In an article about Susan Jacoby’s new book, The Age of American Unreason, and in an op/ed essay by Jacoby, both state that not only are many Americans choosing ignorance for themselves and their children, but that we as a culture and society take pride in that ignorance.
Ms. Jacoby writes---
"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 Columbian 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.
There will be many critics of Jacoby, but we must ask ourselves why in our schools and greater society is athletic prowess esteemed and highly rewarded monetarily while intellectual achievement is derided as “nerdish” and young people who exhibit intellectual curiosity are often mocked by their peers? Why are entertainers given exorbitant salaries and our young people’s caretakers, teachers, and librarians given inadequate monetary compensation? And why are their efforts and professions held in such little esteem within our society and culture? What percentage of our federal budget is given to education, schools, and libraries and does that amount reflect a national commitment to making education and literacy a top national priority?
And most troubling, why do we, as a people, exult in our ignorance?
I grew up the granddaughter of immigrants, none of whom had achieved even an eighth grade level education in their country of origin. My grandparents’ greatest desire was to have their children and grandchildren receive the education they lacked. They sacrificed for their children’s education, denying themselves life’s comforts, working back-breaking jobs in order to give their children a road to a better life. I grew up surrounded by selfless people who worked to give their children and grandchildren opportunities they did not have. I thought in America everyone grew up with families that thought and acted like that.
It was not until I became a parent educational activist, fighting for school funding in a small town in New England that I encountered many people who did not share my family's priorities, people who did not believe that an older generation must sacrifice so that the next can have better opportunities. I can distinctly remember knocking on a family’s door asking a father, “Don’t you want your kids to have a better education than you did? Don’t you want your kids to have a smaller class sizes, better books, and good teachers? His response-“I had 45 kids in my class; what’s good enough for me is good enough for them.” Unfortunately, our nation, in words, in our actions, and in our monetary choices, seems to reflect the values expressed by that father rather than the values my grandparents lived.
In this election campaign, issues related to literacy, education, libraries, humanities, sciences and the arts are rarely discussed, and if they are, are discussed in the most unimaginative and pedestrian manner recycling tired ideas and programs that reflect old inadequate thinking and problem solving. Contact the presidential candidate and party of your choice and urge them to talk about education and the future of our young people. Urge them to seriously consider education issues to the same degree they do economic and health issues. Urge them to think critically and creatively and come up with new ideas, new problem solving.-- Mary Brigid Barrett, president, the NCBLA.
For more information go to the NCBLA activist pages at: http://www.thencbla.org/BPOSpages/becomeactivist.html
To read about Susan Jacoby’s ideas, go to: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/15/AR2008021502901.html?hpid=opinionsbox1
Take a moment and contact the presidential candidates, as well as your political party, and let them know that you want them to start talking about our children and their education, NOW!
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For more information go to the NCBLA activist pages at: