Whom To Trust?

The truth is something different from the habitual lazy combinations begotten by our wishes. (George Eliot)

One of the major curiosities in this most curious age in which we live is the undue adulation the young receive at the hands of their elders. In fact, one might say the young now command center stage in this drama we call contemporary living, as their elders are ignored and shunted off to stage left, despite the fact that they spend countless hours trying to pretend they are young themselves. The young can do no wrong and we listen at doors for the latest piece of wisdom they might let slip from their lips. They are charming, lovely, beautiful — untainted by the stains of a corrupt world. If families are talking over the dinner table and the young speak up silence immediately ensues in order to allow them to say their piece, though as they grow older they withdraw, become sullen and disinclined to speak at all.  The notion that the kids are simply being rude has gone the way of the dinosaur. In any event, it never occurs to anyone that when they speak what the kids have to say may not be worth listening to and their withdrawal from the adult world is nothing more than a sign of their budding narcissism. But there it is: the result of the youth rebellion.

Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, insists that it started in the 1960s when groups like the S.D.S. led the attack on the “establishment” in general and the universities in particular, giving birth to the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Richard Hofstadter would insist, I dare to say, that it started a decade earlier during the McCarthy hearings, or, perhaps, when Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson and suddenly Americans began to distrust the “eggheads” like Stevenson. The youth movement, he might say, is simply the logical development of the anti-intellectual movement that began in the 1950s and which has since been fostered by growing numbers of people in this commodified culture who have never trusted those impractical types who live in “ivory towers.” In any event, as a culture we have come to distrust the elderly (especially those who can think and speak coherently) and instead we check our gut feelings and listen to the young as the sources of what we like to call “truth.” The result has been a general lowering of the culture to the level of what I have called the “new barbarism.” The attack on the universities has resulted in grade inflation and the dumbing down of the curriculum in the schools, and the distrust of those over thirty has resulted in the mindless rejection of all in authority, including parents and teachers, and the almost total dismissal of the notion of expertise which, we are told, is “elitist.” To be sure, the teachers and parents have been party to the retreat as they have shown little courage and practically no confidence in themselves in the face of this assault. But, face it, some are in a better position to know than others and the odds are that those who have lived longer and studied complex issues carefully probably know a thing or two. Perhaps it is time to invent a new slogan: “Don’t trust anyone under thirty.” Or so says Mark Bauerlein and this sentiment, if not those same words, is echoed in the writing of another contemporary student of America’s current cultural malaise.

I refer to Charles Pierce who, in his best-selling book Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land of The Free, points out that this attack on authority and expertise — and those over thirty — has resulted in a lowering of intelligence (in a country where more people vote for the latest American Idol than they do the President of the United States), along with the reduction of all claims to simple matters of individual opinion, anyone’s opinion. And this in a nation based on Enlightenment ideas articulated and defended by the likes of John Jay, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.  We have devolved into a nation that has declared war on intelligence and reason, the cornerstones of the Enlightenment, and prefers instead the alleged certainty of gut feelings and the utterances of children. We have turned from books and hard evidence to the mindless drivel of reality shows and video games. Pierce defends three “Great Premises” that he is convinced sum up the attitude of Americans in our day to matters of fact and questions of ultimate truth:

(1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.

(2) Anything can be true if someone says it [often and] loudly enough.

(3) Fact is that which enough people believe.  (Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it).

I suppose the last parenthetical comment might be regarded as a corollary of the third premise. But the fact is that in this relativistic age we distrust those who are in a position to know, we wait for the latest poll to decide what is true, and we adulate the young while we ignore the fact that, lost as they are in the world of digital toys, they know very little indeed. As Pierce has shown so convincingly, we are all becoming idiots. We have lost the respect for that truth which we do not manufacture for ourselves, but which stands outside the self and requires an assiduous effort to grasp even in part — together with our conviction that some things are truly evil while others are truly good. All truth is now mere opinion and the moral high ground has been leveled. We ignore the beauty all around us along with the ugly truths about what we are doing to the planet while we indulge ourselves in the latest fashion and seek the liveliest pleasure, convinced that it is the good. And all the while we wait eagerly to see what pearls of wisdom might fall from the young who are busy playing with their digital toys.

What will come of all this remains to be seen, but we might be wise to recognize the fact that those under thirty are still wet behind the ears and don’t know diddly about much of anything of importance. Their elders don’t seem to know much either, but if we recall that the admission of our own ignorance (as Socrates so famously said) is the beginning of wisdom, then that may be the way the adults in this country might begin to resume their role as mentors and our distrust of authority and expertise might be put to rest while we acknowledge that the children know even less than we do, and the majority does not determine what is true or false.

