Ethics Observations On An Article That Ruined My Day

It’s difficult for me to formulate complicated arguments when I’m drugged to the gills and sick, so I am, reluctantly, delaying a couple of pieces on the metaphorical runway to catch up on what other people are writing. Big mistake. I just finished a substack post by Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer whose newsletter is called “Systematic Hatreds.” It takes its title from a line in “The Education of Henry Adams,” one of my father’s favorite books: “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” Musgrave, whom I never heard of before, is writing about how he teaches what he calls “the post-legacy media generation.”

It is clear early on in his depressing piece that that almost no one in that generation has heard of Henry Adams, or John Quincy Adams, Abigail Adams, and probably not John Adams either. There’s an excellent chance few have even heard of Morticia Addams, Charles Addams, or know that Eric Adams is the latest mayor of New York City. In fact, it’s quite fair to conclude that none of these soon-to-be-crucial citizens know much of anything at all, because they do not read—literally, do not—and get whatever information the do get from similarly handicapped peers on social media. Musgrave is in the trenches, and he writes,

I used to base my US Foreign Policy class in part around reading and engaging with a single nonfiction book; once, a student told me it was the only time she had ever read a nonfiction book cover to cover. I cut out the book during pandemic because the course reading load, which hadn’t changed otherwise, seemed too much for the emergency. I’m not reinstating it because I heard loud and clear that the downsized reading load was still too much for students. Colleagues at other institutions report similar trends….Moreover, I’ve started doing more direct reading instruction, including exercises to help students identify the thesis of a given reading and to teach the conventions of different forms of writing. This may seem basic, but it really isn’t: even within the kinds of general-interest readings I assign, the conventions of longform journalism, opinion writing, analytical essays (think Foreign Affairs), and straight news stories are as different as lyric poetry and free verse. And if you don’t know what’s going on, you really can’t read these, even if you can put every word and sentence together…

I want to feel like I’m inducting students into the adult world, a world of The New Yorker and Journal of Conflict Resolution and distinctions between the news and opinion sections of The Wall Street Journal—the advanced version of the print culture I was raised in that the Internet has expanded, deepened, and mostly improved since I was young. But I also worry that I’m just teaching people how to use cuneiform when the printing press has been invented, and that all of the knowledge I have about how to engage with texts and the institutions that produce them is a wasting asset in a world of algorithmic curation of videos and social media.

Teaching requires meeting the students where they are. But what if the distance is so great that it can’t be traversed in a semester? And what if the terrain where they are is too different for the edifice you’re trying to build with them?

For some reason, Musgrove says he doesn’t blame school systems too much for this disastrous situation, and it is disastrous. He appears to blame “technology,” or things moving too fast all of a sudden, or “oldsters” for not keeping up. He presents no solutions, however, and leaves us with a virtual, hopeless shrug.

I had some thoughts in my Dayquil-sotted brain:

  • It it is obvious that the teacher is describing students incapable of critical thought. Who is “to blame”? 1. Their parents. 2. The schools. 3. The Big Tech that runs social media, where the group appears to get its “information,” and…
  • …their peers, meaning themselves. They would know the benefits of curiosity, diligence and competence if they read, had engaged parents and responsible teachers, but they don’t, so they don’t. And we’re back to Square One.
  • Why are schools fighting over what students should read, as the progressive establishment is apparently obsessed with indoctrinating young minds, when they should be concentrating on training them to take in information, process it, and use it? Hundreds of thousands of books can do that without getting near to subjects with divisive ideological implications.

Musgrave’s diagnosis explains a lot, such as….

  • …why the more recent generations are so reliant on celebrities for their opinions, and the outsize power of “influencers” of dubious qualifications and motives.
  • …why the young are so prone to blandly follow “experts” without checking the so-called experts’ arguments, logic and presentation of data—they can’t.
  • …why they are metaphorical sitting ducks for advocates of socialism and collectivism, Black Lives Matter, Far Right extremism (the real kind) and other causes built of manipulated facts and deceit.
  • …why they are suckers for climate change hysteria, and why they are meekly ready to wear masks for the rest of their lives.
  • …why podcasts are crowding out written forms of commentary, like blogs..
  • …and why rationalizations and logical fallacies increasingly dominate arguments on all topics.

