The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

93° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The cost of ignorance

    The smarter our gadgets get, the dumber we get. That’s the paradox at the heart of American life, according to a score of recent commentators who view the growing disconnect between what we should know and what we don’t know with profound unease.

    Ted Gup, a journalism professor who writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education, recently expressed awe that his students – who came to class equipped with laptops, who were living in an alleged “”Information Age”” – knew virtually nothing of the world around them, knew nothing of history, and know precious little about their own country.

    As anyone who’s seen one of Jay Leno’s interviews with random students knows all too well, this isn’t surprising. The glut of information that came with the Internet should, in theory, have spawned a savvy and alert generation, one better informed than any generation in history. Instead, it caused an entire generation to take information for granted to the point where they stopped caring about learning.

    I remember in 2000, when Ralph Nader was running for the presidency, I got a book about him from the library. I had a friend who expressed sincere amazement that I would try to learn something from a book. “”Couldn’t you just look him up online?”” she asked. “”Wouldn’t that be a lot faster?””

    Today’s teenagers, snorts Mark Bauerlein in his new book “”The Dumbest Generation,”” have “”a brazen disregard of books and reading.”” It’s sad but true. When polls for the “”best books ever”” are taken among the public, they’re invariably stocked with books like “”To Kill a Mockingbird”” that are most widely read in high school, because most Americans quit reading books after high school. (Those are the better polls; the worse ones are crammed with right-wing crackpot Ayn Rand and con-artist hack L. Ron Hubbard.)

    In place of traditional learning, young people have wasted their minds on ever more elaborate social lives, packed with increasingly stilted and trivial interactions. Facebook and MySpace, declares Bauerlein, not unjustly, speak “”the discourse of the lunchroom and keg party.””

    Apathy spawns not just ignorance but narcissism. Unable to sympathize with any viewpoint besides the ones they were brought up on or privately developed, two-thirds of modern ungraduates score above average on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Bauerlein reports.

    In his 2006 book “”Dark Ages America,”” social critic Morris Berman charged that Americans were “”vengeful,”” “”ignorant,”” and characterized by a “”hatred of freedom.”” Furthermore, he declared, it was their own fault: The American people themselves are “”the greatest obstacle to progressive change”” in America.

    The slings and arrows of these critics, fierce as they are, miss the point. If people were merely stupid by nature, there would be little point in complaining about them being stupid. It would be like blaming a tiger for devouring someone when given the chance.

    What is mysterious about this dramatic decline in public intelligence is that people, by and large, are not stupid. Virtually anyone can demonstrate some remarkable and complex grasp of something. The same fellow who complains that world events are too “”complicated”” to follow can show a remarkable grasp of the (by no means shallow or stupid) strategies going on in a football game.

    The nature of humans is to be bright, curious and ambitious. If Americans are growing up as woefully ignorant as polls suggest, the question to ask is why.

    The answer lies in an ancient law of physics: Nothing happens without a reason. If young people begin school bright, eager and hungry for knowledge and come out at the end of school apathetic and apolitical, something is acting on them to make them that way.

    Bauerlein expresses amazement that, with every opportunity in the world to learn, to act, to cause change, Americans don’t bother. The answer is that virtually every source of power in the American republic is acting to deprive them of the belief that they can change anything.

    Where will they learn civic courage? Not from our corrupted schools, besieged by federal insistence on “”accountability”” and “”standards.”” Not from our servile and shallow media, infatuated with trivia at the expense of news. Not from our political leaders – at least, not many of them. That leaves the people – allegedly the real rulers of the country – more or less on their own.

    This generation’s depressing slide into ignorance and apathy is certainly not entirely of its own making. Whether it will choose to turn its back on those ills and develop courage and independence of its own volition is another question.

    More to Discover
    Activate Search