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Eliot’s Wisdom

As mentioned in an earlier blog, I am re-reading Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, in which I have found much to reflect upon. In point of fact, I found this brief epigraph to Chapter 21 especially noteworthy and decided to pass it along by way of giving those who are unfamiliar with this remarkable woman’s insightful novels a taste of what they are missing. It deals with the power of ignorance and, like so much of what Eliot has to say, is a very timely comment indeed.

“It is a common sentence that Knowledge is power; but who hath duly considered or set forth the power of Ignorance? Knowledge slowly builds up what Ignorance in an hour pulls down. Knowledge, through patient and frugal centuries, enlarges discovery and makes a record of it; Ignorance, wanting its day’s dinner, lights a fire with the record and gives it a flavor to its own roast with the burnt souls of many generations. Knowledge, instructing the sense, refining and multiplying needs, transforms itself into skill and makes life various with a new six days’ work; comes Ignorance drunk on the seventh, with a firkin of oil and a match and an easy ‘Let there not be’ — and the many-colored creation is shrivelled up in blackness. Of a truth, Knowledge is power, but it is a power reined by scruple, having a conscience of what must be and what may be; whereas Ignorance is a blind giant who, let him but wax unbound, would make it a sport to seize the pillars that hold up the long-wrought fabric of human good and turn all the places of joy dark as a buried Babylon. And looking at life parcel-wise, in the growth of a single lot, who having a practiced vision may not see that ignorance of the true bond between events, and a false conceit of means whereby sequences may be compelled — like that falsity of eyesight which overlooks the gradation of distance, seeing that which is far off as if it were within a step or a grasp — precipitates the mistaken soul on destruction.”

We talk so much about the failure of the schools and read best-sellers like Idiot America by Charles Pierce and The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein that make abundantly clear how lively the “blind giant” is among us. And yet we fail to acknowledge what Eliot points out in this passage: the “pillars that hold up the fabric of human good” (not to mention the planet itself) are seriously threatened while we watch the latest TV show or catch up with our friends on their Facebook page. We may not know quite what to do about the current state of things, but the first step in any attempt to put the blind giant to rest is to pay attention and not pretend that if we ignore them, problems will go away by themselves.

Barbarian Incursion

O gentlemen, the time of life is short;

To spend that shortness basely were too long,

If  life did ride upon a dial’s point,

Still ending at the arrival of an hour.

                                                                                                                                                                Shakespeare: Henry IV

Jacques Barzun, the great humanist and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, told us more than 50 years ago to lock up the treasures of the West because the barbarians were about to take over our world. He was a bit premature. It didn’t happen quite as fast as he thought it would, but it certainly has happened, though the barbarians didn’t attack from without: we bred our own. You can recognize the new barbarians all around you by their boorish behavior, the loud music emanating from their cars as they pass by and their halting speech patterns, piercings, and tattoos. They also come armed with their iPods, iPads, iTunes, iPhones, Xboxes, Walkmen, smartphones, and an occasional concealed weapon. But their takeover is not a violent one, for the most part, though it is loud and unsettling.

In any event, contrary to Barzun, I would judge that the treasures of Western civilization are probably not threatened by this takeover, because these barbarians couldn’t care less about them! The treasures will not be destroyed; they will simply wither away because the young are otherwise occupied — listening to their tunes, earphones clamped securely to their heads;  gazing at their handhelds; and generally ignoring the world around them as they focus on electronic communications with their friends. Books and works of art don’t interest them in the least. They boast of the fact: they have other fish to fry and seem to have complete confidence in themselves and their abilities to catch and fry those fish. But it is sad, because what they are unaware of is that they don’t even know where the fish are hiding or what bait to use. In any event, they will no longer pick up thick books, like George Eliot’s magnificent Daniel Deronda, where they might read this sublime passage about the need for roots and the benefits of a geographical and psychological center to our lives:

“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as the sweet habit of the blood. At five years old, mortals are not prepared to be citizens of the world, to be stimulated by abstract nouns, to soar above preference into impartiality, and that prejudice in favor of milk with which we blindly begin is a type of the way the body and soul must get nourished at least for a time. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.”

