Feb 18, 2008


There's an interesting article in the NY Times about Susan Jacoby's book "The Age of American Unreason". The book is about the woeful state of American culture and the rise of 'anti-intellectualism'. The usual examples are brought out in the article. Percentages of kids who don't know where Iraq is and an anecdote about someone mixing up the Vietnam War and WWII. I suspect most people who know me well would think I would agree with this book. I actually strongly disagree with type of attitude.
Ms. Jacoby doesn’t expect to revolutionize the nation’s educational system or cause millions of Americans to switch off “American Idol” and pick up Schopenhauer. But she would like to start a conversation about why the United States seems particularly vulnerable to such a virulent strain of anti-intellectualism. After all, “the empire of infotainment doesn’t stop at the American border,” she said, yet students in many other countries consistently outperform American students in science, math and reading on comparative tests.
My big problem with this attitude is 'so what' about the test scores. I don't understand why intellectuals constantly point to testing scores on basic areas of learning as an important indicator. For one it doesn't measure the worth of someone to society. Does a great artist or actor or writer or sculptor have any use for high math scores on an SAT? And second it doesn't place any value on specialization or passion for a particular subject. I'm sure most of the people who intellectuals hold up as heroes actually specialized at the expense of learning other things. People like Mozart or Einstein or Picasso or Feynman or Rockefeller most likely had huge gaps somewhere on the spectrum of 'knowledge'. Many famous businessmen for example are high school or college dropouts.

One of the examples in the article is the story of Kellie Pickler; the lady who appeared on the game show "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader and said "I thought Europe was a country". Big deal. It's good for a few laughs but this lady wants to be a country music singer. How does knowing anything about Budapest help her ambitions? She made it on American Idol. I'm sure she's ambitious. I'm sure she works hard to reach her goals. People value country music and it makes their lives better. What's the problem here? If this was some 8 year old math whiz-kid who didn't know the answer but wanted to be the best mathematician in the world would we scoff at him? You often see biographies of famous and talented people who put everything else aside to reach some goal. In those cases we admire the focus.

Look, I detest things like American Idol. You couldn't pay me to watch it. Country music as well. But like Chris Rock said, 'it's not for you'. People like Jacoby are just elitists and think they can define what is important to know and what is useful to know. She's just closeminded. I think the ability to pursue something you are passionate about is what keeps the U.S. on top of things. Allowing some kid to skip geography class so he can focus on his violin playing should be encouraged at times. Ms. Jacoby would rather keep that kid strapped to his seat.

1 comment:

Craig said...

I'm struck by how often great artists will talk about work ethic and dedication to their craft. Learning how to focus and work hard is such an important part of an education for which test scores are only a rough proxy. Throw in different economic circumstances (i.e. needing to work), quality of instruction, and early specialization, and the scores might be pretty misleading.
But that only begs the question out here: why do some public school systems suck so badly, or at least have that reputation? given the amount of money and education, Seattle has a horrific reputation. Why is that?
Oops - i wrote a post.