More on anti-intellectualism

I hope you all had a good week. As for me, I’m safely back from a brief doctor-oriented jaunt to Texas — specifically, to Austin and San Antonio — and can report that yes, it’s hot down there. And humid, at least in the two cities where my wife and I went. Imagine Dante’s Inferno set in the tropics. Here in Missouri we’re bracing for a new heat wave that’s forecast to settle over us for most of the coming week, and yet it’ll still be more pleasant than what I just encountered further south. So a word to the wise: Plan your Texas vacations for any time but the summertime.

But that’s not what I came here to write about today. Instead, I thought I’d share a bit more about anti-intellectualism, which I wrote about at length a week or two ago in my post “High tide for anti-intellectualism.” As I explained in that one, the rise of anti-intellectualism in America had become a live topic in several discussion threads at the Shocklines message boards, and had elicited such a lengthy response from me that I decided to post it here instead of there.

Well, the conversation at Shocklines progressed considerably further after I uploaded that post, with several people responding to things I wrote here. I posted my own responses to these responses, and eventually ended up writing so much that I’ve now decided it bears being published hereat The Teeming Brain. Of course, if you want to read the full, original discussion at the Shocklines boards, just click here.

Note that in the following transcript, the names of all participants besides me have been concealed to protect the innocent. I’ve quoted and in some cases summarized what other people said, and have followed these comments with my responses. Also be advised that if you haven’t read my original post about anti-intellectualism but you decide to dive right into the argument below, you might feel a bit disoriented, as if you had just walked into a room full of people where an impassioned conversation is already well underway.

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Anti-intellectualism, Part Deux

R.G. said, “I never know what to make of this issue. I cannot remember a time — or really even hearing of a time — in American history when intellectualism was so prevalent in America. I might have just had my head in a book though. I mean what’s the big problem? People can be intellectual or not, it’s never been a big concern to me. People live their lives as they live their lives.”

Regarding the first part of your comment, Neil Postman amply demonstrates in Amusing Ourselves to Death that the general intellectual character of the American populace during the 18th and 19th centuries was much more elevated than it is today or has been for the past fifty or hundred years. For example, during the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary periods, political texts like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold so rapidly that booksellers could hardly keep them in stock. “In 1985,” writes Postman, “a book would have to sell eight million copies (in two months) to match the proportion of the population that Paine’s book attracted.” Overall the book ended up selling maybe 400,000 copies. Writes Postman (quoting another author), “’Taking a figure of 400,000 in a population of 3,000,000, a book publisher today [that is, circa 1985] would have to sell 24,000,000 copies to do as well.’ The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today’s America is the Superbowl.” I’ll add that if Postman were writing the book today, he might also identify other media culture detritus like the finale of American Idol.

As he recounts in his book, European and British visitors to America during the 18th and 19th centuries were astonished at the widespread literacy and book hunger that was evident among the populace. It was a cultural circumstance that elevated writers to the status of celebrities. “When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842,” writes Postman, “his reception equaled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarterbacks, and Michael Jackson.”

Regarding the American intellectual character specifically, Postman refers to the famous political debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 — the source of today’s Lincoln-Douglas debate format used in interscholastic competitions — and points out that they were staggeringly long affairs compared to today’s political debates. The audience’s “attention span would obviously have been extraordinary by current standards. Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? or five? or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? Second, these audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally. . . . [T]hese audiences were made up of people whose intellectual lives and public business were fully integrated into their social world. . . . [T]he use of language as a means of complex argument was an important, pleasurable and common form of discourse in almost every public arena.” Postman calls the type of mind that developed in America under the influence of books and lectures the “typographic” mind, which is characterized by that long attention span and that ability for complex reasoning. He also says the advent of the electronic communications media largely undid all this. “We might even say,” he writes, “that America was founded by intellectuals, from which it has taken us two centuries and a communications revolution to recover.”