And, irony of ironies, Eliot might have been describing one of the new barbarians when she describes her spoiled, self-involved heroine Gwendolen Harleth who, despite the havoc of Civil War across the Atlantic and the suffering of her fellow countrymen due to the loss of imported cotton, can think only of herself:

“Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant? — in a time, too, when ideas were with fresh vigor making armies of themselves, and the universal kinship was declaring itself fiercely: when women on the other side of the world would not mourn for the husbands and sons who died bravely in a common cause, and men stinted of bread on our side of the world heard of that willing loss and were patient: a time when the soul of man was waking to pulses which had for centuries been beating in him unfelt, until their full sum made a new life of terror or of joy.”

Indeed, it may well be that even if the young people of the present and the future had the least desire to read the elegant prose of a writer such as George Eliot (which, admittedly, takes time to read and savor), they would not understand whereof she speaks and writes. They have no idea what they are missing, which seems to be the heart of the matter. She was an eminently wise woman, but her wisdom would be lost on those who will not, or can not, listen or read her words.  It is just possible, also, that even if they did read and comprehend the meaning of her words they would have no idea what she is referring to since so many of these young people, immersed in themselves and enslaved to their digital toys, do not realize that they, too, may well lack consistency and rootedness in their lives and lack a place to call “home” — this “blessed persistence in which affection can take root.”

What’s Wrong Here?

The independent organization known as The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, located in Washington, D.C., has come out against the bloated salaries and expanding numbers of administrators at American colleges and universities in the face of higher costs of tuition and the poor graduation rates and mediocre showing of college graduates upon graduation. More importantly, they engage in an ongoing check on the academic credentials of America’s colleges and universities and grade them according to their core requirements. This examination covers the basic subject areas they think every educated person should know something about, namely, Composition, Mathematics, Economics, U.S. History, Foreign Language, Literature, and Science and their grades rank from A to F. Very few colleges and universities in this country garner an “A” grade.

Seemingly unrelated to this fact is the consideration that football coach Nick Saban at the University of Alabama was recently given an extension on his contract that will guarantee him somewhere between $7 and $7.5 million a year. Undergraduate students pay out $92,000 apiece in tuition, room and board for their four years of education at Alabama even though fewer than half of them actually graduate. Alabama did not make the A.C.T.A.’s “A” list, needless to say.

Additionally, Florida State University will play for the national title in football and their star quarterback recently won the prestigious Heisman Trophy — despite the fact that there are still allegations of rape against the man that have not been cleared up. Playing for the national championship in football will bring the university millions of dollars in revenue. Students at Florida State pay about the same as those at Alabama for tuition, room, and board and the university has a slightly higher graduation rate. But that university also fails to make the A.C.T.A.’s “A” list.

I’m just sayin’…………

Trouble In Paradise

You may have read about the “power struggle” in Oahu, Hawaii where the number of photovoltaic solar collectors, combined with other renewables, is now generating 200 megawatts of energy that the antiquated electric grid cannot handle. Or so say those who own the power companies. They worry about sudden power surges that will endanger their equipment and the appliances their customers depend upon. The problem is one that may face the rest of the nation in the future if  more and more people buy into alternative energy and the power companies must upgrade their equipment. Those companies will, of course, pass the costs along to their customers: we know they will not let it affect their bottom line. As a recent story on Yahoo News tells us:

What’s happening in Hawaii is a sign of battles to come in the rest of the United States, solar industry and electric utility executives said. The conflict is the latest variation on what was a controversial issue this year in top solar markets California and Arizona. It was a hot topic at a solar industry conference last week: how to foster the growth of rooftop solar power while easing the concerns of regulated utilities that see its rise as a threat.

The problem in Oahu is considerably more intense than it is elsewhere in this country as 40% of the homeowners on that island have rooftop collectors — as contrasted with 1.4% in California, the state with the next highest proportion of collectors in the country. But the point is that the power companies on the mainland are getting nervous about the loss of income, including increasing payouts they will suffer as more and more people generate their own electricity and sell back to the power companies the electricity they cannot use themselves.

The problem, of course, is that the power companies have the political clout to get laws passed that assure their continued profits — as was the case in Oahu where new customers will have to pay a surcharge to the power companies in order to get permission to install solar collectors in the future. The problem may be very real in Oahu where so many folks have chosen to go the way of alternative energy, but it is a small problem on this continent where so few people have made the same choice. None the less, we can still brace ourselves for the coming battles as sensible people who choose to help to save the planet, and save their electrical costs at the same time, ward off the slings and arrows of the power companies that have very full quivers.

