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On living well in Ray Bradbury’s dystopia: Notes toward a monastic response

Morris Berman may not have been the first person to offer simultaneous commentary on American culture and Fahrenheit 451 by observing that the former has basically transformed itself into the dystopian society depicted by the latter. Many people have noted in the decades since Fahrenheit was first published in 1953 that things have been moving eerily and strikingly in the direction Bradbury foresaw (or rather, the direction he tried to forestall; “I wasn’t trying to predict the future,” he famously said in a 2003 interview. “I was trying to prevent it.”) But it was Berman who most forcefully affected me with this line of thought when he laid it out in The Twilight of American Culture:

In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 — later made into a movie by Francois Truffaut — which depicts a future society in which intelligence has largely collapsed and the reading of books is forbidden by law. People sit around interacting with screens (referred to as “the family”) and taking tranquilizers. Today, nearly five decades later, isn’t this largely the point at which we have arrived? Do not the data [on the collapse of American intelligence] suggest that most of our neighbors are, in fact, the mindless automatons depicted in Truffaut’s film? True, the story does contain a class of “book people” who hide in the forest and memorize the classics, to pass on to future generations — and this vignette does, in fact, provide a clue as to what just might enable our civilization to eventually recover — but the majority of citizens on the eve of the twenty-first century watch an average of four hours of TV a day, pop Prozac and its derivatives like candy, and perhaps read a Danielle Steel novel once a year

. . . [T]he society depicted in Fahrenheit 451 has banned books and immerses itself instead in video entertainment, a kind of “electronic Zen,” in which history has been forgotten and only the present moment counts . . . [The novel] is extraordinarily prescient. Leaving aside the issue of direct censorship of books — rendered unnecessary by McWorld, as it turns out, because most people don’t read anymore — most of the features of this futuristic society are virtually upon us, or perhaps no more than twenty years away. [1]

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Technology and schools: Update on a techno-utopian delusion

Throughout the 1990s the Clinton administration pushed hard for the universal integration of computers and information technology throughout America’s public education system, culminating in Bill Clinton’s official presidential call for “A computer in every classroom,” since, in his words, technology is “the great equalizer” for schools. No matter that it was an idea (and ideology) that was basically made up and lacking in any real support. No matter that, as Todd Oppenheimer incisively argued in a now-classic 1997 Atlantic article titled “The Computer Delusion” (and later in its 2003 book-length expansion, The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved), “There is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve teaching and learning, yet school districts are cutting programs — music, art, physical education — that enrich children’s lives to make room for this dubious nostrum, and the Clinton Administration has embraced the goal of ‘computers in every classroom’ with credulous and costly enthusiasm.” The techno-utopian impulse for America’s schools proved to be unstoppable on a practical level, and schools en masse, from kindergarten to college, bought into it on a proverbial hook, line, and sinker basis. The idea prevalent at administrative levels was and — as I can vouch from having spent the last decade-plus working in high school and college settings — still is that technology in and of itself is a Great Thing that will Revolutionize Learning. Even though many individual administrators and teachers are quite savvy and sensitive to the nuances of the techno-utopian gospel, the overall institutional-cultural pressure is overwhelmingly in the direction of uncritical adoption.

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Beware the American craze for college credentialing

The editors of the always-valuable n+1 have published a penetrating and damning assessment of what’s wrong with the craze for credentials that marks the American economic and educational landscape right now. It’s all the more valuable for putting the whole thing in long-historical perspective.

For the contemporary bachelor or master or doctor of this or that, as for the Ming-era scholar-bureaucrat or the medieval European guildsman, income and social position are acquired through affiliation with a cartel. Those who want to join have to pay to play, and many never recover from the entry fee.

…Over the last thirty years, the university has replaced the labor union as the most important institution, after the corporation, in American political and economic life. As union jobs have disappeared, participation in the labor force, the political system, and cultural affairs is increasingly regulated by professional guilds that require their members to spend the best years of life paying exorbitant tolls and kissing patrician rings. Whatever modest benefits accreditation offers in signaling attainment of skills, as a ranking mechanism it’s zero-sum: the result is to enrich the accreditors and to discredit those who lack equivalent credentials.

Jean Baudrillard once suggested an important correction to classical Marxism: exchange value is not, as Marx had it, a distortion of a commodity’s underlying use value; use value, instead, is a fiction created by exchange value. In the same way, systems of accreditation do not assess merit; merit is a fiction created by systems of accreditation. Like the market for skin care products, the market for credentials is inexhaustible: as the bachelor’s degree becomes democratized, the master’s degree becomes mandatory for advancement. Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly  – and very dimly — a system for imparting knowledge.

