Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Paper Of Dunces

On the one hand, there is plenty of empirical evidence that Americans just don't know what educated people should know. A large plurality do not know who the President, Vice-President, Chief Justice of the United States, or even their own Representative is. A large plurality believes that "Intelligent Design" is a serious alternative to the theory of evolution. There are even those who believe the sun revolves around the earth. There are some who believe the epigrams of Shakespeare are Biblical quotes. Naming the works of Twain, Melville, Dickens, Hemingway seems beyond the capacity of many Americans. I don't think we should even go too far discussing mathematics.

Yet, historically, this has usually been true. Americans have approached education as they have approached every other endeavor - they have sought to get from it what is most useful in their lives without going too far in the direction of seeing knowledge for its own sake as a virtue. The better-educated among us, detecting a bit of reverse snobbishness in this disdain for over-learning, consider this anti-intellectualism.

It is true that this attitude has been exploited by unscrupulous politicians for their own ends. It has also been venerated by other politicians - Joe McCarthy and George Wallace come to mind immediately - as a virtue of the common person over and against "egg heads" and "pointy-headed elites". Thoughtful, intelligent persons open to nuance and subtlety - Dean Acheson as McCarthy's bete noir, pretty much any "liberal intellectual" contra Wallace - were portrayed as somehow un-American because of their learning, their erudition, their thoughtfulness, and their refusal to keep it simple.

While it is certainly troubling that many Americans have trouble finding their own state on a map (let alone Iraq, or Afghanistan), it is hardly indicative of some fundamental failure on our part. Nor is it clear that we are a nation of dunces.

A single sentence in Susan Jacoby's "Outlook" piece linked to above gives away the entire game in her scolding article:
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.(emphasis added)

"I cannot prove . . ." With those three words, she shows that she is not discussing peer-reviewed research on the status of our national tendency towards ignorance of certain facts many consider fundamental. Rather, she is being a moral scold, reveling in the superiority of sitting in a treehouse reading, rather than playing XBox 360. The rest of the paragraph, following directly from the above topic sentence, gives away even more, perhaps more than Jacoby might have intended:
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. It is not surprising, for example, that less has been heard from the presidential candidates about the Iraq war in the later stages of the primary campaign than in the earlier ones, simply because there have been fewer video reports of violence in Iraq. Candidates, like voters, emphasize the latest news, not necessarily the most important news.(emphasis added)

Wow. OK, so it's the public's fault that they don't know enough about current events, not the news media who drop stories, or don't even report them. It's the candidates' fault they don't discuss Iraq, rather than journalists who are present every time one of them pokes his or her head outside, that no one mentions Iraq. Because of the lack of videos of Iraqi carnage, she says, not the intentioned disappearance of Iraq by the Republican candidates themselves (the Democratic candidates, as far as I can tell, discuss the morass of Iraq as much as possible; but it's the public's fault the news media doesn't cover it).

Further evidence of an ignorant public and its perfidy is given in the following paragraph:
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.

That sneaky, ignorant public! Somehow they have managed, through some nefarious scheme to reduce the soundbites of the candidates on the evening news without producers and editors at news organizations having a hand in it. Of course, we shouldn't even discuss the deregulation of the commercial market on television, which removed barriers to the number of minutes allowed for commercials each hour (thus reducing the available time for presenting actual news), or the stripping of network news outfits by corporate parents in the name of economy, or the gutting of the "public interest" portion of FCC licenses with the removal of the fairness doctrine and the number of hours of public affairs programming required to maintain one's FCC license.

Yes, it's all those ignorant yahoos out in fly-over country, those doofuses who don't know who Vice-President Cheney is, or who the President of Pakistan is (wait, that was a candidate for the Presidency, running at a time when that particular nation-state would become somewhat important to our foreign policy).

Lamenting our national ignorance is one thing. Refusing to take responsibility for that ignorance, and taking other mitigating factors in to account - even admitting that one has no evidence for the claims one is making - is just as ignorant, indeed anti-intellectual as lamenting all those rubes who can't identify California on a map of Mexico.

UPDATE: Good Lord, Susan Jacoby has an entire book of this. It's quite clear she's qualified to write about unreason . . .

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