E-Literacy

As much as I hate to admit it, there are some who would disagree with my take on the sad state of affairs in the world of American education. Indeed, there are a great many people — some of whom write books and many others who teach in that world — who insist that things couldn’t be better. They love the kids and they love the way things are going. They explain away the wealth of data that show that the kids are not learning anything with the claim that the tests are simply archaic and don’t register the intellectual skills the kids in the millennial generation are acquiring with their electronic toys. Indeed, many of them think the schools themselves are archaic and the kids are learning what they really need to know to get along in tomorrow’s world OUTSIDE of school, with those toys. While there are those of us who would insist that the toys are rotting the kids’ brains (as I have said in an earlier blog), there are a great many people who defend the toys and insist that the kids will save the world with the digital facility and e-literacy they are acquiring with those very toys.

In fact, in 2005 Randy Bomer of the National Council of Teachers of English (!) attacked as too narrow a study called the American Diploma Project that was designed to help design curricula that would assist young people become better prepared for work in a changing world. Bomer defended the use of electronic toys and applauded the proficiency with which the kids use the toys, insisting that their critics are out-of-the-loop idiots. He remarked that today’s high school graduate (who may not be a-literate, as they say) is e-literate, he or she “can synthesize information from multiple information and technical sources. . . .[they can] analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels. . . .They are inventing new forms of literature.” High praise indeed. And a breath of fresh air for those who find the constant criticism of America’s schools unsettling. We always like to hear those things that make us feel better about the way things are and allow us to dismiss the nay-sayers with a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, however, it’s a pile of rubbish.

One must wonder what this new “viewer literacy” really amounts to — if it can be called “literacy” at all. And the claims Bomer makes are outlandish — given that every test devised (and one must agree that tests don’t always tell the whole story) reflect the inability of these young people to understand the printed word or work with figures. How can such people be said to be able to “analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels.”? Especially when they don’t even read comics or cereal boxes — as the students themselves defiantly tell investigators. They take great pride in the fact that they don’t read and generally regard reading as a waste of time — though they will spend more than three hours a day, on average, watching television (while they send text messages and check their Facebook page) and never think for a moment that it is a waste of time.

But, in the end it is all about thinking, which requires both synthesis and analysis. Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, has made a study of e-literacy. He quotes his critics who defend it on the grounds that e-literacy “is not just knowing how to download music, program an iPod, create a virtual profile, and comment on a blog. It’s a general deployment capacity, a particular mental flexibility. E-literacy accommodates hypermedia because e-literates possess hyperalertness. Multitasking entails a special cognitive attitude toward the world, not the orientation that enables slow concentration on one thing, but a lightsome, itinerant awareness of numerous and dissimilar inputs.” So say its defenders who go on to insist that “The things that have traditionally been done — you know, reflection and thinking and all that stuff — are in some ways too slow for the future. . . .Is there a way to do these things faster?”

But, jargon and wishful thinking aside,  thought does take time, much as we might hate to admit it. And faster is not necessarily better. The fact that the kids show remarkable dexterity and quickness with their toys — one claim is that they can read four books at once (!) — is praiseworthy on some level. But when we are told that this dexterity will (or should) replace the traditional way of knowing and thinking about the world we must pause. The kids feel out of place in schoolrooms. I get that. But we know enough about them to realize that this is a statement about their narcissism, not about the schools, and many would consider it a condition that needs to be addressed and remedied so these kids can make their way in the real world where things are not always to our liking and problems need to be thought through and solutions found by careful, and slow, reflection and the consideration of possible outcomes in dialogue with others. If computers can help speed up that process, perhaps this is a good thing. Defenders of video games contend that they encourage “collateral learning,” and how to “make the right decision” and do it quickly. But there is no hard evidence that these toys teach anything that can in all seriousness be called “thinking.”

In the end a human being, or a group of human beings, must carefully consider what the computer spews out and determine which of several alternatives is the best course of action. Whether games will help people acquire the necessary skills remains to be seen. The “right decision” taught by the electronic game may simply prove to be the one that directs the drones to kill the most people. But the kids themselves will become adults who are expected to play a role in this democracy. Electronic toys cannot make moral judgments or judge which of two or three candidates will do the best job. E-literacy won’t get them there. A-literacy is required: the ability to read and understand what they read, write coherent sentences that can be readily understood by others, and speak persuasively in order to help others grasp the claims they are determined to make. And people need to judge of better or worse, whether they like to admit it or not.

In the end, we may well admire the skills these kids show with multiple electronic toys, and even their ability to learn new ways to do things that take their elders seemingly forever. But we should hesitate to admit that this way of doing things will prove superior at the end of the day — especially since we really don’t know where e-literacy will take us. And as a general rule, we should not allow the kids to tell us how to design educational curriculum: they have no idea where they are going. Their toys may indeed be taking these kids down an intellectual blind alley. In any event, given the addiction that has already been attributed to so many of them, we will have to depend on the toys themselves to pave the way to a new tomorrow: the kids will simply be doing what their toys tell them to do. I prefer to take the path well-travelled. At least I have a pretty good idea where the traps and pitfalls might be found and I can use the wisdom of past generations as a guide.