As for the second part of your comment, where you said it doesn’t matter whether people are intellectual or not since it’s a matter of personal choice, it sounds like you’re equating intellectuality with mere lifestyle preference, on the same level as deciding whether to live in a house or an apartment, or to join a bowling league or a book club. I think the issue at stake is much deeper than that. Sure, on one level, whether or not one reads books is akin to whether or not one plays tennis or enjoys big band music. It’s just a matter of personal taste and enjoyment. But anti-intellectualism refers to something much deeper: an attitude that is either hostile or apathetic toward serious reasoning and reflection, and that therefore produces a people who behave like barbarians when it comes to matters of serious, urgent importance. We’re not just talking about people who don’t like to read. We’re talking about people by the millions who generate a collective mindset, atmosphere, and outlook that can’t distinguish between truth and bullshit. And that has ramifications far beyond the realm of literature and the arts. Should America mount a military attack against Iran? Who should the next president be? What’s a good solution to the mounting oil and energy crisis? What is a valid response to the present conflict between Israel and Lebanon? How should we arbitrate and decide between the opposing sides of the screaming match that has overtaken America in the form of the culture war? When a people have been coarsened through the degradation and atrophy of their intellectual character, who’s to offer reasonable responses to any of these practical issues? We’re all infinitely more manipulable by our politicians, who are themselves products of this same intellectually blunted culture, when we’ve lost our ability to think, or worse, when we no longer realize that we aren’t thinking. And this demonstrates why what’s happening in America — or rather what’s already happened, since the game is over, the cultural turning is a matter of historical record, and anti-intellectualism has won — is so much more significant than mere personal taste or preference, since the question of whether one chooses to read serious books or grapple with serious ideas as a general pastime is distinct from the question of whether one is able to do these things when they’re necessary. Generally speaking, the American public has lost that ability. Our intellectual character has atrophied. So for us as a culture, authentic intellectuality is not even an option any more.

And anyway, who cares about any of that when America’s Got Talent!!!

Moving on to another comment, A.M., who created the Shocklines anti-intellectualism thread to begin with (yeah, it’s his fault!), said, “I think my original point was missed. I’m not wondering about what anti-intellectualism is, nor how pervasive it is among various elements in our society. I’m wondering why it is being categorized as a relative new and expansive phenomenon (a wave, as it were) when it’s been omnipresent during my lifespan. I mean, hell, when I was a kid ‘Carter Country’, ‘Sheriff Lobo’ and ‘The Love Boat’ all made it to prime time. Donny and Marie Osmond had a variety show, and so did The Captain and Tenille. Stupidity is nothing new.”

I’m hoping some of what I just wrote addresses some of your point. But yes, of course you’re right, such cultural detritus is always present. Nor is it always bad. The 70s had disco. The 60s had Gilligan’s Island and Green Acres. It was in the 60s that Newton Minnow, then head of the FCC, gave his famous speech in which characterized television as a “vast wasteland” based on its vapid programming. The speech is still well worth reading for its relevance. The 50s had Leave It to Beaver. The 40s had The Three Stooges. And so on.

The problem is that anti-intellectualism isn’t just a matter of dumb entertainment, but of a fundamental personal posture toward serious thought and reflection. The electronic mass communication revolution of the past century has done something to us in this area, the full effects of which we still can’t get a perspective on because they’re still accruing, and because we’re still living in the midst of it all

D.W. said, “Thank you Matt for the last bit. Its funny about Postman’s Amusing Ourselves; very relevent today but 25 years old already. (His Techopoly is also good)”

I agree that Amusing Ourselves to Death has only become more cogent over time. And thanks for recommending Technopoly. I’ve browsed it in bookstores and read excerpts online, and I know I’ll have to read it someday.

[D.W. also said some stuff in a separate post about education becoming a kind of customer-service driven enterprise in America. The following comments were in response to that.]

As for education becoming a customer service-based enterprise in a society centered around consumerism — yes, absolutely. And horrifically. I happen to think you’re dead-on. And I’m appalled to know that all the criticisms that could be made about this state of affairs, and that have been made, and that are being made, have a tendency simply to bounce off the very people who are being damaged by the whole thing, namely, America’s college and university students. The problem is that they simply can’t see how this state of affairs is bad, or even that higher education should be or could be conducted in any other way. This is a function of their involuntary narcissism, which has been bred into them from birth and which is the primary fact about their sense of self and world (cf. Jean Twenge’s recent study Generation Me, which promises to be as cogent as Postman’s many writings). Of course I myself am one of the first generation narcissists as described by Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism (1979). So I can see these same forces at work in my own self, distorting my cognitive and emotional life and generally wreaking havoc with my happiness.

