"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Know-It-Alls

A very interesting article by Robert McHenry, former editor in chief of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, on Tech Central Station considers what the author sees as a decreasing interest of journalists, academics, and the general public in getting their facts right, with a "rightness" of thought replacing mundane considerations of accuracy and conforming of one's ideas to reality. McHenry suggests that this trend is part of a general trend in American society:

I'm inclined to see this as a particular instance of a more general phenomenon, the replacement of the adult by the adolescent as the paradigm citizen.

Adolescents already know all they need to know. They are uninterested in what may have come before them and confident that it did so for naught. They see instantly into the heart of the world's problems and believe them to be simple of solution. They value sincerity, authenticity, getting real, over experience or effort. Approved attitude trumps informed opinion with them, and does so by means of social pressure rather than by, say, demonstrated efficacy. And their sense of entitlement can sometimes border on solipsism.

For some time now, and increasingly, our schooling, our politics, and our cultural life have played to the adolescent in us. Young students are encouraged to focus on their feelings and to express them in any way they find comfortable, while teachers are discouraged from correcting them. Officeholders and seekers rely on the sound bite and the scandal, not to mention their allies in the braying media, to steer or frustrate public policy. Jejune amusements are labeled "Adult." And the marketers who control our media and what passes for our national dialogue are only too happy to pander to the free-spending of any age or persuasion. It's a no-sweat world, and welcome to it.

The adolescentization of politics, begun in the 1960s, has given us the politics of gesture. A couple of years ago some 60-ish women of my acquaintance, as a protest of the Iraq war, went down to the beach and took their clothes off. This seemed to satisfy them, though as I watched the newspapers closely for days afterward I could detect no effect. We are increasingly countenancing an education of gesture, in which self-expression does not merely take precedence over but displaces that which is worth expressing; in which the tokens of achievement are wholly disconnected from achievement itself; in which teachers-in-training are being turned out of their chosen career, not on account of a subpar GPA, but because they fail to display the approved attitude toward certain issues of "social justice'; in which, to put it in plain and concrete terms, a majority of our high school graduates cannot read with comprehension the sixth-grade McGuffey Reader of yore. And do they care? lol


I think that McHenry's observations are indeed accurate.

4 comments:

James Elliott said...

This is an excellent piece. Thank you for linking to it.

Young students are encouraged to focus on their feelings and to express them in any way they find comfortable, while teachers are discouraged from correcting them.

Ironically, this is the only part I disagree with in some fashion, and it may just be due to incomplete knowledge on the part of the author. In education, there is indeed a new focus on different styles of learning and a backlash against the emotionally stultifying effects of traditional learning. However, the vast majority of this new paradigm's adherents (and I am one, due to my days in special education) however do not value feeling over accuracy. There is a subset that feels the child's self-confidence is worth more than the facts, but they remain a subset. I believe that the above statement is a facet of miscommunication in language, more than anything, and not any deliberate ill-will.

Kathy Hutchins said...

I don't know if this is quite what Mr. McHenry is talking about, but it is a pet peeve of mine, and has been for fifteen years or more: people seem to have less and less ability to gauge the simple plausibility of statements of ostensible fact. That is, you would think that a moderately well informed person would carry around in his head rough estimations of things like the population of the United States, the total number of births and deaths each year, the size of the gross national product within half a trillion or so, and be able to do simple arithmetic calculations on known or easily discernible totals to check if claims are within the realm of the possible. I'm not talking about the possible misuse of numbers to justify policy, I'm talking about non-controversial reality checking. It's increasingly beyond the capabilities of even well-educated people.

Matt Huisman said...

One minor point on the impact of the internet and the preference for the amateur over the professional...

I have found the internet to be extremely helpful as a tool to clear up factual errors...in particular, those made by professionals. The amazing thing about the web is its ability to connect you to outsiders (who would be considered amateurs in general fields of knowledge) that have extensive niche-expertise.

Think about medicine, 30 years ago you would never have had the ability to credibly challenge your doctor about a treatment plan, let alone make a recommendation about a course of action. Think about Memogate, where font experts were able within hours to prove that the documents were fake. The list goes on and on.

It's a lot harder these days for an expert to dismiss the amateur out of hand...and with respect to the disseminating a common body of knowledge, that's a good thing.

Evanston said...

Concur with Matt, the Web has created a venue to challenge professionals, experts and amateurs alike. In the past a reader's only recourse was to write a letter to the editor in a newspaper or magazine, even if published it was often edited beyond recognition. Now we all must write with care, knowing that others can freely criticize. Yes, it would be nice if folks stuck to the facts, ma'am (where is Jack Webb when you need him?) and I am tired of the emotionalism and invective. But it comes with the freedom to have facts checked. Regarding James Elliot's comments on feelings and the "stultifying effects of traditional learning," it would be useful if he defined what he means by "traditional learning." If by this he means to criticize old-fashioned education, we need to recognize that Special Ed continues to exist under today's conventions -- that is,the classroom of 2005 continues to produce students in need of Special Ed. Perhaps instead of using the word "traditional" it would be better to use the word "conventional" and then ask "Is today's classroom teaching facts? Or are feelings trumping education?" I submit that the proper goals of education are to socialize students and equip them with thinking skills. The emphasis on feelings helps with neither, as each person has his own feelings and the "merit" of one's position has now devolved into a state where he/she who is most aggrieved, wins. This does not help a student who will need to get along in a workplace, or analyze and solve problems in life.