The Kids and The Critics

When Mark Bauerlein joined the ranks of such thinkers as Maureen Stout, Jane Healy and Charles Sykes (among many others) by seeming to attack the younger generation in his book The Dumbest Generation he was both praised and pilloried. One of his critics sounded one of the most hackneyed mantras around by attacking the author in a familiar ad hominem: “Here we go again, an aging schoolmaster knocking the kids. The old ones did it when Elvis arrived and now they do it because of Grand Theft Auto. We’ve heard the grievance many times, the lament of graying folks, so let’s not take it too seriously.” Well, as one of the graying folks who has added his shrill, small voice to the chorus, I take offense at the ad hominem and would simply say: look at the evidence. Today’s kids are generally wasting their time in school — when they even bother to attend. They are learning very little and the emphasis on job preparation and the love affair the teaching establishment has with technical gizmos is depriving the kids of the chance to expand their minds and become vital participants in our failing democratic system. More than anything else, a democracy requires an educated electorate — or at least one that knows how many Senators each state has and how many Supreme Court justices there are. Today’s kids do not: civics is seldom even taught in the schools any more. Worse yet, the kids simply don’t care.

I do wonder how many of Bauerlein’s critics have actually spent time in the trenches — in the classroom with the kids they glorify and defend as tomorrow’s answer to today’s problems. It certainly makes sense in this youth-worshipping culture where aging is regarded as a certain sign of senility that there would be fierce defenders of the kids, defenders like James Glassman and William Strauss (authors of The Next Great Generation) who are convinced the kids are under immense pressure these days and are being unfairly attacked by people like Bauerlein and Stout and the rest. But as one who spent 42 years teaching kids from 9 years of age through graduate courses I can say I have seen first hand what all the data reflect: the kids in fact experience very little academic pressure and they spend precious little effort on things academic — the average college student spending 3 hours and 41 minutes a day watching television and enjoying seemingly endless weekend parties. There is a serious problem in the classrooms of this country as the kids are taking advantage of a system that asks very little of them. Please note that I do not fault the kids, so those who defend them can save their pet ad hominems. I fault the system, of which I was a part for so long, because it is defrauding the kids and their parents who are spending large sums of money to pay for something that isn’t worth much in the final analysis.

I kept examples of my many of tests and syllabi that I passed out during my years of teaching at the college level and I saw first hand the deterioration of the education process: I simply could not assign difficult reading assignments or ask complex questions on tests toward the end. The students weren’t able to understand what the authors wrote or what I was asking – with notable exceptions, thank Heavens! If Bauerlein meant by “dumb” what the word literally means, he was perfectly justified in ascribing that quality to today’s youngsters. They are dumb: they cannot speak. Nor can they read or write or add. They are, for all intents and purposes, illiterate, and recent studies show they are defiant and even proud of that fact. They regard reading as a waste of time. It’s not surprising that their vocabulary has shrunk by 72% since the 50s when it was already shrinking. They cannot grasp such things as hypothetical sentences where consequences are dependent on antecedents for their full meaning.  They cannot understand what authors are saying in books that have been read and understood for centuries. Many cannot grasp the “cheaters” that are written down to the ill-equipped in order to explain what the books say. Worse yet, in a recent N.A.E.P. civics exam a full 45% could not understand basic information on a sample ballot. They cannot calculate a tip in a restaurant — even if it’s only 10%. And they cannot write complete sentences, though, I am given to understand they tweet endlessly in a kind of newspeak which we must assume they do understand. The data are overwhelming and it makes perfect sense since very few of them read even the backs of cereal boxes any more and they are allowed to use calculators in math class. They have traded their books (which, admittedly, many of us read only grudgingly lo those many years ago) for their electronic toys. These toys are rotting their brains, from all reports. And this is what has people like Bauerlein and Jane Healy worried. They have collected the data which so many others choose to ignore and it stares them in the face. As educators themselves, they know what those data mean and it disturbs them deeply.

So those who fault the “graying folks” for merely turning over the cold ashes of past worries about the younger generation should take notice. There really are new and serious problems and they cannot be dismissed with a toss of the hand and smart remarks about the age and character of those who point them out. It’s time to stop shooting the messenger. To be sure, there may be some exaggeration amid the reams of criticisms of today’s youth. But in both education and in the general culture as well what we’re seeing is a descending spiral in which many of those who should be addressing the problem are part of the problem itself, simply because they refuse to admit it is there.

