For three decades I’ve been writing about the merits and rewards of self-directed continuing education. Having spent so much time and effort trying to better understand the world before checkout time, I can attest without hesitation that the intellectual exhilaration to be had from a willful determination to learn adds immeasurably to the pleasure of living.
At the same time, my hopes for broadening the reach of lifelong learning among adults borders on despair, because much of what is characterized today as patriotism, especially in hard-right politics, really amounts to a celebration of ignorance. Worse, an in-your-face brand of simple-mindedness is at war with science, the humanities, and most efforts to fight inequality.
Low-information citizens get much of their authoritative sense of virtue from a stream of hearsay and contemptuous innuendo coming from those with whom they already identify. This renders them oblivious to critical but factual evidence about the nature of cause and effect.
To be sure, these are otherwise wonderful people. They would give you the shirt off their back, shelter you in a storm, and feed you if you were starving—unless, of course, they somehow viewed you as other. And even then, they might make an exception, since up close you might not seem as bad as they have been led to believe. If we were at war, these people would be first in line to volunteer.
You and I know them as parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and neighbors. Where these individuals come up short is in understanding the human predicament on a much larger scale than their own small sphere. These low-information citizens don’t read much, and if they listen to or watch newscasts at all, it’s likely from a partisan source.
Many of these citizens regard critical thinking as an obligation to be overtly judgmental of others. They develop most of their opinions by talking to people who mirror their own political certainty about things that, for all practical purposes, they know nothing about whatsoever because they never examine anything in depth.
I know about this subject first-hand. I grew up in a low-information culture, and for years in my youth I was an active participant. Active participation in low-information culture means that one is belligerent for nonsensical reasons and forever on alert for acts of disrespect by those considered outsiders.
In my region of the country in the 1940s and ’50s, racism was rampant, social conformity was expected, and a fundamentalist religious community was thought necessary to sustain morality. The sad reality is that things haven’t changed all that much in some parts of the country; this kind of social ethos is still representative in many localities all over America. The bigotry and racism is still there. In most cases, it’s not as blatant as before, but in some, it’s as bad as ever.
Millions of uneducated people claim that their religion and their worldview is the only virtuous path to the truth, whatever that might be, and their only rationale for holding such beliefs is one borne of local consensus. This identity-based way of life leads people to form an us-and-them mentality, and it fosters a kind of conceit that closes group membership at the mere appearance of differences or questioning of the status quo. Any and all cultural criticism is viewed as sacrilegious, subversive, or treasonous behavior.
Attitudes like these result in an exaggerated sense of self-importance that manifests itself in religious defensiveness, Constitutional illiteracy, ethnic prejudice, and partiality toward military aggression, pseudo-history, economic misinformation, and political paranoia.
Now, it doesn’t take a university study to figure this out. If you suspect you live in a region of the country that sounds like the above, go to your nearest street corner or grocery store and ask the people you meet there a few simple questions. You will likely meet some very articulate and well educated citizens. But you will also meet many individuals whose political opinions are so farfetched from reality that they sound paranoid or schizophrenic. Chances are, the less they know about the real world, the more strident and boisterous their views will be.
Elsewhere I have written extensively about the need for an existential education, not just for a few of us, but for everyone. An existential education simply amounts to learning enough about humanity and the human condition to disabuse a person of the notion that one’s respective culture has reality nailed and that all of the other poor fools in the world are simply lost or potentially evil. An existential education enables us to deal with the angst that comes with the human condition without the need to blame others for our own insecurities.
In his book Who Owns the Future, computer scientist Jaron Lanier argues that digital networks are decimating America’s middle class. He maintains that our technology is eliminating jobs faster than it creates them in an environment where better technology results in more and more unemployment. In support of this view, books are being published every month sounding the alarm that America’s middle class is dying economically.
If we don’t find the political will to address the growing needs of legions of low-wage workers, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess how this will play out with low-information citizens. The blame game could easily escalate to the point where people take to the streets. Arab springs may one day soon be eclipsed by American winters.
This is indeed ironic because there is a lot to be legitimately upset about. Washington DC has become a bastion of corruption for which both of our major political parties are responsible. Simply put, we may be in for a tsunami of misplaced anger and an attempt to topple our government without the goodwill and knowledge to map out a system of redress that works for all Americans. Aggressive, wide-ranging education for all adults and soon-to-be adults may be the only remedy. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a catastrophe to inspire such a movement.
Saturday, 19 October 2013