It also provides vital clues to why…

  • ….bad analogies are rampant in public discourse.
  • …so many think “Don’t Look Up” is trenchant satire.
  • ….emotional arguments gain traction even more than they used to
  • ….irresponsible educated people, scholars, politicians, journalists and pundits (like Ruth Marcus), set out to make others dumber: because it’s so easy, and they are so intellectually crippled to begin with.
  • ….why meat-axe, nuance-free rhetoric and generalizations (“He’s a loser!”) are sufficient to attract supporters to someone with the limitations of Donald Trump or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.

What it doesn’t explain is how this potentially terminal problem for a democracy—stupid, ignorant, easily misled citizens—can be effectively addressed at this late stage of rot.

10 thoughts on “Ethics Observations On An Article That Ruined My Day

  1. As I was reading this I thought of some of my own experiences in college. In my undergraduate studies I had a teacher who would assign on average 5-6 books to his class. After my freshman year he would become one of my main professors (and later on a good friend). Since I had this professor for about half my course load I ended up having to purchase close to 20 books from him alone. When the year was over, we only used about eight of them.

    The next year, I thought I would be smart and study the syllabus. Discussion centered around eight books again, so I decided to only buy those eight books. I got As or higher and I think there was only one time one of those other books was brought up (having just decided to stay quiet during class discussion). At the end of the year, I asked him about this. His response made me realize that if I wanted to be better, I had to do more than what was required of me.

    He said he assigned those books because subject matter is too vast to cover in the limited time and course work the normal semester allowed. If I was to continue in my field I would be expected to know about those things as well as the things we were discussing in class. That summer, I went back and bought all the books on his list and I’m glad I did. One of them completely changed the way I feel about a particular subject and I have incorporated it into a lot of my teaching methods.

    Another book that was on that list had a different outcome. When I was in graduate school I was in a class where a teacher started talking about it because it was related to the subject matter. He said it was a waste of time given the liberties it took with the subject and went on to describe them…which seemed off. When I asked him to clarify what he meant because the book addresses that apparent ‘liberty’ he later admitted he hadn’t read the book and choose not to read it based on the summary of the book he read (he said this was why it wasn’t assigned reading in the class).

    That particular book was boring and you could get the jest of it by just reading the second chapter. However, I would never offer advice on it based on what I heard about it or read in a summary (especially if I was a teacher). It really turned me off to a lot of his teaching which was unfortunate because he was one of my main professors in graduate school. Its been about 10 years and I haven’t talked to the guy once since I graduated. The first professor I still write to and seek advice.

    We waste a lot of time doing two things. The first, is trying to do as little work as possible. I think this is one of the reasons Wikipedia and Cliff Notes are so popular for students. Both provide a cheap and easy way to learn enough about a subject without having to study it. People study enough just to pass the test and then believe they are never going to use it again, but to do that completely misses the point. By doing so they miss out on the skills they would have learned like critical thinking or problem solving. Ironically, the lengths people go to cheat or cheat themselves are so extensive, it would have just been easier to do the work.

    There’s a movie I saw a while back (If someone could help me with the name) that was about a college student who befriends a teacher just so she can steal the test and cheat. Its even has her describing a step by step process in the movie on how she is going to do this. The steps are so extensive that it would have been easier to just study (such as going to her comedy show, conventions, spending time in her home). Even after the test is done, she has to keep up the ruse. She could have just done the right thing from the beginning, but you know…in for a penny in for a pound.

    The second thing we spend a lot of time doing is pretending to know about something we don’t. A while ago I heard a quote that was attributed to Michael Crichton (though I couldn’t find any proof he said it) was all you needed to know to be an expect on a subject was 100 words. I have never found this to be true in fact quite the opposite. When I was teaching, I would assign essays that were 100-200 and a lot of the time I thought, “that didn’t teach me anything about the subject.” However, even if it was true, we don’t even do that. We share memes, quotes, headlines, and clips without reading the article, book, or context around them. Then, we make decisions based on what we think about that context and jump on social media to share our opinion to the rage of our audience and ignore all the people who actually did the legwork and point out our problems. What’s the end result? Teachers telling students not to read books they have never read, Supreme Court justices grossly misstating facts about the kid hospitalizations, and a stronger than ever divide of us verses them.

