The State of the Nayshun

As we wait for the inevitable decline in Barack Obama’s fortunes and lament the fact that the political campaign being waged in the world’s greatest democracy has become a battle between a feisty old man in a baseball cap and a young Cicero increasingly prone to leaden rather than silver tongued oration, it’s appropriate to take stock of the intellectual condition of the nation.

My friends, as the feisty old man likes to say, Things are Not Good. Nearly half a century ago the mini-genre of “Why Is America So Fucking Stupid” was born with the publication of Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, though some would argue (I would) that the genre can be dated from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835/40). And surely Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann form part of a chorus of voices decrying the pure turnip-headedness of Americans. For Lewis, George F. Babbitt was the epitome of the clueless American whose world was circumscribed by small ideas, uninterested in just about everything beyond his picket fence in Zenith, Winnemac (“which is adjacent to Michigan, Ohio and Indiana”), and “whose religion was boosterism.” That was 1922: the Great Depression and the second of the century’s world wars lay ahead. The bad news is that in Bush’s America ‘08, George Babbitt might be able to pass himself off as an intellectual.

In a recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education William Pannapacker (aka Thomas H. Benton) explains the decline this way: “The anti-intellectual legacy [Hofstadter] described has often been used by the political right — since at least the McCarthy era — to label any complication of the usual pieties of patriotism, religion, and capitalism as subversive, dangerous, and un-American. And, one might add, the left has its own mirror-image dogmas…Now, in the post-9/11 era, American anti-intellectualism has grown more powerful, pervasive, and dangerous than at any time in our history.” This is an important statement, because it rightly states that the right has no exclusive claim to anti-intellectualism, and some would argue that Neo-conservatism was a rarefied and acute intellectual moment in American culture, packaged as grits.

A slough of books attempts a diagnosis: Elvin Lim’s The Anti-intellectual Presidency (2008), Richard Shenkman’s Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter (208) (Let’s not and say we did?); Al Gore’s somewhat disappointing The Assault on Reason (2007), Nicholas Carr’s July 2008 Atlantic Article, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” and, most poignant of all, Mark Bauerlein’s recent book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future. Bauerlein’s book rings true especially in an academic world divided like Gaul among a tech-savvy, tech-comfortable, and tech-intimidated professoriate that struggles to fight battles about academic honesty, the use of critical reasoning and sources, the almost utter dependence on unvetted, under-assessed and often mistaken opinions taken from blogs as being as good as Britannica, and the quick-search culture in which, desperate to know the age of a rock star, American Idol winner, or the date when the Middle Ages officially ended, we just Google It.

Fortunately, Americans have a strong tradition of gifted intellectual leaders to offset the brain-deadening cost of internet dependence – as Borat would say, Not. As we listen to the looped and loopy tropes of Jeremiah Wright, John McCain’s proposals for a “gas tax” holiday,” Obama’s stuttering attempts to defend himself against charges of inexperience and MTV celeb stature, we can count on the fact that all hesitation is an attempt to find the right one-syllable word or to make a long sentence short – preferably very short.

“Senator, are you playing the race card?”

“Well, I’ll leave it up to my opponent to answer that one.”

The sentences are convertible, candidate to candidate. What has some of us worried is that the Democratic candidate’s slow-on-the-draw ability to both think and speak on his feet is being interpreted as “intellectual arrogance.” As Lim suggests, the nature of the modern political campaign is an exercise in mocking complexity and analysis, so to the extent Obama can be “interpreted” as analytical and complex—whether he is or isn’t—his risk of non-election increases ten-fold. To speak carefully is to be conceited, probably untrustworthy, unsmart in ways politicians need to be smart. Remember Dan Rather (rip) to John Kerry: “Senator, do you think you have enough Elvis in you to get elected?” Evidently he did not.

