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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Anti-intellectualism as an American business cult

Brother Todd Epp has a post about the end of publishing American Heritage magazine because its publishers find there is no market for American history in America. I join his sense of grief. As the bumper sticker says, "Don't trust education? Try ignorance." We are trying ignorance as if it is the great American heritage.

History is not the only part of our heritage that has undergone a massive devaluation. American literature and the communicative arts have also undergone a process of dismissal as luxurious irrelevancies to contemporary life. This attitude represents a revolt from the basic belief in education as the major factor that has and will make the great American experiment in democracy a success. All of the writing about the developing America cites education as the key to a successful republic. Three of our founders who were largely self-educated provided us with the frameworks around which our public (and in many case, our private) education systems were built. Thomas Jefferson (who studied under prominent scholars, but worked independently) wrote extensively about the need for education and formulated the plans for the University of Virginia. Ben Franklin who was totally self-educated also wrote about the need for an education system and formulated the plans for the University of Pennsylvania. Abraham Lincoln, who claimed only one year of formal schooling, signed the Land Grant College Act at the most intense moments of the Civil War. These men revered knowledge as essential to the realization of democracy and worked to create a system that would make knowledge accessible to all of America.

So, how has America come to dismiss the value of knowledge about our poltical and cultural heritage?

The key is in the language of the quotation that Todd Epp cites for discontinuing American Heritage:

“There is no market for American history,” said Scott Masterson, a senior V.P. at Forbes Inc. and president of its American Heritage unit.

That word "market" is the revealing term. In our contemporary culture, if it can't be marketed for profit, it isn't worth anything. When the value of something is determined by whether it can sell in the commercial marketplace, the value of knowledge is reduced to a kitsch-like commodity. Perhaps, we should turn our heritage over to Ron Popeil and see what he might be able to make with the stuff. But behind the values held most highly in our current culture echoes the words of Oscar Wilde about people "who know the price of everything, and the value of nothing."

Another way of approaching what happened to American culture is the cry of the American cowboy as ranching became the province of corporations. The cowboys called forth the alarm: "The bean-counters are coming!" And come they did. That phenomenon in agriculture that we call "consolidation" has been propelled by the slogan that "farming is a business, not a way of life." And the aspirations that were realized through an agrarian democracy have been dismissed as impractical, wishful thinking. Along with the idea of a nation of independent, but interconnected yeoman farmers, the political, social, and cultural values that drove American aspiration have been dismissed. In a culture that adheres more to the model of a bee-hive or ant colony than to a free, equal, and just society, knowledge and education are impediments.

Those of us in education have noted the source of problems in our failing system. Students who have been programmed by television and video games find it difficult to concentrate on anything longer than 5 to 10 minutes. The pace of thought processes has been conditioned to the commercial message, which promises some form of gratification every few minutes and interrupts the narrative-lines of stories or the orations and debates of politicians to prevent any extended absorption and analysis of the content. We note that researchers into attention deficits have raised the question of whether the problem is not conditioned by the segmenting of concentration through our electronic media. Kids are programmed not to give their attention to anything for more than a few minutes and to expect some offer of gratification to be provided them at frequent intervals.

As I watched recreations of the Lincoln-Douglas debates a few years back, I kept thinking about the impossibility of holding such extended elaborations of reasoning and ideas anywhere today. The audience for such discourse would be paltry, indeed. Our technology has been developed as a conditioning device for sales messages, and it has truncated the human ability to hold and pursue ideas that go beyond 30-second sound bites and horny music videos. Function has been reduced to the forms of communication, which are geared to the suspension of thought.

While public education is under attack and its alleged demise has become a popular intellectual posture since the issuance of the report "A Nation At Risk" in the mid-1980s, no one has bothered to ask the teachers, the people who try to impart knowledge every work day, what the problems are. The common experience in education, K-graduate school, is that our culture militates against coherence of information and intensity of thought processes. School as a quiet place where individuals are coached in developing their skills of thought by acquiring knowledge is a concept that has passed us by and is considered irrelevant.

Critics of culture have been warning us for over half a century that our culture is driven by the need to turn people into mindless consumers. The ideas of knowlegeable, critical thinkers are threats to that kind of society.

The war on Iraq represents the ultimate triumph of ignorance and mindless obedience over knowledge and coherent thought. Perhaps it can be used to explore the perils of ignorance and the mindless imposition of power by the ignorant.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States