Yesterday Geoffrey Pullum, Gerard visiting professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University and professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, penned a blog post for the Lingua Franca blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education about his recent visit to a couple of Lovecraftian sites in Providence. I was pleased to see Lovecraft being brought up like this at the Chronicle, and then I was even more interested when I noticed the tone of both Pullum’s post and some of the comments it had drawn. A lurking disdain for the Old Gent from Providence was on display right from the start, and I felt HPL was taking a subtle, and in some cases overt, drubbing of the type that properly should have been laid to rest with his ascent to canonical status around the turn of the new millennium. I also felt there was a misreading of not just his work but his worldview that was afoot.
Pullum starts his post on a strikingly negative note by recalling his first boyhood encounter with Lovecraft’s writing and giving it a retroactive trashing before allowing a backhanded compliment:
As a 14-year-old budding collector of supernatural horror fiction, browsing a bookstore in England, I happened upon a paperback collection of stories by H. P. Lovecraft. I opened it and read the first sentence of “The Lurking Fear”:
“There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear.”
That must be one of the worst opening lines in all of horror fiction, I now realize. It reads like an entry in San Jose State’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, inspired by the ludicrous opening of the novel Paul Clifford by Edward “It was a dark and stormy night” Bulwer-Lytton. And when I tell you that the last words of Lovecraft’s tale are “They were never heard of again,” you may find it hard to believe that even a 14-year-old would not be sophisticated enough to laugh out loud. Yet somehow, for a boy craving escape from the mundane world of the suburbs south of London, Lovecraft’s overwrought ghastliness rang an eerie distant bell in some haunted mansion of my imagination.
– Geoffrey Pullum, “Lovecraft’s Providence,” Lingua Franca, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 17, 2012
He goes on to describe how last week, after a day of teaching at Brown, “the fact that I am now living and working in Lovecraft’s beloved home town suddenly struck me as very significant.” Moved by this emotion, and setting out “For some reason I could not name,” he went and visited a couple of the famous Lovecraftian sites and structures in Providence — something I myself did several years ago during my sole (so far) trip to New England. Read the rest of this entry
Like so many of my fellow Gen-X-ers, I led a childhood that was significantly Disneyfied.
The first movie I ever saw, as relayed to me by my parents (since it occurred at an age far too young for me to remember), was Disney’s Cinderella. Beginning at the age of four, I took several trips with my family to Disney World and Disney Land. And also to Epcot Center, whose plastic sci fi utopia enchanted me. Most Sunday evenings I watched The Wonderful World of Disney on ABC, except for when I was obligated to go to church, which wasn’t nearly as fun or interesting as Disney. Far from being a typical passive sponge for the Disney meme, I actively soaked it up.
Based on this manifest interest, one Christmas my family gifted me with a copy of the massive uber-tome Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (576 pages, coffee-table sized, lavishly illustrated). Written by two of Disney’s legendary classic-era animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, it still stands today as the single most comprehensive, authoritative, and valuable tome about its title subject. I reveled in the book for years.
Along similar lines, I once convinced my parents to buy an 8-track of an audio play titled “Disney’s Christmas Carol” — the progenitor of the later short film, “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” — from a television ad. It was accompanied by an 8-track of Christmas carols sung by Disney-voiced characters. I listened frequently to both of them for a couple of years, even when it wasn’t Christmastime.
But then I grew up and, as I saw it, left childish things behind. In college I learned to scoff at the artificiality of Walt Disney’s saccharine, anti-real or hyper-real portrayal of human life, and also his gaudy techno-utopian future vision for the human race, not to mention his virtually totalitarian corporate leadership style and his exploitation of the underside of American proletarian values (anti-intellectualism, consumerism, etc.). This, despite the above-described Disneyfied childhood.
Now a new article in The Chronicle of Higher Education – “Walt Disney, Reanimated” (March 21) by Randy Malamud, an English professor at Georgia State University — is, to put it bluntly, fascinating the hell out of me. Malamud reviews the new Walt Disney Family Museum, which opened in October at the Presidio complex in San Francisco, and finds it a worthy, non-hagiographic presentation and examination of Disney’s life, ethos, and contribution to America’s culture.
