While growing up we did not suffer the dunce cap, but dunce was still a term that was used and something that you did not want to be. I think it might be the closest literal parallel to Am Ha'aretz we have in the English world but from experience Dunce is not a way to label a group so much as an individual. Am Ha'aretz is a sort of tribe of lowbrow, an anti-culture in my imagination, what the comedian Jeff Foxworthy famously celebrated as redneck. While Redneck is a loaded term that derived from real class struggle in American history it has come to carry the weight of our colloquial Am ha'aretz.
Talmud was rather particular in that even a learned person might be labeled this way should they be book smart but never studies with sages, or rabbis or in a person to person way. The rabbis of old felt it was vital that a person not exist in an intellectual vacuum. That person was incomplete, at least in so far as their learning was concerned.
I'm not one to say that there have been no moments in my life when I'd rather "phone in" a difficult situation. When personal fear and ego and were painful enough that the impersonal mode of text communication would have been preferred. Being forced into situation where I had to make a choice and a commitment to show up for what might be an uncomfortable discussion forced growth.
This is talk of scholarship however, what of life? I saw a quiz on BBC news this morning so I entertained the idea. It was to see how insular of a "bubble" you lived in. It asked you to think on your friends and to make comparisons of percentage of your friends that were more or less like you in terms of earning, age, political outlook, ect... The algorithm them spat back out your place on a scale of bubble or insulation from people different than yourself.
Am Ha'aretz al la Foxworthy is part of life away from some of the more metropolitan places I've lived in my life as well as at the center of some of the most urbane. Some places enjoyed the simplicity of provincial naivete, others have been want to claim Am Ha'aretz as a culture and relish in it. The BBC quiz was a tease. Of course we like to be with what we find familiar. I certainly don't want to hang out with folks that I perceive as ignorant. The BBC quiz might have lost the idea that we are not islands though, the warning from Talmud that even the most learned, if alone in study is still lacking.
Only the am ha'aretz would use the dunce cap. A society that could single out a member as a fool without feeling ashamed of itself, as the fool is one of society, that is the am ha'aretz. And this is why I think the sage is compelled in trying to elevate the world. But how to stay motivated? The adage of leading horses to water but being unable to make them drink remains an issue. How do you sweeten the water? In Torah it was argued that the wood Moses threw into bitter water was bitter itself. How do we keep from becoming bitter ourselves when trying to sweeten the water for the am ha'aretz?