Friday, February 15, 2008

Dumber than Fifth Graders?

Susan Jacoby argues that anti-intellectuals now merge with anti-rationalists. While bemoaning the boobosie became sport for Mencken and a habit for Twain, the great unwashed apparently keep growing in numbers in the U.S. Other nations plunge into the same backwash we do, but they outperform us regularly in math, science, and general smarts. Also note that she indicts the ivory tower as well. She correctly notes the pandering in our curricula (not mine, however-- we have no electives where I teach!) to the fractured identity politics, competition for victimization, and endless self-correction for college credit in the form of living white male guilt seminars that so many from the 60s have used to gain tenure and harangue us untenured post-boomer louts. I favor her self-description as a "cultural conservator," steering around lefty smugness or right-wing stagnation. Here's some excerpts from a N.Y. Times Feb. 14, 2007 article about her jeremiad.

Ms. Jacoby, however, is quick to point out that her indictment is not limited by age or ideology. Yes, she knows that eggheads, nerds, bookworms, longhairs, pointy heads, highbrows and know-it-alls have been mocked and dismissed throughout American history. And liberal and conservative writers, from Richard Hofstadter to Allan Bloom, have regularly analyzed the phenomenon and offered advice.

T. J. Jackson Lears, a cultural historian who edits the quarterly review Raritan, said, “The tendency to this sort of lamentation is perennial in American history,” adding that in periods “when political problems seem intractable or somehow frozen, there is a turn toward cultural issues.”

But now, Ms. Jacoby said, something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.

She pointed to a 2006 National Geographic poll that found nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t think it is necessary or important to know where countries in the news are located. So more than three years into the Iraq war, only 23 percent of those with some college could locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel on a map.

The National Geographic Poll Results (image from same site):

1 comment:

Scudbob said...

Nobody will ever accuse democracy of being an efficient system. If it were, what fun would it be to read the likes of Twain, Hawthorne, Menchen, and the recently departed Molly Ivins.