Socrates and New “Delivery Systems”

I have always been skeptical about the claims of the technophiles regarding the educational value of computers and other electronic devices. It seems to me that these devices are terrific for gathering information but unless people could assimilate, coordinate, evaluate and assort the information, separating the relevant from the irrelevant, they might prove useless. But as states cut programs such as music in order to fund the computers and the Federal government under people like Bill Clinton and George Bush determined to spend millions of dollars to put these toys in the classrooms, I have waited to see what the results might prove to be. It turns out it has been a terrible waste of money and some states have reneged on their initial decisions to allocate funds for this purpose. A number of studies now show beyond doubt that computers do not increase real learning one whit. On the contrary. As one study done in 2007 by the National Center for Education Evaluation concluded: “Test scores were not significantly higher in classrooms using selected reading and mathematics software products.” But more telling yet was a study done in Munich in 2004 that concluded: “. . . computer availability at home shows a strong statistically negative relationship to math and reading performance, and computer availability at school is unrelated to performance.” (Note that computers at home have a negative effect on math and reading.) Other studies show that computer usage reduces vocabulary — when computer users are contrasted with young people who read — in an already verbally impoverished cohort. A number of other such studies bear out these disappointing findings in spite of the agonized screams from the technophiles that these tests simply do not measure the intelligence gained from the use of these toys. But these screams are really signs of hysteria and they beg the question, since there seems to be no hard evidence whatever that electronic devices do much more than improve a person’s manual dexterity and sense of spatial relations. It would appear that users can collect information rather quickly but they have no idea what to do with it once they have it. Small payoff for a huge expenditure of time and money.

In any event, the on-line colleges and universities which rely completely on computers continue to prosper because they make outrageous claims and they are cheaper and readily available at a time when folks are busy and strapped for extra cash. But I continue to have my doubts about the entire endeavor, as I said in a blog two years ago and which I have reworked and re-post below given its continued relevance to the ongoing discussion. I should add that my doubts have increased since reading in Mark Bauerlein’s provocative book The Dumbest Generation that the Nielsen Norman Group which studies the way users actually interact with the computer concluded that:

“Web reading and Web learning on average are far less creative, complex, literate, and inquisitive than techno-enthusiasts claim. People seek out what they already hope to find, and they want it fast and free, with a minimum of effort. . . .In general, the content encountered and habits practiced online foster one kind of literacy, the kind that accelerates communication, homogenizes diction and style and answers set questions with information bits. It does not favor the acquisition of knowledge, distinctive speech and prose, or the capacity to reason to long sequential units.”

In short, beyond the mere disgorging of information, it is no longer clear that computers aid the intellectual skills that have always been associated with teaching and learning. Be that as it may, in an article posted on LinkedIn not long ago, the University of Phoenix was touting new educational “delivery systems” on the internet that will soon displace traditional learning “systems,” driving many marginal colleges and universities out of business. The only thing standing in the way, according to the article, are the accrediting agencies, which have of late come under fire as being a bit too political.  Students want credits that will transfer from one institution to another and most on-line courses do not, at present, transfer. But on-line colleges will soon find a way around the snag, the article promises — and the University of Phoenix, for one, now boasts several accredited courses available on-line.

One of the professors featured in the article is a tenured professor at Stanford who has given up his teaching position at that University to offer classes full-time on the internet. According to the article, “Sebastian Thrun, who retains a role at Stanford as a research professor, said he had been motivated in part by teaching practices that evolved too slowly to be effective. ‘Professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago,’ Thrun said in a presentation at digital conference in Munich, Germany.”

I have a couple of problems with this contention, though I do feel there is considerable truth in it as more and more “non-traditional” students will opt for the internet as an easier (and cheaper) way to earn college credits, despite the internet’s many shortcomings. The traditional students will continue to go to college for fun, as they do now, as long as their parents can afford to send them. But, I wonder, is any of this really about education? I honestly do not see that the new way is better — unless we collapse the distinction between information and education completely. If we mean by education simply “information,” then the internet is a great tool. But if the student is seriously interested in getting an education rather than simply collecting college credits, the best way may indeed be “the same way they taught a thousand years ago.” I cannot imagine a better way to engage young minds and stretch them to new dimensions than sitting around a table with a small group of enthusiastic students  with diverse interests and perspectives and a teacher who knows how to ask questions. Does anyone really think they can improve on the Socratic method of learning? Get serious.

