Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Incurious Minds Don’t Give a Shit

A friend just wrote me to say that her article for The Chronicle of Higher Education had been rejected with a form letter. It was a good article; I read it. In it she addresses the crisis of students entering colleges today who not only don’t know anything (no historical context, pathetic math levels, no second language—with hardly a firm grasp on just the one) but also have apparently never learned how to focus, process new information, and commit to learning what they don’t already know (or think they know).

In my experience as an instructor, most students cannot phrase a question even to ask for help. When they try to ask questions about particular points made in lectures or their readings, it becomes clear that many have not even established some grounds upon which to build more complicated forms of understanding … so many rely on day-before “review sessions” to get them through tests that purportedly evaluate what knowledge and skills they have acquired piece by piece throughout the course of study, theoretically over months.

What is worse, I thought when I first read my friend’s article, is the failure of thinking is now apparent in all age groups, so it’s hard to blame the “younger generation” for the collapse of civil discourse and the lack of will to acquire knowledge and understanding—or (the big temptation now) to blame the lousy public schools—many of which are indeed lousy because nobody wants to raise the tax monies to make them better. We are, it seems to me, a culturally exhausted culture—a “pseudo-culture,” operating on blind trust in technology, God, role models, and dumb luck, with emphasis on dumb luck.

The old tabloid motto “inquiring minds want to know” is just no longer true. There are few inquiring minds left. It’s a sad, sad day when public discourse and common sense fall below the lowbrow expectations of the National Enquirer.

As a blogger, I sometimes get confronted by people who take issue with something I’ve said. I’m fine with that … I invite it, as both a blogger and a teacher, not to mention as a citizen of a free democracy. Most (even some who strike a sort of intellectual pose) simply state that my ideas are foolish or absurd, without even demonstrating that they understood the ideas I was struggling to convey or even that they bothered much to pay attention to the words I used.

More often than not, they simply peg me as a “liberal,” a “socialist,” an “Obama-supporter,” an “Obama critic,” or a “collectivist” of some sort and then proceed to just make shit up, based on what they would generally imagine such a person would have to say on this or that issue. The gross misrepresentation of my idea then is followed by appeals to the vaguer and vaguer wisdom of “Founding Fathers” (hardly the homogenous core everybody today imagines them to have been), the ubiquitous Ron Paul (and I kinda “like” Ron Paul—but clearly not enough for those who “really like” him), and unthinking boilerplate cant like “nanny state,” “bleeding hearts,” “raise taxes (invariably bad),” “redistribution of wealth,” and “our children (invariably good).” And this is on my lucky days when I’m not being called a cocksucking faggot.

It’s irresistible to blame the electronic media for this turn of events. Really, the correlation between television-viewing, game-playing, and headphone-wearing, on the one hand, and the “new imbecility,” on the other, is fairly persuasive, though perhaps insufficient to “prove” cause and effect. Historian and attorney Daniel J. Boorstin made an early case for this argument in 1962, in his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Culture critic Neil Postman made a stab at making the case in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. Six years ago, Curtis White took on aspects of this argument in the book The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves. I’m sure you can probably think of six or seven other people who have made, with varying degrees of success, similar arguments.

It does appear that television (and its offshoots—including the impact it’s had on older communication forms like books, newspapers, and classroom instruction) has produced a mindset disinclined to pay attention and impatient with mulling things over. We Americans have come to expect everything to be “fast-paced,” “personally involving,” “amusing,” and “fun”—everything: art, politics, grammar, personal salvation, social progress, weight loss, arithmetic, the periodic tables, etc. If it’s “boring,” it’s bad. Even worse, everything should be “fun for the whole family,” which effectively reduces the level of all discourse to, say, a second- or third-grade level—with never a hope or expectation of rising above that level, merely spreading one’s inexpertness as widely and thinly as possible.

We have taken the expression “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” and run with it—so that everything is sugar—or high fructose corn syrup, or aspartame, or sucralose—and no medicine at all.

So we have Wikipedia (which I rather like, by the way, so don’t mistake my intent here as Wikipedia-bashing), which tells us everything we need to know about anything we need to know about, usually on a level appropriate for eight year olds. And poor gray-haired college professors are now expected to put on puppet shows, tell jokes, and promote small-group “discussions” on the novels of Henry James or astrophysics (90 percent of which involve the shrugging of shoulders and moving on to in-depth discussions of American Idol). In short, we do nothing nowadays to ask those who purportedly want to acquire some new kind of discipline to rise, however slightly, above the levels already attained when they started with the program.

To do otherwise is to seem to be “talking down” to people. It isn’t that at all, necessarily, but the charge is easy enough to make when we stubbornly want to cling to our ignorance, our prejudices, our received opinions, and our streamlined and color-coded versions of politics, science, and reality—when, in fact, if we are honest with ourselves, the problem is that we are disinclined to make an effort—not when there is television, which incessantly explains itself for us, then pulls in commentators to offer ever more (and often inexcusably reductive yet catchy) explanations, and whose laugh- and music-tracks tell us when something is funny, so we should laugh now, and when something is serious, solemn, or important—and we don’t really want to learn anything … we just want the assurance that we really are already okay as we are.

My friend, of course, said a lot of this more pithily—and with a clearer sense of the state of the teaching profession, perhaps. I told my friend that she should blog, like me. Sure, nobody (or hardly anybody) will read it, but at least she will have an editor who likes the way her mind works.

Blogs, I believe, are the depository of all sorts of half-baked and over-baked ideas that nobody has the time or inclination to mull over now, all of them stockpiled for the perfect age when people will have nothing better (or more entertaining) to do than to take these ideas seriously and give them their due.


  1. Small group "discussions" are perhaps the thing I miss least about college. Your characterization is (sadly) dead-on.

  2. Dom: Thanks! I really do try to rock and only wish I had the know-how to rock even more.

    Rebecca: As an undergraduate student, my heart used to freeze at the mention of "dividing into teams" (well, it still does at faculty meetings from time to time).



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