He notes the scorn that became prevalent among American academics and intellectuals over a span of decades, and then points to a raft of recent books that have begun to reshape the conversation by taking a more open-minded and less condemnatory approach to Disney — the man, the media empire, the artistic/entertainment legacy, and the cultural force. “If Walt Disney,” writes Malamud,
is a hugely overdetermined figure — and he himself bears considerable responsibility for that — it’s a valuable corrective to have this museum return us to the actual flesh-and-blood man behind the curtain, and back to the work itself. . . . Before visiting, I had wondered if the Disney Museum would be a hagiography, or a glorified gift shop, or a propagandistic reification of the Disney empire. It isn’t any of those things. It’s a collection of ideas and documents, a diverse array of archival, filmic, and pop-cultural texts that historicizes Disney’s work and compels us to think twice about how we appraise it. The museum energizes the fascinatingly charged scholarly debate that the Disney phenomenon has provoked, shaking the worn, staid, sometimes cynical images we have of Disney and his empire, bringing to them renewed color and motion.
I haven’t kept up with any of the cultural and philosophical criticism leveled at Disney over the years. The last I really remember reading anything about it was when I browsed through Beaudrillard’s Travels in Hyperreality nearly two decades ago. But now, for some reason — one that I suspect is tied as much to my innate interest in cultural studies and ideas as it is to the Disneyfication of my childhood — the news that some critics and observers are starting to sing a different tune really snags my attention.
On initial inspection, from the tiny bit of poking around that I’ve now started to do in this area, the observations of these critics appear sound. The scorn has been overbaked and overblown. The Disney wave-and-meme really does represent something that deserves to be engaged with rather than dismissed or used as scholarly cannon fodder, and this is true both because of its inherent qualities and because of the general and pleasantly fresh-smelling fact that, as Malamud points out (drawing on a very worthwhile Chronicle article from last year titled “What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies?”), “scholars should respect and engage with the mass appeal of popular cultural texts rather than dismiss ones deemed politically or aesthetically flawed as evidence of the audience’s false consciousness.”
Thanks for that, Mr. Malamud.
Welcome back into my Fockerian circle of trust, Uncle Walt. It’s nice to remake your acquaintance.
This is the first of a three-part series. (Also see parts 2 and 3.)In this post I’ll simply point to the problem and refer to a couple of recently published pieces that lay it out in bleak detail. In the next two, to be published over the course of this week, I’ll lay out some of my reactions.
* * * * *
America is in the midst of a real economic crisis. That’s not news. What may be news to some (although it probably isn’t) is that America’s colleges and universities are staggering right through the center of it.
According to education consultant and former university professor and administrator Peter A. Facione, America’s higher education institutions are going to have to buckle down and make hard decisions if they want to survive.
Note the stark emphasis: Colleges are in a fight not just to thrive but to survive. That’s how serious the crisis really and presently is, as argued by Facione in “A Straight-Talk Survival Guide for Colleges” (The Chronicle of Higher Education online, March 20, 2009).
He begins by diagnosing the situation in unflinching terms:
It is time for some straight talk, starting with the realization that organizations that can’t or won’t adapt will fail. This recession has caused many of the nation’s largest retailers, banks, airlines, manufacturers, and brokerage houses to do so. Millions of Americans have lost jobs and homes. Why would we think colleges, and those employed by them, would be exempt from the same fate? The market sorts itself out at times like these. Industries realign.
….[H]igher education is part of the larger economic system. There will be casualties, just as commercial businesses will fail and other worthy nonprofit organizations will go broke. If a state’s tax revenues fall by large percentages, given that the priorities of the states are usually public safety, unemployment support, transportation, basic services, and a balanced budget, then something will have to go. Often that something will be support for higher education.
….If you as a college administrator think you are in a sailboat during a gale, you are right.
Then he offers his prescription, which consists of a long list of recommended action steps, attitude shifts, institutional reorganizations, and policy changes for college and university administrators, faculty, and staff to make if they want to survive. These are fairly dramatic and include suspending programs, reducing salaries, imposing freezes on hiring and searches, closing campuses, and more.
