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Today’s NYT brings us yet more cultural handwringing via an Op-Ed with the glimmering title of ”Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?”.

Ms. Jacoby, whose book came out on Tuesday, doesn’t zero in on a particular technology or emotion, but rather on what she feels is a generalized hostility to knowledge. She is well aware that some may tag her a crank. “I expect to get bashed,” said Ms. Jacoby, 62, either as an older person who upbraids the young for plummeting standards and values, or as a secularist whose defense of scientific rationalism is a way to disparage religion.

Per the Barenaked Ladies, it’s all been done before.

Seriously. I think I should start making a table of these types of articles with dates and see how often they pop up. I bet that would be illuminating.

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.

Which begs the age-old question, Is our children learning? Alright, obligatory potshot out of the way. Now here’s the real question: Why is it that this type of story is so consistently reported?

That the country’s test scores are in the toilet is no longer breaking news. That you are more likely to turn on the TV and view a reality contest show has nothing to do with the thankfully-ended writers’ strike and everything to do with companies trying to make the most profit with the least investment.

[This paragraph has been removed due to my inability to not make political cheap shots even when I’m honestly trying to behave. Since I don’t want to lower the tone of my own discourse—ha—I’m just putting in this filler.]

[Also, don’t read the comments on the article unless you have blood pressure meds nearby. NYT readers are as bad as their reporters. Yes I do count myself in this group.]

Now let us ask two more questions:
1) What is knowledge?
2) How does one know?

These are simple questions that aren’t that simple. Kind of like finding the ultimate question in Hitchhiker’s Guide. We think we know the answer we’re looking for, we’re just not sure how to go about it.

Our educational system has been running pretty solidly on the regurgitation format for the last hundred years and more. We feed information into little gullets and ask for it back, and generally get it all mangled. (It’s called regurgitation for a reason, people.)

Now for once at least Jacoby has a clue and wants to teach critical thinking. However, I think it’s telling that she doesn’t want this critical thinking applied to popular culture:
Ms. Jacoby doesn’t leave liberals out of her analysis, mentioning the New Left’s attacks on universities in the 1960s, the decision to consign African-American and women’s studies to an “academic ghetto” instead of integrating them into the core curriculum, ponderous musings on rock music and pop culture courses on everything from sitcoms to fat that trivialize college-level learning. … Avoiding the liberal or conservative label in this particular argument, she prefers to call herself a “cultural conservationist.”

Leaving aside how the reporter herself wants to merge politicization into the text, what I find interesting is that by disparaging popular culture Jacoby is inadvertently disparaging all culture—because, sorry, everything that is “high” used to be “low.” Sorry, but it’s true, and that’s a whole ‘nother post for another day. And then there’s this kicker:

For all her scholarly interests, though, Ms. Jacoby said she recognized just how hard it is to tune out the 24/7 entertainment culture. A few years ago she participated in the annual campaign to turn off the television for a week. “I was stunned at how difficult it was for me,” she said. The surprise at her own dependency on electronic and visual media made her realize just how pervasive the culture of distraction is and how susceptible everyone is — even curmudgeons.

First of all I hate it when academics are labeled “curmudgeons.” Academics actually tend to be on the forefront of things, which is why they’re, y’know, academics. Second of all I hate it when televisions are referred to solely in the context of entertainment—as if when something major happens *coff*gratuitous 9/11 insertion*coff* the television isn’t the first place we all run to.

Thought experiment: Try buying a newspaper on your way home tonight rather than turning on the news when you go home. Don’t turn on your computer. Let me know how it works.


( 2 comments — Add your .02 )
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 15th, 2008 04:19 am (UTC)
Re: It has SO been done bfore
Cultural handwringing is just one of those things that bugs me. It just does. And then I have to rant about it when it happens.

It's a thing.


Have you guys seen "The Tudors"? Saw the first two eps tonight. It suffers from not being an HBO series, but my inner Ren-geek is made happy.
( 2 comments — Add your .02 )

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