— “Death by Degrees,” n+1, June 19, 2012

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The dumbing of American political speech has truly apocalyptic implications

NPR reported it this morning, and I listened with rapt attention during my commute to work:

It turns out that the sophistication of congressional speech-making is on the decline, according to the open government group the Sunlight Foundation. Since 2005, the average grade level at which members of Congress speak has fallen by almost a full grade…The Sunlight Foundation took the entire Congressional Record dating back to the 1990s and plugged it into a searchable database. Lee Drutman, a political scientist at Sunlight, took all those speeches and ran them through an algorithm to determine the grade level of congressional discourse. “We just kind of did it for fun, and I was kind of shocked when I plotted that data and I saw that, oh my God, there’s been a real drop-off in the last several years,” he says. In 2005, Congress spoke at an 11.5 grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Now, it’s 10.6. In other words, Congress dropped from talking like juniors to talking like sophomores. Flesch-Kinkaid equates higher grade levels with longer sentences and words with more syllables.

— Tamara Keith, “Sophomoric? Members of Congress Talk Like 10th Graders, Analysis Shows,” NPR, May 21, 2012

This is of course right in line with the general trend of America’s linguistic devolution and infantilization that has been underway for several decades now. A few years ago I published a post here about its specifically literary manifestation. If you’ll pardon me the indulgence of quoting myself (since there’s crossover interest with today’s NPR story):

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Liberating, efficient, utilitarian — bloodless? The evolving Kindle experience

In August of 2009, I bought a Kindle. I was immediately quite happy with it (see “Impressions and advice from a new Kindle DX owner“), and I continue to be so these two and a half years later. My Kindle has become a major part of my reading world as a whole, particularly as a device for liberating me from the backlit screens and chair-bound posture of laptop and desktop computers, since my main use of it has been to read the multitude of articles, essays, blog posts, books chapters, and other items that I find every day on the Internet.

But that doesn’t mean I’m a fan of the current and near-universal trend away from print and toward a wholly electronic world of reading. Nor am I fan of the evangelistic zeal displayed by some of the trend’s proponents. As I mentioned last week, it’s important to maintain a vital relationship with paper, and this means, at least for me, remaining engaged in an ongoing balancing act, in the course of which certain truths about the digital reading experience have become ever clearer. Read the rest of this entry

Advertising is pseudo-therapy. Consumers are its patients.

Neil Postman wrote this in 1993. It still holds true today. Maybe even more so.

[A] discovery which for convenience’s sake we may attribute to Procter and Gamble [is] that advertising is most effective when it is irrational. By irrational, I do not, of course, mean crazy. I mean that products could best be sold by exploiting the magical and even poetical powers of language and pictures. In 1892, Procter and Gamble invited the public to submit rhymes to advertise Ivory Soap. Four years later, H-O employed, for the first time, a picture of a baby in a high chair, the bowl of H-O cereal before him, his spoon in hand, his face ecstatic. By the turn of the century, advertisers no longer assumed that reason was the best instrument for the communication of commercial products and ideas. Advertising became one part depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory. In the process, a fundamental principle of capitalist ideology was rejected: namely, that the producer and consumer were engaged in a rational enterprise in which consumers made choices on the basis of a careful consideration of the quality of a product and their own self-interest. This, at least, is what Adam Smith had in mind. But today, the television commercial, for example, is rarely about the character of the products. It is about the character of the consumers of products. Images of movie stars and famous athletes, of serene lakes and macho fishing trips, of elegant dinners and romantic interludes, of happy families packing their station wagons for a picnic in the country — these tell nothing about the products being sold. But they tell everything about the fears, fancies, and dreams of those who might buy them. What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer. And so the balance of business expenditures shifts from product research to market research, which means orienting business away from making products of value and toward making consumers feel valuable. The business of business becomes pseudo-therapy; the consumer, a patient reassured by psychodramas.

— Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993)

(When Postman observes that image-and-emotion-based advertising “tells us nothing about the products being sold” but “tells us everything about the fears, fancies, and dreams of those who might buy them,” I’m compelled to quote the words of philosopher Michael J. Sandel, who noted in a recent piece for The Atlantic that “If you’ve ever seen the television commercials on the evening news, you could be forgiven for thinking that the greatest health crisis in the world is not malaria or river blindness or sleeping sickness but an epidemic of erectile dysfunction.”)

