Custer's last stand? That was an ice cream shop down the street.

I’m so wiped right now that my brain has nearly shut off, making this Washington Times op-ed piece by Susan Jacoby particularly relevant:

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.” Ralph Waldo Emerson offered that observation in 1837, but his words echo with painful prescience in today’s very different United States. Americans are in serious intellectual trouble — in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.

Jacoby’s new book, on this topic, was also covered in the New York Times recently:

Ms. Jacoby, whose book came out on Tuesday, doesn’t zero in on a particular technology or emotion, but rather on what she feels is a generalized hostility to knowledge. She is well aware that some may tag her a crank. “I expect to get bashed,” said Ms. Jacoby, 62, either as an older person who upbraids the young for plummeting standards and values, or as a secularist whose defense of scientific rationalism is a way to disparage religion.

That Times article also contains a hilarious and horrifying account of what prompted her to write the book:

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.”

Oh dear.

In the Post op-ed Jacoby lists the three influences she feels contribute to the dumbing of her country:

[T]he 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.

I agree (enthusiastically) with her on the last two, but I’m unconvinced of the first. Changing the media and method by which we take in information certainly changes how we learn, but I don’t know if that means we learn less. Learning certainly becomes different. Does switching from print to video mean trading concentration for multi-tasking? Maybe. Does it make you dumber, on average? I doubt it.

I’ve always considered the shift away from books a symptom, not a cause; the dumber you are, the less likely you are to read. Maybe it’s chicken-and-egg, or maybe I’ve read it wrong. In any case, even if it’s as Jacoby says it is, this point is less troubling to me than the anti-rationalism / anti-intellectualism point she makes, largely because it’s (as she mentions in the Post) it’s become a major factor in politics.

And with that, I’m off to read a few hundred news snippets and watch some podcasts.

[tags]susan jacoby, dumbing of america[/tags]

0 responses to “Custer's last stand? That was an ice cream shop down the street.

  1. I don’t think the Pearl Harbor example has anything to do with a “dumbing of society” … it’s simply a matter of relevance.

    September 11, 2001 is embedded in all of our memories because we saw it happen. But no matter how loudly we yell “NEVER FORGET”, we will indeed forget.

    Remember the Alamo?
    Remember the Maine?
    Remember December 7th?

    Most people don’t. And I promise, while it may seem abhorrent right now because it’s so fresh in our minds, 4-5 generations from now, nobody will remember the significance of September 11th. It will be something you learn about in 7th grade American history, and promptly forget after the exam.

  2. I agree with you about the relevance of historical events, but I actually think the sense of importance fades in a single generation (and more each generation thereafter).

    But there’s a difference between not thinking it’s that important, and just bring plain wrong about what it was. If it held no relevance in this guy’s mind he wouldn’t have even brought it up. Instead he said that. It’s possible he had just wanted to sound smart and started talking shit — happens all the time — but maybe this guy actually believes that’s what happened. This wasn’t the treaty of Utrecht the guy fucked up, it was Pearl Harbor…one of the most significant events in his country’s history, and it happened in his father’s lifetime. For him to have gotten it so wrong, I guess Jacoby feels it’s indicative of a bigger trend. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how well she proves that theory, if at all.

  3. Pearl Harbor, Gulf of Tonkin–they’ve both got a body of water in the phrase. He probably just mixed up two events, which is easy enough if you don’t think that anything that happened before you were born is worth remembering.

    Some people don’t care about history–others think geometry is useless. I don’t think it’s an indicator of an approaching Idiocracy. There have always been a large percentage of people with a disdain for “fancy book learnin'”, but now the prevalence of entertainment media and the internet make it easier to hear.

  4. I was just truly looking for that old ice cream place somewhere near Monticello!!! But an interesting read, indeed!!!

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