Not incidentally, Bloomberg agrees about the severity of the problem, as explained in detail in a May 1 article:
[T]he American system of higher education is in turmoil….Independent colleges that lack a national name or must-have majors are hardest hit. Many gorged on debt for construction, technology and creature comforts. Now, as endowments tumble and bills mount, they’re struggling to attract cash-strapped families who are navigating their own financial woes. Such mid-tier institutions may be forced to change what they do to survive. In the best case, they’ll merge with bigger schools, sell themselves to for-profit organizations or offer vocational training that elite colleges eschew, says Sandy Baum, a senior policy analyst at the College Board. In the worst case, they’ll shutter their doors for good (“Colleges Flunk Economics Test as Harvard Model Destroys Budgets“).
Briefly, and in anticipation of what I’ll talk about in the next post in this series, I’ll say that when I read this kind of thing I can’t help thinking of what the likes of, e.g., Kunstler and Greer and Berman have been saying off and on for years about the non-future of the American higher education scene in its current form. I also can’t help noticing that Facione and the Bloomberg reporter naturally think and talk in terms of market conditions, competition, the market “sorting itself out,” and all of that. I know, of course, that it really is necessary to devote attention to this “nuts and bolts” end of things — but I also keep hoping to read something in a mainstream publication like The Chronicle or Bloomberg that doesn’t just talk the same old tired economic language of business as usual but recognizes the need for an explosive paradigm shift away from the higher education world’s pervasive current model of college as a purely market-driven enterprise.
But I’ll say more about these matters in the next installment. Check back in a couple of days.
See the next installments in this series:
[NOTE: Dead link to online text of Mark Edmundson's essay "On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As lite entertainment for bored college students," referenced in the post below, fixed on July 5, 2009.]
This post is in response to a query somebody made at the Shocklines forum. In various conversations at that board, people have recently been mentioning a supposed surge of anti-intellectualism in America today. One person responded with the following:
“I’ve been hearing a lot about this ‘wave of anti-intellectualism’. I’m curious about it.
“All artistic ventures aren’t immediately dismissed by the general public. Memento springs to mind; it was certainly a different sort of film, but it also had reasonable legs as a movie which didn’t even break 600 screens, and its DVD sales seemed pretty strong. While it’s undeniably true that the most innovative movies do not have corresponding box office receipts (hey, Shallow Hal beat out Memento by a long shot) it’s also true that this is not a new thing. I don’t recall a time when the most innovative films racked up the best box office.
“What is the root of the anti-intellectualism argument?”
I could go on and on about this topic all day, and would end up thanking you for the provocation to vent. But I’ll restrain myself, relatively speaking. Apologies in advance if I sound smotheringly didactic at points. I’ve recognized that fact about my writing for years but have thus far been unable to overcome it.
I think the basic idea behind the anti-intellectualist argument presents at least two aspects. One of these is the simple recognition that “dumb is in.” I remember seeing Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey mention this in an interview a couple of years ago. When the interviewer brought up the subject of Ms. Fey’s reputation for intelligence and wit, she jumped on the opportunity to express serious concerns about the fact that in American pop culture, which for several decades has been synonymous with (prepackaged) youth culture, it’s become hip to be stupid. She talked about kids, and especially girls, feeling pressured to suppress their intelligence and appear stupid and vapid in order to fit in. And she contrasted this with her parents’ generation, when the counterculture was in full swing and it was hip to be über-intelligent and well-read so that you could effectively criticize the American government or the radical commie sympathizers or whomever, depending on your stance.
So this is the first and easiest-to-get-at arm of the argument, this pointing-out of what might be called the Bill & Ted syndrome, or the Harry & Lloyd syndrome, or the Jesse & Chester syndrome. Especially among the under-thirty crowd, there’s a cultural pressure to act stupid even if you’re not, and this is hostile to intelligence.
The deeper and more extended aspect of the argument represents a kind of medical diagnosis of a peculiarly American pathology that has now infected the rest of the world by means of cultural imperialism — that is, via the aggressive exporting of a lifestyle centered around consumerism and mass media entertainment. The idea is that America is in the throes of a systemic crisis that is largely economic in nature, the effects and implications of which have inevitably spun off into a detrimental effect on the American intellectual character. Then there’s also the related recognition of America’s longstanding bias in favor of what might be called “down home-ism” and against anything perceived as highfalutin, a tendency that has been alternately muted and dominant at various periods in the nation’s history. People who point to current anti-intellectual trends like to say the tendency has now moved dramatically and perhaps definitively to the fore, with youth culture’s “dumb is in” phenomenon representing just the tip of the iceberg.
