Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Education Meta-Debate

Over the weekend, in the Washington Post Outlook Section had a "debate" about the state of American intellectual heft. Susan Jacoby leads the anti-intellectual charge with The Dumbing Of America. Jacoby leads with the now expected "the sky is falling" quote:
"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.
of the three charges Jacoby levels, only the low expectations charge may be relevant. Of course, noticeably missing from Jacoby's missive is how we have lowered expectations--but I will grant that perhaps we have lowered expectations. When it comes to "anti-intellectualism" Jacoby has only one charge to make--Americans don't read as much as they used to.
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.
Let us assume that Jacoby's statistics are cited correctly, the decline of novel reading does not indicate a decline in reading. I read a lot, and I can tell you that the last novel I read was eight months ago. However, in that eight months since the novel, I have probably read in the neighborhood of 20 books, largely about the founding of our nation and the political thought of the time.

Nor does the fact that 40 percent of people under 40 haven't read a book necessarily troubles me. On one level, there is the rise is the number of full length texts available on iTunes for purchase, or books on CD (which is how I "read" a large number of history books on my previously long commutes).

Simply put, the mere fact fewer people are reading doesn't indicate a decline in intellectualism.

Jacoby's second point, the erosion of general knowledge, on the surface seems alarming. Jacoby makes a political swipe at the same time:
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, one that lacked access to satellite-enhanced Google maps but was far more receptive to learning and complexity than today's public. According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, 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."
As I said, a political swipe, but let's take a step back and look at the differences between America of 1940 and America of 2008. In 1940 there were half as many nations in the world as there are today. Today, general knowledge is at the fingertips of anyone who needs to find it. The fact that today's children have access to satellite enhanced maps does not indicate a lack of intellectual curiousity, rather it is a rational response to the availability of general knowledge, such that it is deemed unnecessary to carry that knowledge around in one's head when one can easily look it up. While it can be argued that the reliance on "looking it up" may impact a person's thinking, it is neither anti-intellectual or anti-rational in thinking.

Jacoby calls the lack of knowledge and the "arrogance about that lack of knowledge" as anti-rational. Jacoby asserts that the lack of knowledge and anti-rationalism undercuts "discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation." But Jacoby asserts something of a chicken and egg argument in her thesis and ignores the general trend of the American body politic.

If our leaders engage in soundbite politics, why then should voters be expected to pay more attention to longer discourses on public policy? If Americans don't pay attention, why should our political leaders engage in those lengthy policy discussions? Which is the primary cause and which is the effect? I don't know and I will be that Jacoby doesn't either.

However, what is remarkable is the ability of the general population to see past their "ignorance" and their "arrogance" about their ignorance and generally make pretty good decisions on a political level. Yes, I decry the nanny state and I rail against big government programs and pork barrel spending, but the general public seems happy with the concept and if it progresses too far, there will be a backlash. The American electorate is remarkably good at finding the center, not willing to move too far, too fast in one direction.

Finally, Jacoby herself points out a larger question. If America is a bunch of dunces, why do we as a nation think that? Could it be that a bunch of elitist, novel-reading, non-video-watching, ivory-tower, intellectual snobs tell us, the average Joe and Jane, that we are dunces?

No comments: