Higher Education

barbarians at the login

You’d think by now that I would stop getting annoyed by things like the following. I get an e-mail sent out to the faculty and staff about a summer book discussion where the subject is Susan Jacoby’s Age of American Unreason and particularly one chapter that deals with the role of media in fomenting anti-intellectualism.


Yes, it is what you would expect, every argument you’ve heard before from Birkets to Postman to Keen and so on. At this point, I really have to ask a couple questions:

  1. How do you define "intellectualism" without immediately invoking crass ideological forces (e.g. rap isn’t intellectual, maybe jazz, but not rap)? Without trying to define intellectualism for anyone, I’d have to say believing you’re in a position to define it for others is a fairly good example of anti-intellectual behavior.
  2. If you can define being intellectual, how can you measure it in the quantitative way that would be necessary to contend that it has "declined"?
  3. Finally, if you can define intellectualism and measure it, how can you determine the causes of this decline in the context of the highly complex system of contemporary global culture?

In the many instances of these arguments, I invariably find that being intellectual means being like the author. Not surprisingly, people who happen to be like the author (who make up most of the audience for such texts) tend to agree without much critical engagement. After all, intellectuals, like professors, have gone around trying to create other intellectuals by convincing students to be like them for decades, if not longer. Indeed, maybe this has always been the real pedagogic formula: be like me.

The quantitative measure then seems to work by demonstrating that fewer people are doing what the author likes to do and/or fewer people are demonstrating real interest or placing much value on the kind of work the author has traditionally done. So again, the logic seems to be

  • being an intellectual means being like me
  • intellectual behaviors can be defined as behaviors like mine
  • fewer people behaving like me means fewer intellectual behaviors
  • fewer intellectual behaviors means fewer intellectuals and less valuing of the intellectual

Now, as far as for who to blame, that also turns out to be fairly easy. Since the author is an intellectual that means values, behaviors, and objects the author likes are also intellectual. In turn, those the author dislikes must be anti-intellectual. In this solipsistic binary universe, the rise of anti-intellectual things causes the decline of intellectual things.

*end of argument*

Let’s think about this for a second. First off, what are we saying is "less intellectual" here? the United States? the planet? Are we suggesting that humans on a particular region of one continent are de-evolving in some sense? Humans around the world and for the last 50,000 years or so have had the same biologic-genetic make up, including their brains. So we’re just talking about shifting cultural practices, right?

Do we really think the general American population of 1940 was "more intellectual" than that of 2008? In 1940, 75% of Americans over age 25 were high school dropouts; only 5% had college degrees. In 2007, the dropout number was 14%, and the number with degrees rose to 29%, the highest to date. In what bizzaro universe could you imagine that a nation with virtually no formal education would be more intellectual than our contemporary one?

In fact, one could likely go back and find a fairly constant dropout rate through the first 40 years of the 20th century followed by a steady increase in high school education from 1950 to now. Then you could argue that television increased education among Americans…

Say what? Well, that would make as much sense as arguing that it caused a decrease, right? I mean if it has the potential to shape educational trends, presumably that potential could go either way…

Obviously either argument is entirely asinine.

Of course my favorite, always-cited statistic in this argument is the frightening decline in reading identified by the NEA. I don’t doubt that overall Americans are reading fewer newspapers and books. I’m equally certain that Americans are doing more of other kinds of reading. I know they are doing more composing. Of course that never comes up in these kinds of arguments, does it?

Jacoby wants to argue that it’s not about the content but the context: that books are good and other media are bad. Of course, we remember the Phadreus. We know medieval monks outlawed silent reading when the introduction of spaces between words made it possible. We know professors in the 18th century limited student access to the library so they wouldn’t be subjected to the possible bad influence of books. We know that in the 19th century reading novels was considered a bad habit and a poor use of one’s time. Certainly an industrious man wouldn’t spend his time on such frivolous activity.

It’s only in the 20th century that we began to conflate reading novels with being educated. It was only in the 20th-century that this bourgeois model of literacy and intellectualism arose.

And I have a little secret to tell you about the 20th-century (it’s actually an 8 year-old secret).

Last one to leave the 20th-century please turn out the lights.

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