Friday, February 22, 2008

The Dumbing of America

I'm sure just about everyone has heard this statement about dumbing down our country. A friend, Dick, who is a full-time motorhome nomad, picked up an article the other day and e-mailed it to me. I'm reprinting it below. It's an article about just this topic. You may often hear people say that “knowledge is power.” But on the other hand, you will also hear people say, “The truth will set you free.” I like to replace the word truth with the word knowledge, since knowledge provides us with the truth in most cases and having knowledge and knowing the truth are elements to living and working free.

Now, think about this for a moment. Why is it that whenever a government or a dictator comes along and wants to control people, the first thing they do is work toward controlling what the people know and how they think. I believe there is really little difference between the 1930's “campaign speeches” of Adolf Hitler and those campaign speeches of our own Republican and Democratic candidates – no matter what office they are running for. Now, before you get all up in arms, believe me, I'm not comparing our politicians with a monster like Adolf Hitler. What I am saying is that Adolf Hitler's rousing, motivating speeches were meant and designed to gain control of the minds of the population of Germany. Did everyone buy into what he had to say? Of course not. But, in his regime if you didn't comply or conform you disappeared. Are our political rallies, debates, town hall meetings and political stumping tours really designed to do anything different? We hear buzz words like “Change,” “Universal Healthcare,” “Flip-flopping,” etc. all meant to motivate, inspire and gain the listeners' loyalty. Do we know that any of what is being said is the truth or that the candidate is speaking from a position of knowledge – or just reading prepared statements from speech writers and campaign managers?

Was it any different in the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War? What did they do to dissidents? They were jailed in gulags and performed slave labor. Many were never heard from again. Many died without anyone knowing why or how. And, of course, when a malevolent government or dictator takes control of a country, the first thing they do is burn all books and previous knowledge, “eliminate” the intellectual thinkers of the society and take control of the schools and educational system. Thank goodness, we haven't reached that point in our country and society . . . yet!

So, here's Susan Jacoby's article. I only suggest that you read it and heed what Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, has to say. I am reprinting the article with the author's permission.

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The Dumbing Of America: Call Me a Snob, but Really, We're a Nation of Dunces

By Susan Jacoby

Sunday, February 17, 2008; Page B01

"The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself." Ralph Waldo Emerson offered that observation in 1837, but his words echo with painful prescience in today's very different United States. Americans are in serious intellectual trouble -- in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.

This is the last subject that any candidate would dare raise on the long and winding road to the White House. It is almost impossible to talk about the manner in which public ignorance contributes to grave national problems without being labeled an "elitist," one of the most powerful pejoratives that can be applied to anyone aspiring to high office. Instead, our politicians repeatedly assure Americans that they are just "folks," a patronizing term that you will search for in vain in important presidential speeches before 1980. (Just imagine: "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . and that government of the folks, by the folks, for the folks, shall not perish from the earth.") Such exaltations of ordinariness are among the distinguishing traits of anti-intellectualism in any era.

The classic work on this subject by Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," was published in early 1963, between the anti-communist crusades of the McCarthy era and the social convulsions of the late 1960s. Hofstadter saw American anti-intellectualism as a basically cyclical phenomenon that often manifested itself as the dark side of the country's democratic impulses in religion and education. But today's brand of anti-intellectualism is less a cycle than a flood. If Hofstadter (who died of leukemia in 1970 at age 54) had lived long enough to write a modern-day sequel, he would have found that our era of 24/7 infotainment has outstripped his most apocalyptic predictions about the future of American culture.

Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture (and by video, I mean every form of digital media, as well as older electronic ones); a disjunction between Americans' rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.

First and foremost among the vectors of the new anti-intellectualism is video. The decline of book, newspaper and magazine reading is by now an old story. The drop-off is most pronounced among the young, but it continues to accelerate and afflict Americans of all ages and education levels.

Reading has declined not only among the poorly educated, according to a report last year by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1982, 82 percent of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later, only 67 percent did. And more than 40 percent of Americans under 44 did not read a single book -- fiction or nonfiction -- over the course of a year. The proportion of 17-year-olds who read nothing (unless required to do so for school) more than doubled between 1984 and 2004. This time period, of course, encompasses the rise of personal computers, Web surfing and video games.

Does all this matter? Technophiles pooh-pooh jeremiads about the end of print culture as the navel-gazing of (what else?) elitists. In his book "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," the science writer Steven Johnson assures us that we have nothing to worry about. Sure, parents may see their "vibrant and active children gazing silently, mouths agape, at the screen." But these zombie-like characteristics "are not signs of mental atrophy. They're signs of focus." Balderdash. The real question is what toddlers are screening out, not what they are focusing on, while they sit mesmerized by videos they have seen dozens of times.

Despite an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at encouraging babies as young as 6 months to watch videos, there is no evidence that focusing on a screen is anything but bad for infants and toddlers. In a study released last August, University of Washington researchers found that babies between 8 and 16 months recognized an average of six to eight fewer words for every hour spent watching videos.

I cannot prove that reading for hours in a treehouse (which is what I was doing when I was 13) creates more informed citizens than hammering away at a Microsoft Xbox or obsessing about Facebook profiles. But the inability to concentrate for long periods of time -- as distinct from brief reading hits for information on the Web -- seems to me intimately related to the inability of the public to remember even recent news events. It is not surprising, for example, that less has been heard from the presidential candidates about the Iraq war in the later stages of the primary campaign than in the earlier ones, simply because there have been fewer video reports of violence in Iraq. Candidates, like voters, emphasize the latest news, not necessarily the most important news.

No wonder negative political ads work. "With text, it is even easy to keep track of differing levels of authority behind different pieces of information," the cultural critic Caleb Crain noted recently in the New Yorker. "A comparison of two video reports, on the other hand, is cumbersome. Forced to choose between conflicting stories on television, the viewer falls back on hunches, or on what he believed before he started watching."

As video consumers become progressively more impatient with the process of acquiring information through written language, all politicians find themselves under great pressure to deliver their messages as quickly as possible -- and quickness today is much quicker than it used to be. Harvard University's Kiku Adatto found that between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate -- featuring the candidate's own voice -- dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds.

The shrinking public attention span fostered by video is closely tied to the second important anti-intellectual force in American culture: the erosion of general knowledge.

People accustomed to hearing their president explain complicated policy choices by snapping "I'm the decider" may find it almost impossible to imagine the pains that Franklin D. Roosevelt took, in the grim months after Pearl Harbor, to explain why U.S. armed forces were suffering one defeat after another in the Pacific. In February 1942, Roosevelt urged Americans to spread out a map during his radio "fireside chat" so that they might better understand the geography of battle. In stores throughout the country, maps sold out; about 80 percent of American adults tuned in to hear the president. FDR had told his speechwriters that he was certain that if Americans understood the immensity of the distances over which supplies had to travel to the armed forces, "they can take any kind of bad news right on the chin."

This is a portrait not only of a different presidency and president but also of a different country and citizenry, one that lacked access to satellite-enhanced Google maps but was far more receptive to learning and complexity than today's public. According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it "not at all important" to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it "very important."

That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism -- a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.

There is no quick cure for this epidemic of arrogant anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism; rote efforts to raise standardized test scores by stuffing students with specific answers to specific questions on specific tests will not do the job. Moreover, the people who exemplify the problem are usually oblivious to it. ("Hardly anyone believes himself to be against thought and culture," Hofstadter noted.) It is past time for a serious national discussion about whether, as a nation, we truly value intellect and rationality. If this indeed turns out to be a "change election," the low level of discourse in a country with a mind taught to aim at low objects ought to be the first item on the change agenda.

Susan Jacoby's latest book is "The Age of American Unreason." Available through Amazon.com at:
Learn About "The Age of American Unreason"

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Knowledge is power and it will set you free. So, living and working free pretty much requires that you have knowledge and know what the truth is through being informed and knowledgeable. Don't let a day go by when you don't learn something new.

Enthusiastically,
Ed

4 comments:

WeddingSpeech said...