Please pardon me while I let other people do much of my thinking and speaking. When I first started writing this reply to your query, I was just out of bed and my brain was quite foggy. (I’ve never been able to fathom how or why so many writers find this time of day to be the best for doing their work, since I myself can barely put two words together until mid-morning.) So I’m just going to offer some quotations from, summaries of, and links to a number of books and articles whose ideas have amplified, shaped, and/or coincided with my own.
1. The Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman was published in 2000 and advanced the argument that America is pretty much running parallel to late-empire Rome. Berman’s argument hinges on four factors that he thinks are primarily signaling and bringing about the collapse of America. One of these is the decline of intelligence. And when he says “collapse,” he’s not just talking moral or social degeneration; he’s talking about an actual, all-out cultural collapse and transformation into an entirely different type of social-political-cultural entity, again as in ancient Rome.
I loaned my copy of his book to a friend for the summer so I don’t have it on hand to quote from, but here’s one online reviewer’s partial summary of Berman’s analysis of America’s current intelligence level: “The statistics about the ignorance of American adults cited by Morris Berman in The Twilight of American Culture are stunning. Roughly 60 percent of us have never read a book of any kind, and only 6 percent read as much as one book a year. One hundred twenty million are illiterate or read no better than at a fifth-grade level. A majority of us cannot say what a molecule is, don’t understand that the earth revolves around the sun each year and don’t know that Germany was the enemy of the United States in World War II. Many of us cannot even locate ourselves on a world map.”
Of course, this familiar litany of statistics doesn’t really identify anti-intellectualism so much as ignorance. Ignorance is surely a guaranteed result of anti-intellectualism, but it’s not the same thing. Anti-intellectualism itself is an attitude, an outlook, a posture towards knowledge and the world that tends to glorify crudeness, brutality, stupidity, vapidity, and the like, while holding a complementary attitude of disdain toward anything that smacks of subtlety, sophistication, and nuance. It especially refuses to recognize or tolerate subtle qualifications and distinctions between intellectual positions and points of view. In this regard, Berman wrote a follow-up article to his book titled “Waiting for the Barbarians,” which appeared at The Guardian. Here’s a relevant excerpt in which he summarizes the intellectual situation of fifth century Rome and cites it as a near parallel to contemporary America:
“For centuries, the aim had been to hellenise or romanise the rest of the population — to pass on the learning and ideals of Greco-Roman civilisation. But as the economic crisis deepened [that is, the crisis formed by Rome's overextending itself with a bloated standing army and massive government bureaucracy, and also by runaway inflation and a shrinking middle class], a new mentality arose among the masses, one based on religion, which was hostile to the achievements of higher culture.
“In addition, as in contemporary America, the new ‘intellectual’ efforts were designed to cater to the masses, until intellectual life was brought down to the lowest common denominator. This, according to the great historian of Rome, M.I. Rostovtzeff, was the most conspicuous feature in the development of the ancient world during the imperial age: primitive forms of life finally drowning out the higher ones.
“For civilisation is impossible without a hierarchy of quality, and as soon as that gets flattened into a mass phenomenon, its days are numbered. ‘The main phenomenon which underlies the process of decline,’ wrote Rostovtzeff, ‘is the gradual absorption of the educated classes by the masses and the consequent simplification of all the functions of political, social, economic, and intellectual life, which we call the barbarisation of the ancient world.’
“Religion played a critical role in these developments. By the third century, if not before, there was an attitude among many Christians that education was not relevant to salvation, and that ignorance had a positive spiritual value (an early version of Forrest Gump, one might say).
“The third century saw a sharp increase in mysticism and a belief in knowledge by revelation. Charles Radding, in A World Made By Men, argues that the cognitive ability of comparing different viewpoints or perspectives (quite evident in Augustine’s Confessions, for example) had disappeared by the sixth century.