But the real cost of America’s hate-affair with knowledge is paid by children, for whom words like “learning” and “wisdom” sound biblical and words like “intelligence” elitist and judgmental. Those of us old enough to remember the sixties well remember that every classroom had at least one kid (usually an immigrant from Canada or Pakistan) whose father (usually an academic or ACLU attorney) had turned the television set into a planter. But those of us who have survived The Love Boat, Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels to enter the world of Rap and shows about whinnying wannabe Britneys celebrating million dollar Sweet Sixteen parties have survived to witness the reversal of culture—a new barbarism and a vulgarity that, unlike the old vulgarity, incoherently accepts political correctness while exploiting and expanding every stereotype, every dumb opinion, every rude form of discourse. It’s a barbarism fueled by technologies made available to the know-nothings by the know-hows, free speech driven to the limits of incivility, and a generational clash that makes the “generation gap” of my own teenage years look like a catechism class at St Marty’s.

“Reversal of culture” sounds excessively dramatic, perhaps—but consider. Men and women of eighteenth century Europe actually knew and named their era the Enlightenment. The “optimism” of a Leibniz may have been balanced by the cynicism of a Voltaire, but in general the sense of discovery and progress ignited then was real enough to last through—say—the first lunar landing. Among the troglodytes whose idea of entertainment is waiting for Tila Tequila to choose her male or female mate, I’m uncertain that anything short of the Apocalypse would grab and keep their attention. Benton again: “The last eight years represent the sleep of reason producing the monsters of our time: suburban McMansions, gas-guzzling Hummers, pop evangelicalism, the triple-bacon cheeseburger, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?, creation science, water-boarding, environmental apocalypse, Miley Cyrus, and the Iraq War — all presided over by that twice-elected, self-satisfied, inarticulate avatar of American incuriosity and hubris: he who shall not be named.” And why not: among our sleepy children there is a strange belief that coming out as gay, bisexual, undecided, trans, punctured rather than pierced is an act of heroism. Among the gifts of the postmodern university is the gift of sexual ambiguity and an oddly anti-existential amorphousness in which the self is not created by the individual but imposed by the tribe. Cultural reversal.

If it is not enough that our point and click culture leaves us chained in Plato’s cave, before our screens (Nick Carr makes the point in The Big Switch), consider that the surfing, skimming, and deselecting of information that accompanies the reversal means that careful reading and listening and sustained attention must be devalued. University teachers across the land have introduced “warnings” about what should not be done with a classroom PC. The most usual prohibitions: No chatting to friends, no downloading music, no bidding for I-pods on E-Bay. Those are ridiculous rules, of course, when the inevitable take-home examination is going to be executed without recourse to any of the skills the traditional classroom is designed to cultivate.

Almost all the current spate of books on American dumbness see a further dimension to the problem. Partly because of political leaders who talk, look and act dumb, stupidity is the most respectable life-stance available in New Millennium America. Our children are not only ignorant of history, geography, math and science, but – having taken a look at MTV, their parents and their government – persuaded that skills in any of those areas don’t matter, proud that they are as dumb as their friends, certain (as Benton notes) that all shortcomings are professorial or institutional à la rather than personal.

Bauerlein blames a soft academic culture and indifferent Gen-X parenting for creating a generation of tech-savvy-world-dumb monsters. Ho-hum. But then, he is half right. As a professor – no, too pompous; as an educator, I know I have capitulated with Mammon in trying to make my classes more entertaining, my jokes funnier, my tests more “creative,” reading assignments less extensive than ever was the case when I was a college student. I know that I did this because I wanted something from the deal—good student evaluations, tenure, the envy of my colleagues, gratitude and undying affection from my students. All the best reasons.

But the monster we have created has something Frankenstein’s lacked: self-esteem. We have created intellectual weaklings who are absolutely convinced that they have to be “defined” by the culture they live in, not by the (archaic) standards of old people (anyone born before 1960), whether teacher, parent, or employer. Bauerlein sees them as impervious to criticism because the I’m OK You’re OK platitudocracy into which they were born caused them to see criticism as a form of abuse. Praise, good grades, promotions and success are not exceptional but expected. And even that might be OK, Jack, except for a cloying sense that Orwellian mysticism undergirds the system, and the fear (even among panderers like me) that we are now calling mediocrity excellence and failure a new challenge.

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