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]