B.D. referred back to Postman’s claim about the inability of modern audiences to handle the long-form discourse of 19th century political debates when he said, “The typical C-Span junkie could probably handle 70 hours. As for our ‘grossly consumer-oriented society,’ it’s called capitalism– and it works.”

Yes, C-Spanners could surely endure that much talk. But exactly how well do they represent the mainstream in America right now? And what’s the level of talk they’d be imbibing on C-Span or any other channel?

Regarding your second point, capitalism is not consumerism. They’re distinctly different. Capitalism is an economic system. Consumerism is an ideology. Capitalism is simply one way to organize the economic life of a society. It happens to work very well, perhaps better than any other system, for moving goods and services around, and also for stimulating materially productive activity among a population. Moreover, as we have discovered in the American national experience (and as many economists and sociologists have explained both retroactively and prophetically), it is amazingly good at producing vast concentrations of wealth among a tiny economic elite of “winners.” Consumerism, by contrast, is a philosophy or attitude that elevates consuming, as in buying and owning things, to the status of Life’s Real Meaning. It holds that personal worth and a successful, happy life are measured and defined by material gain. Although capitalism provides what is probably the most perfect venue for consumerism, enabling it to expand explosively and take over the ideological environment like a spreading virus, it’s still a distinctly different thing. To ride roughshod over this distinction is to muddy the waters in a big way.

B.D. responded to the above words by saying, “I think that consumerism, as you’re describing it, is more a lack of ideas than anything else. But does that really mean people are getting dumber? Most people in the US used to be farmers– that changed dramatically with the rise of industry. Was this population better educated and informed than Americans today? I find that hard to believe.”

Consumerism is a lot more than a simple lack of ideas. It’s a positive driving ideology that has shaped and is continuing to shape American society into something it did not used to be. Moreover, it produces cannibalistic zombies who hang out in shopping malls.

The question of whether today’s American populace is or isn’t better educated and informed would seem to hinge on value-laden assumptions about the meaning of education and informedness. In the popular mind today, education is almost universally equated with being schooled in the mainstream educational institutions. Being informed is equated with having access to the mass media net through television, computers, and so on. The problem is, just a little investigation reveals that the schools aren’t really about educating in the authentic sense of the word, and being informed in the modern sense isn’t the same as having real knowledge.

For the first part, one can turn to such resources as John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education or even to far less radical books and articles for much proof and documentation that we’re all being hoodwinked by institutional pressures when we think the schools today are truly devoted to educating the population, or that American society is better educated than it was before the massive school reforms of the early and mid-twentieth century were instituted.

For the second part, I hope I’m not harping overmuch on a theme when I refer yet again to Neil Postman. In his 1990 speech “Informing Ourselves to Death,” Postman argued that ever since the advent of the “information age,” as defined by the rise to dominance of the electronic communications media and the computer, we’ve been drowning in a sea of information that we just don’t know what to do with. The universal cultural assumption is that more information will improve and even save us. Whatever the subject or problem, the assumption is that if you throw more information at it, do a controlled study, cross-reference multiple databases, survey the relevant literature, watch or make a documentary, find out what the experts have said — in short, if you’ll just get more information, i.e., make yourself more informed — you’ll magically arrive at the solution.

Postman does a great job of deflating this belief by asking rhetorical questions: “Did Iraq invade Kuwait because of a lack of information? If a hideous war should ensue between Iraq and the U.S., will it happen because of a lack of information? If children die of starvation in Ethiopia, does it occur because of a lack of information? Does racism in South Africa exist because of a lack of information? If criminals roam the streets of New York City, do they do so because of a lack of information?

“Or, let us come down to a more personal level: If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of information?”

Of course, Postman isn’t the only one who’s talked about this kind of thing. Theodore Roszak and his The Cult of Information come to mind.

Another way to look at it is this: We can all see that being ever more informed isn’t necessary valuable in and of itself, because American culture in the midst of this utopia of information and informedness is — to put it bluntly but accurately — profoundly fucked up in a way it’s never been before. Certainly, we’ve been screwed up in various serious ways in the past, but we’re currently foraging through unexplored territory.

So to answer that last part of your question — No, I don’t think people used to be better informed than they are now. But I don’t think we’re any better off than they were just because of our informedness. In fact, we’re worse off in a great many ways precisely because of this difference, and will continue to be so as long as we keep equating informedness, and also education as it’s currently practiced, with wisdom.