Ed, Cruising around USA in a motor home has definite appeal. But consider the downside.
You'll belong nowhere. There won't be a place where the locals will call you "one of our kin".
You'll call in for some repairs to your RV one day and you'll have no track record. No one will give you credit, because you don't belong in that community.
You'll be obliged to pay cash or credit card for everything, UP FRONT.
Now, that's OK while the cash holds up. But what happens if you get seriously sick? No one will care.
I'm arguing in favour of still keeping a place you call 'home'. A bolt hole you can go to when the nomad life loses its lustre.
Ed, keep a patch of dirt with the Helvey name at the gate.

Brian 354riverlaw
If you enjoy catching big trout while you RV around, check my site at catchbigtrout.com
It sure beats tinned beans every day. And the fresh air is part of the healthy diet.

WeddingSpeech said...

Ed, here's something else nomadic writers like you can turn their hand to. Ghostwriting stories for other people. Check this:

Michael Robotham became a ghostwriter in the mid-1990s after 14 years as a journalist in Australia, the United States and Britain. He was deputy features editor for the Mail On Sunday in London when he met a ghostwriter who’d written autobiographies for the likes of badly-burned Falklands War hero Simon Weston.
“I had no idea people like that existed, ie ghostwriters,” he recalls.
“I remember chatting to this guy. I’d always wanted to be a novelist and I was thinking to myself this might be the next step. Because there’s a big jump from journalist, where there’s no story you can’t write in 800 words, to having the patience and wherewithal to work on a (book-length) single story.”

Robotham developed that ability over the next decade, becoming one of a select group of ‘go-to’ ghostwriters for major publishers.
“Readers and the public don’t know who ghostwrote a book, but other publishers do, so the word soon goes around the industry when a book you ghostwrote is successful.”
Robotham watched as books hardly anyone knew he’d ghostwritten hit the best-seller lists and some even won awards.
Eventually he started writing his own stories rather than other people’s, breaking through in 2004 with The Suspect, a thriller featuring a Parkinson’s-afflicted psychologist Joe O’Loughlin.

Anyone who wants to learn how to become a ghostwriter should check this website:
www.ebookofknowledge.com
and click on 'How to become a ghostwriter.'
Cheers
354riverlaw

Ed Helvey - Professional Nomad said...

You make some good points, Brian.

Actually, that's part of my long-term plan. I may eventually own a small location - one in the northern climate for summer and one in a southern climate location for the winter - possibly with a fixed 5th wheel trailer or a Park model trailer in each location. I no longer need the space I once occupied (as much as 5,000 sq ft).

Fortunately, I make friends easily and I have a network of many good friends around the U.S. already. So, if I need something in the case of services, I can get recommendations/referrals from them and they'll vouch for me. I already had that happen and I was well taken care of. My doctor, CPA and mechanic are located in Winchester, VA where I have long history with all of them. I'm also a veteran and I'm registered with the VA for medical services anywhere in the U.S. My doc knows about my nomadic lifestyle and makes sure my prescriptions are always available through Walmart pharmacies - I can get refills anywhere there is a Walmart. I can do just about everything with my accountant electronically. I can call my mechanic from anywhere and get his advice and likely diagnosis of a vehicle issue since he knows my vehicle - then I can talk intelligently with a mechanic somewhere else. And, of course, all of my banking is done electronically. So, I'm pretty well covered and flexible.

Thanks for the thoughts on trout and fishing. I do eat a lot of fish, especially those with Omega 3. I haven't done any fishing since I was a kid, but I'm considering taking it up as a fun hobby/diversion as I'm enjoying the wonders of nature.

Cheers,
Ed

Ed Helvey - Professional Nomad said...

Great story and information, Brian.

Most certainly ghost writing, if someone has writing skills or the desire to learn how to write well, is a great way to generate some income. I'm already doing some of that, myself. The best part is that there are so many ways to put writing skills to work - ghost writing fiction and non-fiction books, professional and self-help articles, technical manuals and more. I know people who do all of these and more.

I've been to ebookofknowledge.com and there is a wealth of information there.

Enthusiastically,
Ed