Scientism, the “social sciences,” and the assault on the human self

Maybe it’s the rise of “positive psychology,” “happiness studies,” “happiness economics,” and other attempts to quantify human happiness and gain a “scientific understanding” of it that has gotten under my skin. Maybe it’s the veritable tsunami of poll results and policy recommendations flooding through the collective consciousness during the current American presidential campaign season, all with the purported purpose of telling us what we think and how we should vote. Whatever the provocation, the following passages are hitting me really hard right now, and I commend them to your reflective reading.

From Neil Postman,Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992):

Technopoly wants to solve, once and for all, the dilemma of subjectivity. In a culture in which the machine, with its impersonal and endlessly repeatable operations, is a controlling metaphor and considered to be the instrument of progress, subjectivity becomes profoundly unacceptable. Diversity, complexity, and ambiguity of human judgment are enemies of technique. They mock statistics and polls and standardized tests and bureaucracies…It becomes necessary, then, to transform psychology, sociology, and anthropology into “sciences,” in which humanity itself becomes an object, much like plants, planets, or ice cubes. That is why the commonplaces that people fear death and that children who come from stable families valuing scholarship will do well in school must be announced as “discoveries” of scientific enterprise. In this way, social researchers can see themselves, and can be seen, as scientists, researchers without bias or values, unburdened by mere opinion. In this way, social policies can be claimed to rest on objectively determined facts.

[…] Unlike science, social research never discovers anything. It only rediscovers what people once were told and need to be told again. If, indeed, the price of civilization is repressed sexuality, it was not Sigmund Freud who discovered it. If the consciousness of people is formed by their material circumstances, it was not Marx who discovered it. If the medium is the message, it was not McLuhan who discovered it. They have merely retold ancient stories in modern style.

[…] [Scientism] is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like “What is life, and when, and why?” “What is death, and suffering?” “What is right and wrong to do?” “What are good and evil ends?” “How ought we to think and feel?”…To ask of science, or expect of science, or accept unchallenged from science the answers to such questions is Scientism. And it is Technopoly’s grand illusion.

From Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post-Industrial Society (1972):

Can one help concluding that there is something more radically corrupted than humanist intellectuals suspect about a standard of intellect which requires a lifetime of professional study and strenuous debate, much ornate methodology and close research to produce at last a meager grain of human understanding, cautiously phrased and nearly drowning in its own supporting evidence? That people are very likely not machines…that love is rather important to healthy growth…that “peak experiences” are probably of some personal and cultural significance…that human beings have an emotional inside and are apt to resent being treated like stastical ciphers or mere objects…that participating in things is more rewarding than passively watching or being bossed about…how many books do I take up each year and abandon in anguished boredom after the first two chapters, because here once again is some poor soul offering me a ton of data and argument to demonstrate what ought to be the axioms of daily human experience? If our paleolithic ancestors were presented with these “controversial new findings,” surely far from applauding our deep-minded humanism, they would only wonder “Where along the line did these people become so stupid that they now much prove to themselves from scratch that 2+2=4?”

Hemingway, media culture, and the impoverishment of modern English

It’s been awhile since a conversation at the Shocklines message boards elicited a response from me that I wanted to preserve here at The Teeming Brain, but just yesterday it happened again and resulted in my writing an article-length piece that briefly traced my personal, lifelong evolution and growth as a reader.

The inimitable Des Lewis started the conversation (which, be advised, will at some not-distant point slip away into Shocklines’ unreachable past) almost a week ago by asking people if they as readers prefer the more dense “baroque” prose of a previous era or the stripped-down and streamlined functional prose of modern popular writing. He kicked off the conversation by quoting a passage from George Steiner about novelist Lawrence Durrell’s baroque style. Steiner uses the opportunity to talk about the wider issue of English prose’s evolution away from ornate styles under the influence of Hemingway.

Here’s the passage, followed by my response to the conversation it kicked off:

But this does not mean that this jeweled and coruscated style springs full-armed from Durrell’s personal gift. He stands in a great tradition of baroque prose. In the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne built sentences into lofty arches and made words ring like sonorous bells. Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, used the same principal device as Durrell: richness through accumulation, the marshaling of nouns and epithets into great catalogues among which the eye roves in antiquarian delight. The feverish, clarion-sounding prose of De Quincey is a direct ancestor to that of Justine. And more recently, there is the example of Conrad. In the later parts of Lord Jim and throughout The Rescue, Conrad uses words with the sumptuous exuberance of a jeweler showing off his rarest stones. Here also, language falls upon the reader’s senses like brocade.