Incidentally, I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m shouting at you, B.D.. I don’t even know for sure that the kind of assumptions I’m going on about were behind your question. This entire issue just touches upon things that interest me greatly, as I suppose is obvious.

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Okay, this is me talking again, in the present tense, right as I’m about to post this to my blog. If the anti-intellectualism conversation progresses any further at Shocklines, I’ll probably share more of it here. Need I add that what I wrote above signaled the end of that particular discussion thread? This doesn’t surprise me and I really can’t blame other people for abandoning it, since Shocklines is primarily about horror entertainment, which made the whole conversation off-topic anyway, and also since I have a long history, almost amounting to a kind of legacy, of seizing upon topics that interest me and then pounding them into the ground so very thoroughly that everybody else grows sick of them. I’ve ended many an online discussion with my long-form comments. I certainly hope I haven’t further perpetuated the beating-the-dead-horse phenomenon via the present post. But then again it may not matter, because hey, after all, it’s my teeming brain we’re talking about here.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on August 5, 2006, in Society & Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Matt, whenever I read these particular entries, I find myself just as incensed as you are (and close to despair at how downright difficult it is to teach critical thinking in the face of all this). One other thing that bugs me about contemporary media, especially shows like American Idol, is that there seems to be a literal theatre of cruelty involved there, with little of the aesthetics of Artaud. I always bring this back to classroom discussions by discussing it in terms of a contemporary equivalent of ancient Rome’s panem et circenses.

  2. Interesting comparison with the theatre of cruelty and modern television. I’d love to see that developed.

    As for idea that it’s bread and circuses all over again for a 21st century American empire, I absolutely, wholeheartedly, and in all other ways agree with you, Andrew. The parallels both ideological and practical are so in-your-face as to defy refutation.

  3. Wow, Matt, that was a HUGE wall of text! But it was very informative, thanks for posting that.

    By the way, I think the link to the Shocklines forum is broken, I couldn’t get in.

  4. Stupid me, I forgot to write the rest I intended to write.

    The one thing that I find most disturbing about this new wave of Anti-Intellectualism is the rise of “Reality TV” and the shallowness of “Celebrity Worship”, both of them an ugly marriage that has taken many countries by storm, not just the US.

    I still remember when Big Brother was introduced down here; it was the perfect medium for mindless plastic entertainment and celebrity worship taken to the sphere of the “common man”. You could smell just how vacuous people’s lives were (and are) by just sitting around some of them the day after and listen to them talking about “the show”. This was especially disturbing considering it was in a University environment, a very good University at that.

    People would then go on lengthy rants about why John Doe did this, or why Jessie Nobody did that, or why Horny Couple X didn’t screw each others brains out at the pool for all to see, and all the while they would talk about them as if they actually knew them from way back and in a no way critical of the debacle… the overall feeling was deeply unsettling and it went to show the level of culture of the people “inside” the show (some of the supposed professionals) and how they were held as idols by the masses. The major of my state (from where the winner of the show was) actually had the nerve to state that she was “a role model for all to follow”.

    In the end, it all devolved into a pretty morbid form of modern high tech voyeurism where both observers and observed were involved in a grotesque orgy of information wizardry… Think about it, these peoples, the ones inside the “show”, actually subjected themselves to the morbid scrutiny of their cannibalizing audience on their free will.

    In a sense it brought back the conversation between J C Denton and the AI Morpheus from the PC game “Deus Ex” (Have you played it, Matt? You should, you’ll like it) where Morpheus says: “The human organism always worships. First it was the gods, then it was fame (the observation and judgment of others)”

    In countries like Spain it has gotten out of control. I lived in Barcelona for a brief five months period in 2005 and I was deeply disturbed by the reach “Reality Tv” and vapid “Talk Shows” have on this once great Country. Believe me, it’s actually scary…

  5. Thank you for the extensive and informative comment, Antonio. What you say about the pervasive effect of Reality TV in non-American nations confirms once again the pernicious viral nature of America’s current crap culture. I know other peoples and nations have contributed to the problem as well, but I still can’t help thinking that it is at root an American-led phenomenon, since America is the root of the McWorld culture virus. I find this sad, frightening, and endlessly fascinating, all at once.

    No, I’ve never played “Deus Ex,” although you’re not the first who has praised it to me. Maybe I should take that as a hint.

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