OPINION & REVIEW: A nation of dunces

The dumbing of America

“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. [complete article]

Dumb and dumber: Are Americans hostile to knowledge?

The author of seven other books, [Susan Jacoby] was a fellow at the [New York Public] library when she first got the idea for this book [“The Age of American Unreason”] back in 2001, on 9/11.

Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

At that moment, Ms. Jacoby said, “I decided to write this book.” [complete article]

A class of 300 million

Who will be ready for the presidency on Day One? Who is best qualified to be commander in chief? Who is tough enough, charismatic enough and competent enough to do the job?

These are all important questions, of course, but they ignore a crucial element of presidential leadership — the ability to educate the public about the preeminent issues of the day.

Our greatest presidents, in the judgment of historians and in popular memory — including Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt — would never have succeeded as commanders in chief had they not first succeeded as teachers in chief. And two of the most conspicuous presidential failures in recent history — Bill Clinton’s healthcare reform plan and George W. Bush’s open-ended war in Iraq — can be traced, in part, to the inability or unwillingness of both men to educate the public about complex, long-term issues.

The duty of the president as public educator is not only more important than ever but, paradoxically, more difficult to carry out today than it was at a time when the attention of Americans was not fragmented by continuous access to infotainment. No 21st century president can count on what Roosevelt could — an audience of at least three-quarters of the American public every time he took to the radio for one of his “fireside chats.” And none of the 2008 presidential candidates is equipped with the experience of educating the public that Lincoln acquired during the famous debates he conducted about slavery with Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois senatorial campaign. [complete article]

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2 thoughts on “OPINION & REVIEW: A nation of dunces

  1. Jacob Freeze

    And two of the most conspicuous presidential failures in recent history — Bill Clinton’s healthcare reform plan and George W. Bush’s open-ended war in Iraq — can be traced, in part, to the inability or unwillingness of both men to educate the public about complex, long-term issues.

    It’s just too appropriate that this article appeared on the same page with “Dumb and Dumber.”

    Ascribing the failure of the war in Iraq to Bush’s inability to educate the public is the dumbest single idea I read anywhere this week, and that even includes a few jewels from Bush himself.

  2. Paul Woodward

    Agreed. Bush could hardly fulfill the role of “educator-in-chief” without first educating himself. Had he had an interest in doing so before launching the war, he could easily have concluded that it was a bad idea. Jacoby also reaches a dumb conclusion:

    To qualify for the post of teacher in chief, a candidate must demonstrate the ability and the desire to transcend the culture of distraction and deliver the most important message that any political leader can deliver to an intellectually lazy public: “Pay attention.”

    What commands attention is not an admonition to the distracted public, but instead a real gift in communication. The educator-in-chief has to be the communicator-in-chief. That is a skill that goes beyond erudition and hinges on a president’s capacity to connect with his or her audience — to win them over in both thought and spirit. So the job that any American can aspire for but very few are capable of mastering requires a rare mix of intelligence, imagination, courage, empathy, intellectual breadth, along with one of the clearest but most underrated markers of sanity: a sense of proportion.

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