Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Are We Getting Dumber?

This morning's Today show aired a segment asking if American youth were quickly becoming dolts, and citing as evidence that fewer than one of four college graduates could identify Iraq on a map; that ditsy Idol contestant Kelly Pickler, during an interview, did not know France was a country and Europe was not; that fewer than forty percent of American high schoolers had read a fiction or nonfiction book during the past year, and other eyebrow-raisers.

For years Jay Leno has sidewalk-interviewed "dummies" for us to chuckle at sadly. One, who said she was studying to be a teacher, couldn't recognize a picture of Bill Gates but instantly identified another of Harry Potter. Some couldn't name the nation south of Canada. The culprit, according to Matt Lauer's technology advocate, an NBC employee, was benign, not sinister--simply a changing lifestyle, a higher importance given by today's youth to "knowing how to use computers and the internet than to knowing Proust." With the internet's efficiency mere facts could now be instantly Googled or gained on Wikipedia--no need for tedious reading searches. Lauer's other guest, advocating for her book's position that yes, indeed, our youth are dumbing down significantly from previous generations, descried the technology monster which, she suggested, had made today's youth believe that learning basic traditional knowledge in wideranging fields of the languages, the social, natural, and physical sciences and mathematics, geography, history, philosophy, religions, the arts and literature was unimportant. What was important was what Paris Hilton wore to last night's party. Now that's knowledge that can be used, messaged and gossiped to posses and friends.

Another culprit cited by the dumb-and-dumber theorist was the media, who almost never attempt to raise the intellectual store of viewers but eagerly capitulate to the lowest forms of entertainment--inane reality shows as an example--sought by the greatest numbers, in a total sellout to commercialism.

Ah, Rome, Rome--are we so different in our decline from you? I have always been amazed at how quickly "civilization" can disappear. We falsely assume that knowledge once gained can never be lost, that law and order once established cannot be destroyed, that future generations, raised with the blessings technology has brought, will be better, live longer and stronger lives, become smarter and wiser, than their forebears.

It takes about two generations--perhaps only one--to nearly wipe clean an entire generation's knowledge and social memory, and along with that catastrophe to replace previously-held values. To do so requires only mindless entertainments, lowering of expectations and requirements, socially expedient promotions through grade levels, parental neglect and abandonment of any curbs on tv and computer use, the failure of the generations to interact collectively, and a sellout by government at all levels in order to get and maintain power, giving the greatest number of voters the ease and comforts they want rather than the challenges and opportunities for growth that they need.

Are we getting dumber with each generation? I'm not ready to say we are, though what a young adult today is expected to know is certainly different than it was twenty or forty years ago, as any employer can attest. Nor do I believe the fops paraded on tv by Leno or the gross ignorance suggested by books and articles is necessarily proof of decline. There have always been those who have learned more basic knowledge, always been those who have from lack of education or experience not become "smart" in this field or that. Such displays don't indicate whether young people today are better or worse at solving problems, at interacting in socially cohesive groups, at organizing purposeful activity, at living effectively and competitively in a complex world or instilling needed values in their children in turn. Nor do such displays of factual ignorance indicate much about the state of their conscience or their capacity to love, their sense of right and wrong, or their moral and ethical judgement. To me, these areas of the person are more important than whether or not someone has mastered Proust.

But it is worrisome that our expectations of what young Americans should be expected to know have become so low that I'm not laughing so much lately at the screened interview tv "dummies," not as entertained by the idea that ignorance is something to be proud of. It's not necessary for youth to turn away from technological gains--quite the contrary. Technology is a tool like fire or firearms that can be used for good or ill What people need to learn is how to use it wisely. Nor is it necessary for youth to read the entire canon of literature or master any other field of knowledge revered by their parents, in order to be considered "smart." But I do believe that parents, teachers, government, the church and other social institutions, the commercial sector and the media must share the blame for someone becoming an adult who cannot find his nation on a world map, and who is unconcerned that he cannot.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Fairness and Justice Demand a Hereafter

In the aftermath of last night's terrible storms, again I am reminded how fragile life is, and how we must treasure each day. Life is neither fair nor just, if awareness ends in death. The hereafter must continue awareness if only to restore what is lost, to mete out the fairness and justice this world does not, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked, for in this life too often the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper. There is too often neither fairness nor justice.

