Disengaged Students, Part 6: What Happened to Political Discourse?
In this 20-part series, I explore the root causes and effects of academic disengagement in K-12 learners and explore the factors driving American society ever closer to being a nation that lacks intellectualism, or the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
While the anti-intellectual mindset is deeply entrenched in American culture, it is seldom discussed. Those who accuse the popular culture of ‘dumbness’ are viewed as offensive and even elitist. Those who say that they find Americans less cultured or intelligent than citizens of other nations are convicted of unpatriotic behavior in the court of public opinion. As a result, little is written about the decline of public knowledge, and when relevant statistics are published they usually come with no commentary. The truth is often hard to hear, but it remains true. Contemporary Americans are far behind the rest of the civilized world in intellectual terms, and even far behind the Americans of 70 years ago.
No Time for Rational Thought
Americans lack patience when it comes to listening to serious discussion of political issues. The average length of a political message dropped from 42.3 seconds to just 7.8 seconds from 1968 to 2000. Candidates who will not encapsulate what they represent in less than 8 seconds are viewed as weak communicators. Thus Americans place a higher value on the presentation of platforms than on the actual content of a particular candidate’s beliefs.
Take the 2012 Presidential campaigns, for example. The now-iconic Facebook photo of Barack Obama embracing Michelle Obama after victory had been declared garnered over 1 million “likes” in under an hour. The same image with the words “four more years” actually broke Twitter’s record for most retweets in less than an hour, with 350,000. The viral photo is a fitting representation of the role that social media played in the election cycle for the first time. There were people talking about the Presidential election on Facebook and Twitter in 2008, but not in the same numbers or with the same social savvy. Mitt Romney’s campaign did not utilize social media channels as expertly as the Obama team, and on several occasions the viral nature of the Internet hurt the Romney camp.
Romney faced a firestorm of public outcry when he described Americans with incomes too low for taxation as self-declared victims with a high sense of entitlement and a low sense of responsibility. The comments were secretly recorded at a fundraising event and Romney later admitted he should have stated his position in a more “elegant” fashion. However, he stood by the principle of his statement – that opponent Barack Obama’s tax plan was attractive to people on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Critics panned Romney for his obvious lack of connection with “average” Americans, and the general public followed suit. That particular recording has been described as the beginning of the end of the Romney Presidential run.
But were Mitt Romney’s comments made in what he thought was a private venue really that different from what he was saying in pre-written addresses across the country? A wealthy capitalist himself, Romney had made similar, more elegantly spoken statements in the past. In fact, anyone who took the time to listen to what he and his running mate Paul Ryan were saying on a daily basis in disclosed meetings would have seen that his super-secret, supposedly character-revealing statements were really not all that secret or revealing. The American people had neither the time nor the concern to truly hear what Romney had to say about their economic states until it was condensed into a short, scandalous, overplayed clip.
Were We Ever Rational Conversationalists?
Susan Jacoby observes in The Age of American Unreason that the Americans of a century ago were much more active than their descendants in seeking out opposing views, even if there was no chance that the information would change their minds. When political candidates held rallies to push their agendas, they spoke to a mixed audience of supporters and detractors.
Jacoby says that when she went on tour to promote her first book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, she was prepared to argue her points with those who found her writing off-base. She says that she looked forward to the debate. Jacoby quickly discovered, however, that the only people showing up to her book events were “the converted.” The people in the audience had exactly the same views and she was essentially “preaching to the choir.” She would not have to defend her points because the people who disagreed with her simply would not show up.
Jacoby mentions this example in the introduction of her second book to illustrate the contrast between the open environment for discourse and curiosity about other opinions that once existed in America on the one hand, and the current state of narrow-mindedness across the belief spectrum on the other. She says “The unwillingness to give a hearing to contradictory viewpoints…represents a departure from the best side of American popular and elite intellectual traditions.”
The effort of defending one’s own views and lending an ear to opposing ones has come to be seen as excessive. This is what might be expected of an over-stimulated, instantly gratified American public that has no use for personal fact-finding missions. It is much easier to wait for outrageous scandals and 400-word summary blog posts that outline the “10 Reasons to Vote for Obama” than to dig into details. Anti-intellectualism then becomes a state of deliberate unknowing and uncaring.
Will the next generation of thinkers care enough to hear all sides of an issue? Or accept the first sound bite that is appealing?