18 May 2008

"The Dumbing of America"

I try to achieve a balance in TYWKIWDBI between the light, ephemeral, quixotic, humorous aspects of the cyberworld, and the heavy, ominous, and frankly scary items that can also be found there. Too much emphasis on the former would make TYWKIWDBI another one of the seemingly endless entertainment blogs - but too much emphasis on the latter is frankly depressing, would scare away readers, and wouldn't be much fun for me.

I'll use that preamble to introduce what I believe is a superb essay. It was written in the Washington Post in February, presumably to counteract the charges levelled at the time against Obama as being an "elitist." But this is more than a political essay; it describes and bemoans the decline of America amidst a wave of anti-intellectualism. Herewith some salient excerpts (I encourage you to surf to, read, and perhaps copy and save the original)...
"Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces...

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... 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...

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… 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 the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds.

...the second important anti-intellectual force in American culture: the erosion of general knowledge... 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... This is a portrait not only of a different presidency and president but also of a different country and citizenry, one that… was far more receptive to learning and complexity than today's public… 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..

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 (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); 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...

1 comment:

  1. Heh.

    That's as bad as a story my father has about the 70s. Culture in America can get you in as much trouble as any lack of education:

    There were all these kids who fought during the 70s, but the only things adults saw was that it was a black boy and a white boy fighting. Another race riot was about to erupt in Southern Louisiana high schools.

    What often happened was something like this: Somehow a white child and a black child bumped into each other at school or began picking at each other, the way most young boys do, and the white kid called the black kid a "punk". Then the black kid would slug the white kid, which lead to these rather spectacular brawls in the middle of school.

    The problem? lack of understanding cultural "etymology".

    To the white kid, "punk" meant something along the lines of "clumsy oaf," "twit," "prat" "fool" and things of that ilk.

    To the black kid of the 70s, a "punk" was a gay man.

    If you just stumbled into another kid and he calls you a gay, he's insinuating that you are feeling up on him, not being a clumsy oaf.

    How can we Americans really worry about other outside cultures when we can't get a grip on a culture we've spent more than 100 years side by side with? :P


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