I know not the spiritual state of the fifty-plus souls whose lives were so suddenly and horribly ended, destroyed by the horror of the fierce tornados which swept through Tennessee and other states from the Gulf to Minnesota last night, but I know that they did not deserve such an end. It was just so unfair, so unjust! It is a terrible thing to realize that all those men, women, and children were cut off forever from their loved ones and friends in a few violent seconds. They had no chance, no choice, could not protect themselves from it, and certainly did not deserve to die.

Each man's death diminishes me, as John Donne said. I grieve for them, and for myself. The only way I can reconcile these things is through my faith in the rightness of a divine plan which I trust will restore the balance.

Truly Super Giants among men

For once the Super Bowl live up to its billing. What a game! going right down to the wire with valiant, inspired play by both teams throughout. I still can't believe Tyree's incredible helmet-catch and hanging on to the ball long enough that made the Giant's final score possible. It ranks up there with Franco Harris's legendary "immaculate reception" of the Bradshaw years--perhaps even surpasses it, because Tyree's catch was deliberate and fought for fiercely, not just one of opportunity or a lucky bounce. Sometimes we get to see an attitude emerge that a player or a team simply refuses to be denied the victory. That was the Giants last Sunday.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Oboy Oboy, Super Bowl and Super Tuesday!

This is the life. Super Bowl weekend, primaries and speeches running up to Super Tuesday’s twenty-two state primaries when we may get clear winners heading into the conventions--or may not. My guess is it will be McCain and Clinton, but I’m loving the dynamics of the candidates’ and their spouses’ interactions. It’s getting interesting.

And if the nominations are interesting, wait till the guessing heats up about running mates. I think if McCain gets the nod, he’ll tap Lieberman or Guiliani—possibly even Huckabee if he needs more conservative votes. If Romney wins, I’ve no idea. Mitt seems like more of a lone wolf than any other candidate running this season, and I haven’t seen any notable political friends campaigning with him. Huckabee can’t win unless his convention deadlocks and he’s the compromise, but that’s highly unlikely.

On the Democratic side, if Clinton wins, don’t look for her to tap Obama despite many feeling it would be the dream ticket, unless she can’t avoid it and still carry the black vote. She’d rather tap someone like Edwards or other Washington insider she’s worked with who could be appeal to the blue collar base. If Obama wins, there’s no way he’d pick Hillary for a running mate unless he had to have her aboard to carry the establishment faithful. As I wrote earlier, I’m afraid Bill’s going to scare off most potential veeps, relegating them to even less influence in decisionmaking than the White House chef. Of the four leading candidates, only Hillary has that albatross around her neck. The other spouses are gracious and appealing. Michelle Obama’s a little gregarious and outspoken, but within most folks’ tolerance levels.

And as far as race goes, or gender, I don’t think either matters as much as it did even eight years ago. I think America is ready for a female President or a black President, or even a female black President, if that person is perceived to be the best candidate for the job. What America is not willing to do is to elect a female President for the sake of change or a black President for the sake of change or the omigod, really? wow! factor, or because it would be historic. That happened with Nancy Pelosi’s election to Speaker of the House, and people quickly shrugged. If the novelty candidate can’t get things done, it doesn’t matter if they’re a Siberian yak, people will quickly abandon their support.

I am worried, however, about a charismatic candidate like Obama. Historically, charismatic leaders from the Kennedys to Ghandi to Martin Luther King, and most recently Benizir Bhutto—idealogues whose inspiring and eloquent words have made vast crowds passionate to follow them in their crusades for social change--have inflamed the worst elements of society’s fringe and drawn assassins’ bullets and bombs. It’s almost as if some people can tolerate anything but a really popular leader, someone they perceive could change things too drastically to suit them. I hope I’m wrong.

By the way, Go Giants! The Patriots are just too--too something. I want a new champ.