never learn otherwise due to lack of writing and paucity of archeological data.
Science: chemistry. For some reason it makes a lot fewer headlines than physics or biology, but it’s at least as forward-looking and important; a cheap way of manufacturing carbon nanotubes would do more to change the world than anything molecular biology’s achieved so far. Biochemistry is of course not underrated, but anything else in chemsitry is.
Economics: import replacement. Every country that’s become developed – the US, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Taiwan – has used it, often with protective tariffs on manufactured goods and restrictions on capital flight. One-way free trade, where developed countries open their markets to third-world goods without expecting reciprocation; this underlay much of South Korea and Taiwan and post-war Germany’s success. And the German economic model, which looks worse than it is only because in 1990 West Germany inherited twenty million people’s worth of a second-world country.
Social science: Cultural Theory of Risk. It’s a robust theory that explains social attitudes better than anything else that’s been tested, and that very few people outside anthropology and cultural geography seem to have heard of.
Philosophy: Thomas Kuhn. His ideas about the philosophy of science contain many sharp observations, which a lot of positivists ignore for purely ideological reasons.
Popular science: I’m going to go out on a limb and say Wikipedia. Popular science books always give me the impression that they leave out any example that’s inconvenient for the author’s thesis; Wikipedia instead is inherently messy and comes off as trying to teach rather than enchant.
Music: Vanessa Carlton. A lot of radio stations refused to play White Houses only because it has a mature view of sex and relationships, and because it’s not exactly the same as A Thousand Miles.
Television: The Wire. It has the depth of a literary novel and portrays politics more realistically than The West Wing, police work more realistically than any police show, crime more realistically than Oz.
Food: Indian. The range and taste of Indian cuisine is far better than what you’d expect from eating at the places in the US that pass for Indian, but even so they’re almost the only outside places I’m willing to spend money eating at. And small delis, whose sandwiches tend to be cheap and good enough that it’s a wonder Subway’s still in business.
Media: Al-Jazeera. Westerners seem to hate it only because it’s Middle Eastern, even though its production values are on a par with those of CNN and the BBC. If it were a British or Japanese station, Donald Rumsfeld and Fox News would’ve never slandered it by saying it shows footage of beheadings.
Books: Jane Jacobs. Her writings about cities are as relevant as ever, but for some reason, the only thing the political establishment has taken from her is that razing neighborhoods to build highways is a bad idea; that was never her main point, and much of today’s transit-oriented development is as poorly planned as urban renewal projects.
Academics: merit admissions. They’re arbitrary and often nonsensical, but also far harder to game by enterprising aristocrats and legacies. And before you tell me about diversity, compare the demographics of Berkeley and Columbia (Columbia’s a lot whiter).