“Even by the fourth century, he says, what little that had survived from Greek and Roman philosophy was confused with magic and superstition (much as we see in today’s new age beliefs or in the so-called philosophy section of many bookstores). Only a warped version of the classical culture of antiquity remained.
“‘Short of the mass destruction of the libraries,’ writes Radding, ‘a more complete collapse of a classical civilisation is hard to imagine.’ And so the proverbial lights went out in western Europe. The parallels with contemporary America are not identical, but they do seem disturbing. The factors of hype, ignorance, potential bankruptcy and extreme social inequality are overwhelming, and they make a kind of spiritual death — apathy and classicist formalism — ultimately unavoidable.”
I find it revealing and unfortunate that a great many people grow livid with anger when they encounter this type of argument because they perceive it as hideously elitist and snobbish. I want to ask them: What’s wrong with elitism if the word refers to a hierarchy that forms naturally and spontaneously based on differentiations in quality, in whatever field of endeavor? The alternative is a Harrison Bergeron-type world, a situation like the ones Ayn Rand wrote about in Atlas Shrugged and Anthem.
Tangentially, I just discovered that Berman had a new book published three months ago, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, which extends his argument from the former book. I also just discovered that he’s started a blog to accompany the book. The New York Times savaged the book in its review. Berman has posted an interesting response in which he basically calls the Times piece a hatchet job and frames it as further evidence of the decline of authentic, reasoned journalism in America.
2. A 2000 article by Todd Gitlin for The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Renaissance of Anti-Intellectualism” makes for interesting reading. Gitlin refers repeatedly to Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which outlined the anti-intellectual tendencies that have always been a part of America’s collective personality, in order to point out that contemporary Bush-dominated America has plunged into the anti-intellectual abyss. Gitlin’s updating of Hofstadter’s analysis goes far deeper than the relatively insignificant (but highly entertaining) issue of Bush’s well-known butchering of the English language, to focus on the more substantial issue of his overall intellectual posture: “None of the easy charges against Bush [after his somewhat ridiculous showing in the 2000 presidential campaign] touched upon his more substantial incapacities: his lack of curiosity about the world (he has scarcely traveled outside the United States and Mexico City) and the ample evidence that he does not reason. During the debates, he was unresponsive to questions the answers to which he had not memorized. In public appearances, he spoke in sloganistic lists, not arcs. It would seem that, precisely because his thinking was disordered, the governor lost track of his points, so that items came out nonsensical, as in: ‘Drug therapies are replacing a lot of medicines as we used to know it.’”
The most significant portion of Gitlin’s summary of post-Hofstadter American anti-intellectualism focuses on the rise of “faux cerebration,” i.e., fake intellectualism, which gives the appearance of real thinking while in truth being nothing of the sort, and thus does incalculable damage to the people who are hoodwinked into believing that such behaviors as name-calling, demonizing, scapegoating, simplifying, and polarizing constitute actual, critical thought. “A central force,” writes Gitlin, “boosting anti-intellectualism since Hofstadter published his book has been the bulking up of popular culture and, in particular, the rise of a new form of faux cerebration: punditry. Everyday life, supersaturated with images and jingles, makes intellectual life look hopelessly sluggish, burdensome, difficult. In a video-game world, the play of intellect — the search for validity, the willingness to entertain many hypotheses, the respect for difficulty, the resistance to hasty conclusions — has the look of retardation.
“Again, there is a continuity to the earlier nation. Long before Hollywood or MTV, Tocqueville observed that Americans were drawn to novelty, turnover, and sensation. How much more so in a world of cascading, all-pervasive images, where two-thirds of children grow up with 24/7 access to television in their bedrooms, where video and computer games flourish, where mobile phones guarantee access when and where one chooses, where the right to be instantly entertained and in-touch seems to preoccupy more of the citizenry than the right to vote and to have their votes properly counted.
“There is a seeming paradox that Hofstadter did not anticipate, but would have appreciated. In the torrent of popular culture, there emerges more talk about public affairs than ever before — virtually nonstop talk about political concerns, debate on burning questions available at all hours of the day and night. But the talk that fills the channels amounts mainly to signals, gestures, and stances — not reasoning.
