Whom To Trust

This is a post from four years ago which still seems relevant except for the fact that the lowered intelligence I speak of became even more apparent in the recent presidential election.

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 the youngsters 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 would label 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 onmslought. 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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16 thoughts on “Whom To Trust

  1. “…those under thirty are still wet behind the ears and don’t know diddly about much of anything of importance. ”

    yes, i laughed…. you have a gift of surprising some of us with refreshing or unexpected descriptions!

    a friend and i were talking about the young children who seem to be angry a lot, and they have public displays of temper.. my friend stated, ‘it’s because the parents no longer discipline them when they misbehave, and the child learns to throw a tantrum, and they get what they want..’

    wonder what they’ll do when they realize we’ve wrecked the world, and it’s in their hands to try to fix what’s broken…. they will not be prepared….

    • Yes. I do blame the parents. They are leaving the raising of their children to overworked and underpaid teachers and the entertainment industry. But they really don’t know diddly, speaking generally. Take it from me!

  2. But why is ’30’ the magic age? How do we go from idiocy to Wisdom at the striking of midnight on our 30th birthday.

    Of course, I’m being sarcastic (something that we Brits do rather more frequently than we should)! But, if, as you say, this trend started many decades ago, then I will fall into that category of ‘precociousness’ that turns into ‘narcissism,’ and have little to offer the world in terms of ‘wisdom.’

    I think it is difficult to broad brush’ a picture of youth and its foibles. Sadly, we ‘old’ people like to point the finger and say ‘I told you so!’

    Admittedly, we live in an imperfect world, but to blame the young for everything seems just a bit mean. ‘Bitterness’ at imperfection and narcissistic trends from the younger generation will not change them, but will certainly banish us to our ‘bedrooms!’

    • I’m not sure I “blame” the young for being young! But I am disappointed as they are supposed to be the idealists among us and it seems not to be the case. But I fault their parents and teachers, not them.

      • So how has it come to this? After all, what has caused parents to become so lackadaisical in teaching good habits? Perhaps their parents didn’t teach them? (ad infinitum)!

        My parents were actually very strict (the ‘be seen and not heard,’ variety)! It turned me into a very shy human being, lacking confidence to ‘make my self heard’ at school. I was introverted and bullied much of the time. When I complained to my Mother, she told me to toughen up…at what was the British equivalent of an ‘inner city school’ full of delinquents. And I did toughen up…becoming belligerent and as non responsive as most of my classmates. I am amazed that I managed any qualifications at all. My mother had no idea what my school was like!

        Of course, that is historical and little to do with today, but the problems with kids are many fold, and I think it is difficult to generalise.

  3. Wow. This post seems even more relevant today, Hugh. As a high school teacher, I can say that it is getting tougher and toougher to get students to not only think, but to think critically. And God Forbid we bring anything too “different” or too “controversial” into the classroom/curriculum. It seems today that everyone has an opinion and somehow that “opinion” is “fact” and there is no discussing otherwise. I’m concerend about where all of this is leading us.

      • I wish I knew! There doesn’t seem to be any accountability nor responsibility taken for actual learning anymore (or for much else anymore!) That is unless you are the teacher, then everything comes back to you and what you are doing or NOT doing in your classroom to make each student successful. In most cases, parents and students are not held responsible nor accountable for what goes on as far as education is concerned (not in all cases but in general). Schooling is all one sided and “delivered” to students. And if the student does not care for the delivery method, the content, the challenge of the content, then as teachers we are not doing something “right” otherwise the student would learn. It’s an interesting philosophy and one that is faulty I believe.

      • The real problem is that the people who are in a position to do something are either unaware of the problem or perfectly happy to leave things as they are.

  4. If you had not led by saying the post was four years old, I would easily have believed it was written today! I agree with what you say, and I admit that I am fortunate in that my daughter and granddaughter, not to mention the 50 or so kids who have, through the years, adopted me as their ‘grannie’, come to me and ask me to explain things going on in the world. Better yet, they listen and even ask for my advice. So, I am very fortunate in that. But for the most part, the line that comes to mind is by George Bernard Shaw … ‘youth is wasted on the young’. If only we could combine our knowledge, experience and intellect with the energy and relative good health of a 25-year-old … why, the sky would be the limit! Good post, and as apt today as it was four years ago … perhaps even more so.

    • Thanks for the kind words. And I can simply say you are very lucky as those who call you “grannie” are most unusual — and they are very lucky to have someone like you they can approach with the hard questions.

      • Indeed, I am very lucky. And thank you for your kind words! The kids, especially the ones who are now in college, love to get me on my soap box about things like WWII, or the U.S. Constitution, or today’s politics, and they actually listen to me! In fact one is even majoring in Political Science because he says I inspired him! Now THAT makes me feel good! 🙂

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