Sunday, February 17, 2008

Anti-Intellectualism on Steroids

Via Avedon, here's a clip from Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?
But now, Ms. Jacoby said, something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.

She pointed to a 2006 National Geographic poll that found nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t think it is necessary or important to know where countries in the news are located. So more than three years into the Iraq war, only 23 percent of those with some college could locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel on a map.


The author of seven other books, she was a fellow at the library when she first got the idea for this book back in 2001, on 9/11.

Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

At that moment, Ms. Jacoby said, “I decided to write this book.”
Next, from Susan Jacoby's latest column:
The classic work on this subject by Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," was published in early 1963, between the anti-communist crusades of the McCarthy era and the social convulsions of the late 1960s. Hofstadter saw American anti-intellectualism as a basically cyclical phenomenon that often manifested itself as the dark side of the country's democratic impulses in religion and education. But today's brand of anti-intellectualism is less a cycle than a flood. If Hofstadter (who died of leukemia in 1970 at age 54) had lived long enough to write a modern-day sequel, he would have found that our era of 24/7 infotainment has outstripped his most apocalyptic predictions about the future of American culture.

Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture (and by video, I mean every form of digital media, as well as older electronic ones); a disjunction between Americans' rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.

First and foremost among the vectors of the new anti-intellectualism is video. The decline of book, newspaper and magazine reading is by now an old story. The drop-off is most pronounced among the young, but it continues to accelerate and afflict Americans of all ages and education levels.

Reading has declined not only among the poorly educated, according to a report last year by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1982, 82 percent of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later, only 67 percent did. And more than 40 percent of Americans under 44 did not read a single book -- fiction or nonfiction -- over the course of a year. The proportion of 17-year-olds who read nothing (unless required to do so for school) more than doubled between 1984 and 2004. This time period, of course, encompasses the rise of personal computers, Web surfing and video games.

Does all this matter? Technophiles pooh-pooh jeremiads about the end of print culture as the navel-gazing of (what else?) elitists. In his book "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," the science writer Steven Johnson assures us that we have nothing to worry about. Sure, parents may see their "vibrant and active children gazing silently, mouths agape, at the screen." But these zombie-like characteristics "are not signs of mental atrophy. They're signs of focus." Balderdash. The real question is what toddlers are screening out, not what they are focusing on, while they sit mesmerized by videos they have seen dozens of times.

Despite an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at encouraging babies as young as 6 months to watch videos, there is no evidence that focusing on a screen is anything but bad for infants and toddlers. In a study released last August, University of Washington researchers found that babies between 8 and 16 months recognized an average of six to eight fewer words for every hour spent watching videos.

I cannot prove that reading for hours in a treehouse (which is what I was doing when I was 13) creates more informed citizens than hammering away at a Microsoft Xbox or obsessing about Facebook profiles. But the inability to concentrate for long periods of time -- as distinct from brief reading hits for information on the Web -- seems to me intimately related to the inability of the public to remember even recent news events.


No wonder negative political ads work. "With text, it is even easy to keep track of differing levels of authority behind different pieces of information," the cultural critic Caleb Crain noted recently in the New Yorker. "A comparison of two video reports, on the other hand, is cumbersome. Forced to choose between conflicting stories on television, the viewer falls back on hunches, or on what he believed before he started watching."

As video consumers become progressively more impatient with the process of acquiring information through written language, all politicians find themselves under great pressure to deliver their messages as quickly as possible -- and quickness today is much quicker than it used to be. Harvard University's Kiku Adatto found that between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate -- featuring the candidate's own voice -- dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds.

The shrinking public attention span fostered by video is closely tied to the second important anti-intellectual force in American culture: the erosion of general knowledge.

People accustomed to hearing their president explain complicated policy choices by snapping "I'm the decider" may find it almost impossible to imagine the pains that Franklin D. Roosevelt took, in the grim months after Pearl Harbor, to explain why U.S. armed forces were suffering one defeat after another in the Pacific. In February 1942, Roosevelt urged Americans to spread out a map during his radio "fireside chat" so that they might better understand the geography of battle. In stores throughout the country, maps sold out; about 80 percent of American adults tuned in to hear the president. FDR had told his speechwriters that he was certain that if Americans understood the immensity of the distances over which supplies had to travel to the armed forces, "they can take any kind of bad news right on the chin."
This is a portrait not only of a different presidency and president but also of a different country and citizenry [...] nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it "not at all important" to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it "very important."
That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know [...] it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism -- a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.
To quickly summarize: video didn't only kill the radio star, but it seems to have killed the reader. We are less knowledgeable than even a generation ago, and we wallow in our own ignorance like it's a source of pride. It does seem a sea change from even a quarter of a century ago. My own recent epiphany occurred just a few weeks ago. My son, who's now in the sixth grade, was assigned to write an essay and give a presentation on drugs. So, he quizzed me a bit, read up on whatever he could get his hands on given the time he had available, and completed the assignment. A bit later, when the essay was turned back, my wife asked me if I wanted to read it. What struck me was that his sixth-grade essay was written as well if not better than what one might from many contemporary college students. Heck, I ended up telling him that he would have earned a pretty damned good grade had he turned it in to me. The moment I read what my son had written I was starkly reminded not only of what a kid could achieve, but on how poorly we've prepared our current generation of young adults. The cultural Zeitgeist simply doesn't invite these individuals, who are in all likelihood quite capable, to do better.

I come from a family background in which just a couple generations ago, folks worked small family farms, factories, and oil fields. Many did not complete high school. Didn't matter though, as these same folks were well-read, and showed a level of critical thinking that would easily rival or surpass today's college graduates. Seeking knowledge was not something for the privileged few but merely a basis for survival. There was nothing "elite" or "elitist" about it - rather it was simply being merely human. One of the habits I picked up from my parents and extended family was that of the autodidact - the willingness to become self-taught as needed on a variety of topics. In other words, being well-rounded and well-read just seemed like something that anyone could do, rather than being some special power reserved strictly for those in the Ivory Towers and gated communities.

I'm not one of those traditionalists who pines for a Dead White Males curriculum, or whatever the cultural conservatives seem to be grooving on. Rather, I'd like to kick it old school in another way: focus on critical thinking, reflective thinking. Kids need to be trained in formal and informal reasoning skills from an early age. They need to be exposed to multiple languages - in part because of the inevitable need to communicate with those whose native languages are not one's own, but also because in doing so one can speed the process of building a vocabulary in one's own language. Heck, if I got nothing else out of high school Spanish classes, it was a realization that since Spanish is a Romance language I was getting exposed indirectly to some Latin prefixes and suffixes, which came in handy as I began at local junior college and later when I transferred to a university and needed to quickly infer the meaning of words I'd never experienced before. Most importantly, the process of learning as a lifelong endeavor needs to be modeled - parents need to not only keep some books on the shelves in their homes, but actually read those books. They need to turn off the damned TV and computers more often, and read to those kids who are not yet quite ready to read. That also means passing along a mindset - that rather than telling our kids "don't know too much" we should in words and deeds tell them, "you can never know enough." Knowledge is no sin; the lack of knowledge, on the other hand, can be quite harmful to one's well-being.

A quick footnote: It should go without saying that our public funding of libraries needs to be increased. The current state of libraries in this country is a shambles in comparison with my childhood. That would be a much better investment than bombing the infrastructures of other countries.

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