This baroque ideal of narrative style is, at present, in disfavor. The modern ear has been trained to the harsh, impoverished cadence and vocabulary of Hemingway. Reacting against the excesses of Victorian manner, the modern writer has made a cult of simplicity. He refines common speech but preserves its essential drabness. When comparing a page from the Alexandria novels to the practice of Hemingway or C. P. Snow or Graham Greene, one is setting a gold-spun and jeweled Byzantine mosaic next to a black-and-white photograph. One cannot judge the one by the other. But that does not signify that Durrell is a decadent show-off or that his conception of English prose is erroneous. We may be grateful that Hemingway and his innumerable imitators have made the language colder and more astringent and that they have brought back into fiction the virtue of plain force. But they have done so at a price. Contemporary English usage is incredibly thin and unimaginative. The style of politics and factual communication verges on the illiterate. Having far fewer words at our reach than had the educated man of the seventeenth and even of the late nineteenth century, we say less or say it with a blurred vagueness. Indeed, the twentieth century has seen a great retreat from the power of the word. The main energies of the mind seem directed toward other modes of ‘language,’ toward the notation of music and the symbol-world of mathematics. Whether in its advertisements, its comic-books, or its television, our culture lives by the picture rather than the word. Hence a writer like Durrell, with his Shakespearean and Joycean delight in the sheer abundance and sensuous variety of speech, may strike one as mannered or precious. But the fault lies with our impoverished sensibility.”

George Steiner, “Lawrence Durrell I: The Baroque Novel” (from Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell)

And now my response, which came after quite a few people had already weighed in with their thoughts and opinions:

I’m with those who say they favor baroque prose more when reading some types of literature and a more streamlined prose when reading other types of literature. I love the baroque stuff when reading horror fiction, especially of a gothic or gothic-related sort. Poe wouldn’t be Poe, nor Lovecraft Lovecraft, nor Ligotti Ligotti, nor Campbell Campbell, without the lushness of the prose style. The same can be said of Blackwood, Machen, Mary Shelley, and more. Then again, Fritz Leiber was no slouch himself, nor is Peter Straub, nor is Stephen King, and they opt for the more modernized, streamlined style. Read the rest of this entry

Anna Nicole Smith Is the Fourth Horseman

The only daily newspaper that originates from my part of the world is The News-Leader, which is located in Springfield, Missouri. It blankets southwest Missouri and part of Arkansas.

Last Tuesday, February 13th, editorial page editor Tony Messenger posted a brief observation at his blog, “Ozarks Messenger,” titled “A sign of the apocalypse…” It read as follows:

“I know that just by posting this I have become part of the problem, but I’m amazed at the coverage of the Anna Nicole Smith death and impending fight over her estate and paternity of her child. According to this study, the story has consumed more than 50 percent of cable news time. Between that and astronaut/diapergate, it’s amazing there’s any time for important coverage, such as, oh, I don’t know, a little war, health care, presidential politics. How low we as an industry, and a community, have sunk.”

I’ve really enjoyed Mr. Messenger’s handling of the paper’s editorial page ever since he took over from longtime editorial page editor Robert Leger last year, and this recent post is an example of why. I couldn’t help leaving a comment about it at his blog. Naturally, given my penchant for going on — or perhaps going off — about various indicators of cultural decline, my comment quickly bloomed to the length of an essay.

Here’s what I said:

As another commenter has already averred: Amen, brother Tony! I especially like the way you’ve framed this media insanity as an apocalyptic phenomenon. I know it’s become common to refer to things jokingly as “signs of the apocalypse,” but at present the type of idiocy you’ve decried here is hardly a joke, since the takeover of American and Western public life by trash and trivia over the past 30 to 40 years is truly a harbinger of cultural decline.

One of my favorite websites that talks about the “dumbing down” phenomenon (http://nomuzak.co.uk/dumbing_down.html) offers a vivid and accurate description of the way our collective consciousness has been hijacked by meaningless junk that obscures and edges out more serious fare: “In fact, the evidence for ‘dumbing down’ is everywhere: newspapers that once ran foreign news now feature celebrity gossip, pictures of scantily dressed young ladies, and football; television has replaced high-quality drama with gardening, cookery, and other ‘lifestyle’ programmes; bonkbusters have taken over the publishing world and pop cd’s and internet connections have taken over the libraries. In the dumbed-down world of reality TV and asinine soaps, the masses live in a perpetual present occupied by celebrity culture, fashion, a TV culture of diminished quality and range, an idealisation of mediocrity, and pop videos and brands. Speed and immediacy are the great imperatives, meaning that complex ideas are reduced to sound bites, high culture is represented by The Three Tenors and J K Rowling, people spend their spare time reading text messages instead of Dostoevsky, and listening to rap bands rather than Bartok and Stravinsky.”