“Television reporting and punditry are the tributes that entertainment pays to the democratic ideal of discourse. The political talk does not, in the main, evaluate or research: It ‘covers.’ When CNN’s Washington bureau chief can say casually, ‘The Texas governor hammered home some of his major themes, including Social Security,’ this is shorthand, but not only shorthand — it is a surrogate for reasoning. Positions are signaled — candidates ‘position themselves’ — rather than defended; no defending is demanded of them. A topic is a ‘theme’ is a ‘position’ is an ‘issue’ is news.
“All the more so does punditry diffuse a debased version of intellectual life, cornering intellect in the name of chat, operating by a sort of Gresham’s law of discourse. Punditry is concerned with reviewing performances, rating ‘presidentiality,’ itemizing themes, relaying and interpreting spin, not thoughtfully assessing politicians’ claims, evaluating their evidence, judging their reasoning. To assess the quality of what politicians say would require intellectual work for which the pundits do not demonstrate competency. Pundits are hired, rather, for the facility and pungency of their presentations and the ferocity and acceptability of their opinions.”
This phenomenon of course forms a complement to youth culture’s exaltation of stupidity. On the one hand, you have all the kids who think it’s so cool to be idiots that they’ll actively squash their own intelligence. On the other hand, you have the mass media’s faux version of intelligent discourse saturating the collective consciousness, so that anybody who dares to indulge in intellection has this for his or her model. The result is a lose-lose situation.
3. The above line of thought works nicely in tandem with an essential book, the late Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), in which the author pointed out that the mass media, and in particular television, has contributed to a transformation in American and world culture that is positively Huxleyan in its implications, by devolving every aspect of public discourse — i.e., the ongoing conversation we have with ourselves, by means of which we develop and share our understanding of who we are and what the world is — into entertainment. As Postman effectively put it, the problem is not that television presents entertaining subject matter, but that it presents all subject matter as entertaining. And since it has displaced written texts to become our primary medium for knowing, remembering, and thinking about the world (a claim which Postman devotes several chapters to supporting), the damage is vast, as seen in Gitlin’s identification of fake intellectualism, the illusion that one is thinking. For example, Postman calls television news “disinformation” in the exact sense that the term is used by government intelligence agencies: not false information but “misleading information — information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctible. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge? . . . I do not mean that the trivialization of public information is all accomplished on television. I mean that television is the paradigm for our conception of public information. As the printing press did in an earlier time, television has now achieved the power to define the form in which news must come, and it has also defined how we shall respond to it. In presenting news to us packaged as vaudeville, television induces other media to do the same, so that the total information environment begins to mirror television.”
I submit that this description of the situation, which was scarifyingly accurate in 1985, has only become more relevant in the succeeding two decades. Nor is its significance limited to America; as Benjamin Barber has pointed out in his famous characterization of the post-modern American ideology as “McWorld,” American corporate consumerism has now been exported so successfully to so many different countries that a huge portion of the world population has been and is being Americanized in its consumption and entertainment activities. This has in fact become America’s de facto foreign policy. So it’s anti-intellectualism and eternal life in a plastic paradise of disposable consumer goods for all.
4. Mark Edmundson’s 1997 essay for Harper’s on “The Uses of a Liberal Education” specifically as “lite Entertainment for bored college students” points out that in the universities, where one would generally hope the tide of anti-intellectualism would find its nemesis in the form of intellectual passion and a strong drive to develop critical thinking skills, nothing of the sort is happening. Or at least it’s far from being the dominant attitude. According to Edmundson, not only have American universities been invaded by the consumerist entertainment culture that prevails outside their walls, but they have actively capitulated to it. By transforming themselves into marketing machines on a mission to woo potential students based on this cultural mindset, the universities have begun a slow suicide. Writing in this context, Edmundson describes his conflicted emotions upon receiving positive evaluations from his students at the end of a semester course on Freud. His words resonate with Postman’s and Gitlin’s:
“I have to admit that I do not much like the image of myself that emerges from these [evaluation] forms, the image of knowledgeable, humorous detachment and bland tolerance. I do not like the forms themselves, with their number ratings, reminiscent of the sheets circulated after the TV pilot has just played to its sample audience in Burbank. Most of all I dislike the attitude of calm consumer expertise that pervades the responses. I’m disturbed by the serene belief that my function — and, more important, Freud’s, or Shakespeare’s, or Blake’s — is to divert, entertain, and interest. Observes one respondent, not at all unrepresentative: ‘Edmundson has done a fantastic job of presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way.’
“Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says that she ‘enjoyed’ the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind. The off-the-wall questions and sidebar jokes are meant at lead-ins to stronger stuff — in the case of the Freud course, to a complexly tragic view of life. But the affability and the one-liners often seem to be all that land with the students; their journals and evaluations leave me little doubt.
“I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read. It’s said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? The hand that framed the question was surely heavy. But at least it compels one to see intellectual work as a confrontation between two people, student and author, where the stakes matter. Those Columbia students were being asked to relate the quality of an encounter, not rate the action as though it had unfolded on the big screen.
“Why are my students describing the Oedipus complex and the death drive as being interesting and enjoyable to contemplate? And why am I coming across as an urbane, mildly ironic, endlessly affable guide to this intellectual territory, operating without intensity, generous, funny, and loose?
“Because that’s what works. On evaluation day, I reap the rewards of my partial compliance with the culture of my students and, too, with the culture of the university as it now operates. It’s a culture that’s gotten little exploration. Current critics tend to think that liberal-arts education is in crisis because universities have been invaded by professors with peculiar ideas: deconstructionism, Lacanianism, feminism, queer theory. They believe that genus and tradition are out and that P.C., multiculturalism, and identity politics are in because of an invasion by tribes of tenured radicals, the late millennial equivalents of the Visigoth hordes that cracked Rome’s walls.
“But mulling over my evaluations and then trying to take a hard, extended look at campus life both here at the University of Virginia and around the country eventually led me to some different conclusions. To me, liberal-arts education is as ineffective as it is now not chiefly because there are a lot of strange theories in the air. (Used well, those theories can be illuminating.) Rather, it’s that university culture, like American culture writ large, is, to put it crudely, ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of goods and images. For someone growing up in America now, there are few available alternatives to the cool consumer worldview. My students didn’t ask for that view, much less create it, but they bring a consumer weltanschauung to school, where it exerts a powerful, and largely unacknowledged, influence.”
Speaking personally, what disturbs me the most about Edmundson’s self-description is that it hits close to home. In fact, it describes me perfectly. For the past four years I’ve taught high school English and have given exactly the same performance that Edmundson says he has given, right down to the urbane tone, the endless affability, and the frequent use of humor as an attempted lead-in to deeper things. My students have almost unanimously loved me. I’m hugely popular at that school. Is this necessarily a good thing?
5. In an article from late 2005 titled “Lack of Curiosity is Curious,” J. Peder Zane describes a growing dearth of intellectual curiosity among college students. It’s a brief article that’s well worth reading in full, and that is variously infuriating and disheartening depending on one’s current mood. Here are some excerpts:
“Over dinner a few weeks ago, the novelist Lawrence Naumoff told a troubling story. He asked students in his introduction to creative writing course at UNC-Chapel Hill if they had read Jack Kerouac. Nobody raised a hand. Then he asked if anyone had ever heard of Jack Kerouac. More blank expressions.
“Naumoff began describing the legend of the literary wild man. One student offered that he had a teacher who was just as crazy. Naumoff asked the professor’s name. The student said he didn’t know. Naumoff then asked this oblivious scholar, ‘Do you know my name?’
“After a long pause, the young man replied, ‘No.’
“‘I guess I’ve always known that many students are just taking my course to get a requirement out of the way,’ Naumoff said. ‘But it was disheartening to see that some couldn’t even go to the trouble of finding out the name of the person teaching the course.’
“The floodgates were opened and the other UNC professors at the dinner began sharing their own dispiriting stories about the troubling state of curiosity on campus. Their experiences echoed the complaints voiced by many of my book reviewers who teach at some of the nation’s best schools.”
“. . . [I]n the past, ignorance tended to be a source of shame and motivation. Students were far more likely to be troubled by not-knowing, far more eager to fill such gaps by learning. As one of my reviewers, Stanley Trachtenberg, once said, ‘It’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t care about what they don’t know.’