As I have said many times, the purpose of education is to put young people in possession of their own minds, to make them free. As young people they are confined to their narrow worlds, filled with prejudices and misconceptions, and bullied by peer pressure. And this condition worsens as kids become more and more dependent on the small world of electronic devices, which are used almost exclusively for social networking with like-minded friends — not learning. Information alone cannot free them, though it is a first step. There must be an active engagement with that information that results in real thought: one must not simply collect information, one must also learn how to process the information, become aware of inconsistencies and contradictions, learn how to reason coherently and cogently. The computer cannot teach that even if it is connected with an instructor at the other end.

As it happens, however, many in our colleges paying through their teeth for a “quality education” aren’t getting one either as the colleges increasingly try to give the students what they want rather than what they need. None the less, there is always the hope that at some point the colleges and universities will wake up to their real purpose — which is not to provide students with “the best years of their lives” (as advertised), but to engage their minds and help them achieve true freedom so they can become thoughtful consumers and, more importantly, seriously committed citizens of this democracy  — and, oh yes, also successful professionals who both want to do well and to do good.

It’s not all about collecting credits. And accreditation is not the only thing standing in the way of on-line colleges. There’s also the matter of serious dialogue among diverse minds seeking answers to perplexing questions. As Robert Hutchins once said, the only questions worth asking are those that cannot be answered. Computers don’t know what those questions are. Good teachers do. And that’s where education really starts.

The Content of His Character

I have referenced Christopher Lasch’s thought-provoking book The Minimal Self which is filled with insights along with summaries of various psychological theories and a great deal of psychological jargon. It is hard to quarrel with Lasch’s conclusions as it is many of his seminal points made along the way; after wading through the technical jargon, what his thesis comes down to in the end is that young men and women in this culture no longer can be said to concern themselves what used to be called “character.” This is an old-fashioned word that was the center of Victorian ethics and ultimately came from Aristotle’s notion of areté (virtue) which has to do with the sort of person one happens to be — courageous and honest or cowardly and deceitful.

The reason Lasch thinks we no longer care about character is because we have become a “narcissistic” culture, not one that is merely selfish and hedonistic, but one comprised of individuals who are empty at the center and who take on the various persona of those presented to them by the entertainment industry or the culture at large. The world “out there” ceases to exist; it becomes a “world for me” — an extension of the ego. Values disappear: the beautiful object ceases to be beautiful in itself, it becomes pleasurable for me. The distinction between subject and object breaks down. The act of courage or honesty ceases to have any intrinsic value, it becomes simply an act of which I approve or disapprove — or ignore.

In a word, people are no longer courageous or honest at the core, they are empty at the core and take on the characteristics that those around them happen to exemplify at the moment. It is what Jean Paul Sartre once called “Bad Faith” — the inability of a person to be what he or she is, as a distinctive individual, and their relentless determination to take on roles and play at being something else. Watch the waiter, Sartre said in Being and Nothingness, and you will see that he is playing at being a waiter. He carefully balances the tray and darts between the tables and seems to relish the image he is projecting to those around him. Watch the football coach stalking the sidelines: he is playing at being a coach. Like the waiter or the coach, we lack “authenticity” and take on roles dictated by those around us: we identify with those on the screen or the playing field who are merely a projection of our own “take” on others; so in the end we are playing roles we simply adopt for the sake of getting along in a world we pretty much make up for ourselves. This is the core of narcissism. The Greek character Narcissus fell in love with his image in the water because he mistook that image for himself: the world of objects became the world of the subject. Period. Lasch thinks we do this to a greater or lesser extent and in the end abandon any genuine core of self-hood and are mere role-players in a drama we have invented for ourselves. It’s all about us: the world and the people around us are what we make of them and our concern for them extends only so far as they continue to make our lives pleasant and comfortable.

What I find most interesting and provocative about Lasch’s analysis is his notion that in this process parents and teachers have been removed from their traditional roles as mentors and guides for the young — forming character by way of their own examples, admonition, and their determination to correct and judge in accordance with an ideal of what a human being should be when correction and judgment are necessary. Parents are now perfectly willing to turn their kids over to the “helping agencies,” the social workers and psychologists (not to mention the entertainment industry) who would dictate how the children are raised. In the end the kids grow up to become adults who continue to behave like kids and who lack any real sense of “self” and an inability to make moral choices and resist the charlatans around them who would sell them pipe dreams. Long into adulthood, they remain soft clay waiting to be molded into whatever form those around them choose to make them into.

The solution to the crisis we now face, as Lasch sees it, is for parents to resume their proper parental role and take control of their kids — turn off the TV and take away the electronic toys, take them away from the “helping agencies” and return them to the homes and the blend of love and respect that ultimately comprise the very authority that the kids themselves crave and require in order to become fully human — to mold that core of self-hood that we call “character” and which Martin Luther King Jr once hoped all of us would be judged by, rather than by the color of our skins (or the social roles we happen to play). It’s worth pondering.

The Capitalist Myth

As the wealthy accrue more and more power, the middle class disappears, and the number of poor and homeless increases there are those that still cling to the myth that we live in a capitalistic economy that rewards those with grit and determination. The poor are poor because they lack gumption: they are so by virtue of their unwillingness to work hard and achieve the success that is there for anyone who truly wants it. This is the old “Horatio Alger” fiction that went out with gas lights. But it lingers in the minds of the very wealthy who like to think they live in a free-enterprise system that has made it possible for them to have earned their wealth and position by virtue of their own intelligence, determination and will-power. Some have, of course, but a great many have simply been downright lucky.

In any event, the fiction that we live in an economy that can be described as “free-enterprise capitalism” is just that, a myth. Joseph Schumpeter wrote about it in the 1940s and he pointed out that even back then capitalism in this country was being slowly displaced by socialism (gasp!!). And that was at a time when the middle class had political clout and was a significant part of our economy and there was real competition among a wide variety of businesses.  Schumpeter put this notion forward in his remarkable book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy where he also pointed out that today’s politician is a professional whose only qualification for public office  (and only genuine concern) is that he is able to get himself (or herself) elected. Schumpeter also has a number of wonderfully pithy comments about classical political philosophy and the notions of the Common Good and the General Will — the latter of which he insists should more accurately be called the “manufactured will,” constructed by the media in general and advertising in particular. He has a rather low opinion of ordinary citizens and the effort they put into political involvement.

“The ordinary citizen musing over national affairs. . . is a member of an unworkable committee, the committee of the whole nation, [on which] he expends less disciplined effort on mastering a political problem than he expends on a game of bridge. . . .Thus the typical citizen drops to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his own real interest. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective.”

But I digress. To support Schumpeter’s claim about the demise of capitalism, consider that capitalism had devolved to the point that private property — which John Locke and Adam Smith regarded as the cornerstone of capitalism — has disappeared. The banks now own our homes and we lease our cars; we buy things on credit and owe thousands of dollars to merchants as we continue to “buy” things we may never actually pay for and certainly cannot be said to own in any meaningful sense of that term. Consider also that the concept of “family,” another cornerstone of capitalist societies, has become radically altered as many couples do not get married or raise children and many who do get married end in divorce; in general the family has evaporated as the need for children disappeared with the agrarian society of years past which gradually morphed into a commodified culture in which both parents went to work and sent what children they had off to day care. Before farms became highly mechanized farmers needed a large number of children, accountants do not.  As Schumpeter says, many couples now apply a rationalized “utilitarian calculus” to the question of raising children and decide “Why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?” Indeed. But bear in mind that both family and private property helped to define capitalism during the Victorian era when capitalism reached its apogee — and came under withering criticism by thinkers as diverse as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx.

Further, open competition among businesses has become a thing of the past as well. It was safely laid to rest by F.D.R. in the 1930s, especially in his “New Deal” which included such acts as the National Industrial Recovery Act designed to end “cutthroat competition” within major industries. In any event, meaningful competition in business is a bit of a joke any more as the corporations have taken over and are busily running small businesses out the economic back door — an estimated 200,000 small businesses went under during the recent recession. With the collusion of obliging legislators, the corporations can withstand years of weak economic times; small businesses cannot. And on the agrarian front the private farms are being taken over by the corporations as well. It is calculated that more than 90% of the corn now produced in this country is produced on corporate farms. One might even argue that the corporations are writing the epitaph of the democratic process as well as the economic one as they continue to buy politicians and commandeer the political process.

In any event, it is time to admit that free-enterprise capitalism, if not Democracy, is a thing of the past. If we can agree that Socialism is an economic system in which the government owns the means of production, as Marx defined it, and we can agree that the corporations now own our government, we can perhaps conclude that our economic system is socialistic, in a peculiar sense of that term. And to coin an ugly term to describe our ugly political system, we have devolved from a Democratic Republic to become a corporatocracy. The notion that we are no longer a democracy may be debatable; the claim that free-enterprise capitalism is a fiction is not.