Popular Culture

I have written recently about how the movements that begin within the hallowed halls of academe tend to find their way outside those halls much like a scientific experiment that went wrong in a science-fiction movie. The most recent example of this is the notion of “alternative facts” that almost certainly is the bastard offspring of the postmodern movement born in Germany and France and now in ascendency in American Universities that stresses such things as the denial that there is such a thing as truth.

One of the heads of this movement that would reject all “modern” academic courses of study in history, literature, philosophy, and sociology is what is called “popular culture.” This is the study of such things as movies, television shows, comic books, and the like. This movement, in addition to rejecting the notion that history should be written without footnotes because it’s only a matter of subjective opinion anyway, has given birth to the following sorts of phenomena — as recently reported by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni:

• Rice university offers a first-year writing intensive course titled “Star Wars and the Writing of Popular Culture.”

• Appalachian State University requires its freshmen students to take a first-year seminar to help them develop “creative and critical thinking abilities.” Seminars this spring include “Death (and Rebirth?) of the Hippie.”

• The English department at the University of Pennsylvania — an Ivy League School — offers a course on “Wasting Time on The Internet.”

And this is just a tiny sample at a time when a recent poll of college graduates revealed that:

• 34% could not identify correctly when Election Day is held.

• 25% could not identify Tim Kaine as a candidate for vice president of the United States.

• 50% could not name Franklyn Roosevelt as the last president to win more than two elections to the presidency.

A number of colleges and universities now offer not only courses in Popular Culture, but also majors in that field as well as PhDs for those who want to go on to teach in that  academic “discipline.” And, A.C.T.A. concludes, “When many of our colleges and universities treat popular culture and entertainment as subjects worthy of serious study, it surely isn’t surprising that so many college graduates can’t identify key civic leaders, events, and their significance.” Indeed.

So what? you might ask. The answer is, of course, that this is coming at a time when we need young people who can think, and who can think critically. The recent election should have proven how vital that is and how far short we are falling as a nation. In this regard, there are two major problems that lie at the heart of this movement. To begin with, courses in Popular Culture emphasize information at the cost of thinking about information. I shall return to that notion in a moment. Secondly, the movement shoves aside other courses in the college curriculum that actually might help put young people in possession of their own minds, make them intelligent, critical thinking adults who can discriminate between a well-qualified candidate for president, say, and a complete fraud.

To return to the first point, it has been shown in tests conducted years ago that there are certain academic courses that help young people to think. This is reflected in tests such as the LSAT that students take in order to enter law school. Law requires critical thinking skills and the fields that do well, it has been shown, are mathematics, economics, philosophy, engineering, English, Foreign Language, Chemistry, Accounting, and History (in that order). The fields of study that score lowest in the LSAT are those that stress information and memorization. I shall not mention them out of respect to those who wasted their time and money earning degrees in those subject areas. But Popular Culture would certainly be at the top of that list if it had been offered at the time these studies were conducted.

The point is that the sorts of shenanigans that are going on behind the hallowed halls of academe have consequences for those who pay little or no attention to what is going on there. The graduates who have shown themselves to be badly informed about American history and government and also unable to think critically grow in number while those that cannot use minds filled with drivel increase accordingly, fostered by colleges and universities now being run as businesses, catering to the whims of their “customers.” And this at a time when our democracy desperately needs intelligent, well-informed, thoughtful citizens.  Courses in such non-fields as “Popular Culture” are the sort of things that guarantee that this will not happen.


Nuts and Bolts

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal tells about how disenchanted employers are with their employees who have majored in business but can’t use their minds. That comes under the heading of “Duhhh.” As the article notes, The biggest complaint: The undergraduate degrees focus too much on the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting and don’t develop enough critical thinking and problem-solving skills through long essays, in-class debates and other hallmarks of liberal-arts courses. I have been saying this ad nauseam, as readers of these blogs and my book on education and published articles will attest. It has been known for years that those trained to do specific tasks are too close to the trees to see the forest.  For example, students who major in business have historically scored low on the LSAT tests required by law schools, a fairly accurate indicator of weak analytical skills. As this article notes, such students lack communication skills as well. Employers have been saying for some time that they need employees who can make an oral presentation, read and write memos, and “think outside the box.” This complaint is not all that new.

The explanation is not hard to find. Increasingly in recent years local school boards, made up of small businessmen and businesswomen, farmers, and a cross-section of the local population have embraced the business model that stresses the bottom line and have been pushing vocational courses in the public schools. At the level of higher education, the business model has been adopted as well and administrators are increasingly trained in “academic administration,” with a smattering of liberal arts courses and the faculties themselves are for the most part trained in narrow disciplines while the liberal arts wallow in obscurity and enrollments dwindle. It is perfectly understandable that the business world would now discover that its employees cannot use their minds even though they can do a few things fairly well. But it is not only business that has suffered from the increased emphasis on vocational training.

Society, especially a democratic society, needs people who can think, who can make the intelligent choices and work through the mud that surrounds them. But while companies, especially large corporations, may complain about the inability of their employees to think critically,  they assuredly do not want people who are likely to stir up the mud. And you can’t have it both ways. So they have not been willing to endorse a meaningful course of study in the liberal arts for future employees and have been only too willing to push for more business courses and increasing emphasis on “career” paths through the minefield of both lower and higher education. So the result is a plethora of well-trained but uneducated employees who have a narrow focus and cannot see the wider canvas.

Employers will continue to complain that they need employees with communication skills who can write an intelligible memo and make persuasive oral presentations, solve problems and think critically. But, liberal arts courses are expensive and don’t appeal to the masses of poorly trained students coming out of the high schools who want a piece of paper that will make them marketable in the short term. Furthermore, employers will continue to choose those graduates with business and marketing majors because they don’t need expensive training, and they won’t be likely to think too much about what they are doing. Eventually the companies will figure out that they can’t have it both ways and they will have to choose between employees who can think for themselves or employees who will do what they are told. It’s not hard to guess which choice they will make.

Note the irony: the education establishment has increasingly embraced the business model and even introduced a plethora of business courses into high school and college curricula (with the encouragement of business itself) and now those in business are complaining that the people working for them can’t use their minds.  It’s called being “hoist by your own petard.”