“This lack of curiosity is especially disturbing because it infects our broader culture. Unfortunately, it seems both inevitable and incurable.”
Zane goes on to attempt an explanation of what might motivate young people to be this way. He focuses on the post-modern explosion of information that makes the available pool of knowledge seem overwhelming, and also on America’s obsession with job and career as coupled with a sense of economic insecurity brought about by the rise of globalization. The result, he says, has been the transformation of education, as traditionally conceived, into job training. And the culture is failing miserably to respond in a way that would fill the gap: “In comforting response to these exigencies, our culture gives us a pass, downplaying the importance of knowledge, culture, history and tradition. Not too long ago, students might have been embarrassed to admit they’d never heard of Jack Kerouac. Now they’re permitted to say ‘whatever.’ When was the last time you met anyone who was ashamed because they didn’t know something?
“. . . In fairness, the assault on high culture and tradition that has transpired since the 1960s has paid great dividends, bringing long overdue attention to marginalized voices.
“Unfortunately, this new freedom has sucker punched the notion of the educated person who is esteemed not because of the size of his bank account or the extent of his fame but the depth of his knowledge. Instead of a mainstream reverence for those who produce or appreciate works that represent the summit of human achievement, we have a corporatized and commodified culture that hypes the latest trend, the next new thing.
“A fundamental truth about people is that they are shaped by the world around them. In the here and now, get-the-job-done environment of modern America, the knowledge for knowledge’s sake ethos that is the foundation of a liberal arts education — and of a rich and satisfying life — has been shoved to the margins. Curiously, in a world where everything is worth knowing, nothing is.”
Again, I can confirm these claims from my several years of experience in a public school classroom.
6. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 summarizes and totalizes all of the above. The scene where he has Captain Beatty explain to a bedridden Montag the social history that led to a dystopian “paradise” of book burning, zombified ignorance, and vapid entertainment is so relevant to present anti-intellectual and pro-idiocy trends that it’s still amazing after half a century: “The fact is, we [i.e., the book-burning firemen] didn’t get along well until photography came into its own. Then — motion pictures in the early twentieth century. Radio. Television. Things began to have mass. . .. And because they had mass, they became simpler. Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm, do you follow me?
“. . . Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet. . . was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics with your neighbors. Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.
“. . . School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped. English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?
“. . . What more easily explained and natural? With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal.
“. . . If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, topheavy, tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ that they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”
Obviously, the main thing that differentiates our actual present situation from Bradbury’s vividly imagined one is the absence of overt censorship. Books are everywhere. They sell by the millions. But as Berman noted in “Waiting for the Barbarians,” and as Postman noted in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and as the other authors I’ve included here have noted in their various ways, what really matters is the tone and mode of public discourse. It’s possible for some books to be no better than their absence. And also, as Bradbury himself has noted in a famous quote or quip, you don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture, since the destruction will happen on its own if people simply stop reading books and remembering the past. And that, of course, is the shocking revelation that Beatty really gives to Montag in Fahrenheit 451: Originally the censorship didn’t come from the top down as a government edict. It came about because people wanted it to. As in Huxley’s Brave New World, people wanted to forget about seriousness and gravity, and about memory and knowledge, in favor of simply losing themselves in mindless distractions and entertainments.
Of course, there’s nothing at all wrong in principle with pure entertainment. But when it’s magnified as something else, or worse, when we reach a point where things that are important but not necessarily fun are deemed unpalatable unless they’re distorted and eviscerated by being packaged as entertainment – then we definitely have a problem. And that’s where we are in America right now, in large measure.
So all of that, I think, plus a lot more, sits at the heart of the anti-intellectualist diagnosis. There are at least two general ways to approach and regard American culture at present. One is represented by the above criticisms, which mingle disgust with despair. The other is represented by Stephen King’s loving description of the sloppiness and garishness of it all in his famous Entertainment Weekly column of a year or two ago, in which he explained why he personally loves American pop culture.
Personally, I share some of both attitudes, and find myself unable to settle fully on either side. See my previous blog entry “The Passion of Rob Zombie” for more about my conflictedness. You can also check out some of the entries at my former blog, Confessions of a Conflicted Cultural Skeptic, for more about the themes addressed above.