Literati - or not

Literati - or not

Literati - or not

On 20 December, 2017, the BBC published an article titled “Educationism: The Hidden Bias,” explicating the idea that those with less formal education suffer prejudice at the hands of the more formally educated and society at large. While there is an undeniable conflation of formal education with intelligence that is very concerning, there is another facet to the socio-cultural dynamic that must be examined: the fact that many of the officially educated are not particularly educated in a genuine sense.

The illiteracy of the “educated” is a particular problem in the US today. By illiteracy, we do not mean a true inability to read and write; rather, we mean the marked unwillingness of the “educated” to expand beyond the bounds of their fixed fields. Perhaps it is justifiable to say that American apathy is the result of complacency and laziness; the indifference of the professor group has had a trickle down effect on American youth, who hold a belief that after completion of the highest chosen level of education, reading and information seeking are no longer necessary.

Consequently, the majority of the American Generations X, Millennial, and Z are neither well-read nor informed, subsisting as they do on a diet of television and second-rate cinema. Although this demographic has the greatest number of university degrees, the closest most of them come to a library post-graduation is if they happen to drive past the university library on the way to a varsity sporting event. What we have now is an entire culture of educational refuseniks.

The American Founding Fathers firmly believed that formal education bettered people and was foundational for a functional polity. As part of this belief, they assumed that the issue was one of access - a perfectly reasonable assumption in late 18th century agrarian America. Thomas Jefferson devised a plan for decentralized public schooling - alas, never implemented - that would create access for all those who desired but could not afford it. As a side note, Jefferson emphasized that under no circumstances should public education be compulsory as parents had an inalienable natural right to either pay for their children to receive higher quality instruction, or to choose for them to be completely illiterate; such wide-ranging difference would create a genuinely diverse society, Jefferson believed. At no point did it occur to any of the Founding Fathers interested in addressing education that their beneficiaries might betray the gift by willfully stunting their own growth and refusing to bear the burden incumbent upon responsible citizens.

Today, America is neither the widely diverse nor literate society envisioned by Jefferson. The destructive effect of smugness coupled with willful ignorance has become manifest with the unrest and suppression of non-alignment views on American university campi. The social justice warrior culture is not new to the American intellectual environment. Christina Hoff Sommers described in an interview presenting a paper at an academic conference in the 1980s and having (adult) participants display disagreement in a way that was worthy of the Victorian stereotype of the mentally unstable, hysterical female. The “anti-fascist” invasion is merely the fruition of a plant whose root tendrils have been insinuating themselves into the foundational structure for decades.

Central to the root of the problem is an unwillingness to read or to become informed. Most Americans are aware of the ongoing ruckus surrounding Mr. James Damore, author of the infamous Google Memo, which triggered his firing. What most people are unaware of, and might not even see as significant if they did know, is that Mr. Damore uploaded the memo to DocumentCloud, a sharing platform, thereby making it available for people to read before pronouncing judgment. Sadly, based on the text of the accusations flung at him, none of those who have raced to pillory him have bothered to read what he actually wrote. The principle of ignorantia legis neminem excusat - ignorance of the law excuses no one - holds true in public debate as well. Essentially, ignorance of the public availability of the memo is not an excuse for not having read it before showing up and being disruptive. The same rule applies to published books, films, articles, etc.: ignorance of the available resources excuses no one.

If a person watches a random selection of video clips of the protests and agitation that has afflicted American campi in the last few months, one immediately notices a sense of entitlement, a belief in the right to ignorance. It is representative of a willful choice to be illiterate. As previously stated, the Millennial and Gen Z protesters are merely following in a well-established path set by the previous generations. To give an anecdote representative of the depth of American acceptance of intellectual laxity, one persistent and unchallenged myth in American academia is that Friedrich Nietzsche is squarely to blame for the rise of fascist ideology. Many of my own acquaintances, ranging from Baby Boomers to Gen Z, believe this story so firmly that they have never bothered to read his works themselves and are rather scandalized at the suggestion that they should. If anything, this is an indictment against the culture of American education going back for at least four generations. It is also an early incarnation of the “ideas hurt; let’s neither read nor listen to them” mantra that is embodied in the anti-fascist cabal.

The relationship among willful illiteracy, fear of ideas, and educationism is that they all stem from defensive ignorance. Those with formal educations are insularly protective of their fiefdom, fearful of encroachment by someone without a diploma but with a wealth of knowledge acquired through simple reading and intellectual curiosity. The idea that someone might be able to learn Plato through reading his works without “proper guidance” is repulsive to people whose knowledge, if truth be told, has never really extended beyond the confines of the assigned reading lists that are an integral part of the American educational system. In this peculiar paradigm the autodidact, formerly honored and revered, is despised for committing some undefined crime against the sensibilities of those who perceive themselves as having “played by the system’s rules.” More alarmingly, this attitude has all but killed the notion and legitimacy of self-guided study, a fundamental component of the European and Asian systems, in American culture at large, along with discrediting the idea of education post-institutional graduation. (This is not an unreserved endorsement of autodidactic practice; certainly with the hard sciences and the arts, it is to be discouraged. But within the world of ideas, not only is autodidactism possible, it is to be strongly encouraged.)

The student activists are simply the product of the system and its dispensation of the responsibility and burden of being literate. They firmly and genuinely believe that they are well-educated and informed, defensively pointing to their degrees when challenged, but take flight when confronted with anything beyond the narrow bounds of their comfortable, hermetically-sealed mental chamber. Since the collegiate cave of echoes is the natural result of American higher education’s strategies and culture, the time has come to question its efficacy and, in its current state, its very existence.



Mary Lucia Darst

Mary Lucia Darst
More about this author

© Values4Europe