Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dumb and dumber

I just read an interesting Washington Post column titled "The Dumbing of America" by Susan Jacoby plugging her latest book, "The Age of American Unreason" -- and even more interesting are her responses to online reader comments. Jacoby's premise is that despite (or perhaps partly because of) the easy access to all sorts of information of varying quality, Americans are actually dumber than ever about things including basic geography and math. But more to the point, they don't care that they're dumber. Ignorance, disdain for so-called arrogant intellectuals, and outright of knowledge about certain things (e.g., evolution and nonliteral interpretations of religious texts) are a matter of pride for some people. At the root of the problem are, of course, the increased religiosity of the world and the failure to teach children how to think critically and evaluate evidence. Some of her other targets:
  • The media, "which frequently take the position that truth, if it exists, is always equidistant from two points. Not everything is a matter of opinion. Some things are true and some are false. Knowing the distinction between opinion and evidence-based knowledge is essential."
  • People who, in one reader's words, "[express] disgust with academics in regards to their removal from the realities that most of us have to contend with (financial responsibilities, environments that are economically, politically and socially diverse etc.). Jacoby's response: "I don't know why so many people are hung up on the 'elites' in the teaching professions. I don't know, but I'd say that CEOs who make more than $100 million a year are far more removed from 'practical realities' than a tenured college professor who might make around $80,000 a year."
  • People who reject education because they want to find their own way or express their individuality. "There actually is no conflict between respect for intellectual endeavor and taking your own path. I don't have any particular respect for a college degree as an indicator of knowledge, and Bill Gates dropped out because he had something better to do. The problem is that a lot of people don't continue with general self-education, as opposed to the sort of information that makes you a good test performer, after their formal education is complete. The value of a good education, whether obtained conventionally or unconventionally, is that it leads you to do more."
Somewhere it mentions that Jacoby also wrote "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism" which I own, but which is down kind of low in the pile of books to be read. I think I was attracted to the title because one of my all-time favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, used the term freethinker to describer himself and his ancestors, as well as his own literary hero, Mark Twain. So now I'll have to move the book up a few inches in the pile.

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