Although the writer is speaking about Britain — note the British spellings — his words describe the contemporary culture of the U.S. as well. And indeed, he talks about America elsewhere in the same essay.

To speak more from my own personal experience, I can tell you that I teach English at a rural southwest Missouri high school, and whenever I speak to my students, if I want to make reference to any sort of common object of knowledge in order to illustrate a point about the dramatic structure of stories, or about irony or other literary techniques, or about anything else having to do with books and literature – and it’s a daily necessity to refer to a common fund of knowledge in order to illuminate something we’re studying – I find lately that the only thing I can mention with any reasonable expectation of group familiarity is the Harry Potter phenomenon. Almost all of the teens have seen the movies. Several have read one or more of the novels. I can also refer to THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but that’s because of the popular movies; only a tiny minority of students so far (as in, two or three of them) has actually read Tolkien’s books. I do have a student who has read a couple of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” books, so he has a minor grounding in literary fantasy.

But anyway, I simply can’t expect these kids to know much of anything, not even — and here’s the rub — about pop cultural stuff! It’s astonishing to find how many of them are oblivious to mass media culture. Not that they don’t know the names and faces of actors and bands and other celebrities, but if I mention the name of any movie director besides Rob Zombie, there’s a general look of blankness. I tried it with Spielberg once and had a couple of students respond, none too confidently, “Isn’t he the guy who made Saving Private Ryan?” I’ve also been shocked and dismayed at how many of them are functionally ignorant of Stephen King. Sure, they know some of his movies, but when it comes to the man himself the overwhelming consensus is an attitude of dull, suspicious disinterest, expressed in questions such as, “Stephen King – he’s really weird, right? Like, he’s that horror guy.” So even on the level of the pop culture crap that many of us decry, these kids’ frame of reference is shockingly narrow.

That said, I did find out recently, simply by asking, that they’re all aware of the Anna Nicole Smith “story.” So hooray. I guess.

Here’s what social critic and cultural historian Morris Berman had to say about these matters in his 2000 jeremiad, The Twilight of American Culture:

“In his introduction to the book, Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture, John Simon notes that a whole world of learning is disappearing before our eyes, in merely one generation. We cannot expect, he says, to make a mythological allusion anymore, or use a foreign phrase, or refer to a famous historical event or literary character, and still be understood by more than a tiny handful of people. (Try this in virtually any group setting, and note the reaction. This is an excellent wake-up call as to what this culture is about, and how totally alien to it you are.) Indeed, using Lewis Lapham’s criteria for genuine literacy — having some familiarity with a minimum number of standard texts (Marx, Darwin, Dickens . . .), and being able to spot irony — it may even be the case that the number of genuinely literate adults in the United States amounts to fewer than 5 million people — that is, less than 3 percent of the total population.

“In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 — later made into a movie by Francois Truffaut — which depicts a future society in which intelligence has largely collapsed and the reading of books is forbidden by law. People sit around interacting with screens (referred to as ‘the family’) and taking tranquilizers. Today, nearly five decades later, isn’t this largely the point at which we have arrived? Do not the data cited above suggest that most of our neighbors are, in fact, the mindless automatons depicted in Truffaut’s film? True, the story does contain a class of ‘book people’ who hide in the forest and memorize the classics, to pass on to future generations — and this vignette does, in fact, provide a clue as to what just might enable our civilization to eventually recover — but the majority of citizens on the eve of the twenty-first century watch an average of four hours of TV a day, pop Prozac and its derivatives like candy, and perhaps read a Danielle Steel novel once a year.”

Okay, so there’s a misanthropic tone there. But, you know, Berman’s point is difficult to argue with, and sometimes the bitter pill is the necessary medicine.

To round out this rambling comment on the aforementioned apocalyptic note of cultural decline, I’ve long been disturbed by the terminal diagnosis of American culture that appeared in Neil Postman’s influential Amusing Ourselves to Death back in 1985: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk: culture-death is a clear possibility.” I truly think that’s where we stand now, even more so than when Postman penned those words two decades ago. And the fact that the national news media can go into a feeding frenzy over something as patently and disgustingly vapid as the Anna Nicole Smith “story” at a time when America’s foreign and domestic circumstances are as they are only drives home the truth of Postman’s (and Bradbury’s, and Berman’s) Dark Age diagnosis.

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.