    So what’s the solution? To me the answer seems quite simple: Read, read, and read some more. It will never hurt you to read a book. If you haven’t read the subject, then don’t offer your opinion on it because that old proverb is true. Better to be thought the fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

  2. “Better to be thought the fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Also discard this proverb. It’s insulting and a way to try to shut someone else up.

    • “Also”. Was there something else?

      Also, also the point of the proverb is to make sure what you’re saying is accurate. You don’t have to follow it. It’s just good advice.

      • Also as in addition to what else was in the post. But if someone quoted this to me, I’d be offended. It can too easily be interpreted as calling someone a fool, which doesn’t exactly earn you points.

        • In my view, you are both right. The proverb inveighs against ill-informed opinions; it also works to intimidate people from offering opinions at all. I’ve never liked it, but then I’ve shot off my mouth all my life; it may be my defining feature.

          I checked: the Biblical version of this means something else. Proverbs 17:28:

          “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” or “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.” That last is the King James version: notice that in both, saying nothing makes the fool be regarded as wise.

          The version you are discussing is generally attributed to Abe Lincoln, but not confidently. It looks to me like the real source was a children’s book, “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” by Maurice Switzer, but it’s a lot more impressive to be thought wise by quoting the Bible or Abe Lincoln than to quote someone nobody ever heard of and be thought a fool.

          You can quote me.

          • Being informed and having the wisdom to withhold comment until you know you are informed are two different things. It’s one thing to tell someone to make certain his brain is engaged before he puts his mouth in gear, it’s another to tell him not to speak unless he can improve upon the silence. The former might indeed make me make certain I know what I’m talking about before I talk, the latter is just a fancy way of telling someone not to talk at all, which merits a “bite me.”

            • “Being informed and having the wisdom to withhold comment until you know you are informed are two different things.”

              This was pretty much the point I was making.

  3. This article reflects my own experience with current students, especially teaching in a design school. Five years ago I was teaching a technical class which had a required textbook. The students were complaining endlessly about how difficult it was to understand. I then read it (I didn’t need to in order to teach the subject), and found it was very well written, with every paragraph having a topic sentence, conclusion, and very clearly laid out content, graphically and textually. I realized, like the professor in your article, that my students don’t know how to decipher text. Since then, getting them to read literally ANY book is worse than pulling teeth. Unless it’s a how-to text with a lot of illustrations, which they need in order to do their work, they just don’t. It’s difficult to even get them interested, i.e., curious, enough to investigate something more than whatever they run across online, and that is mostly all visuals. But they hardly even do that, and it shows in their ability to engage with basic design history and concepts. In short, one most often gets a blank stare when referencing something or someone basic to knowledge of their field. So again, as you say, it’s difficult to even know where to begin in engaging with them due to the lack of common knowledge and “vocabulary.” One could be speaking a foreign language.

  4. I’m not sure that humans are stupider than they ever were. On average, they’re pretty good at adapting to their immediate environment, but pretty bad at abstract thought. Culture used to tell them all they needed to know about the abstract, but culture also tends to do weird things once it’s applied outside of the context it was developed for. In extreme cases, it forms dogma, which can lead to atrocities when applied to situations beyond its normal operating parameters. (Or sometimes even when applied in its native context.)

    That said, I have no intention of allowing this state of affairs to continue. There is a way to remedy human stupidity, collectively and individually, without the toxin of dogma. For some reason, though, very few humans seem to grasp the idea that it’s possible to aim for a better world without invoking dogma and all its pitfalls.

    The trick is to identify the simplest, most basic building-block concepts that describe the things that matter most to us. What do we care about, what are the obstacles in our way, and what are the constructive approaches we can take to overcome those obstacles?

    A solid foundation of simple concepts lets us identify constructive directions to go in and build on them from there. It empowers people to think and choose for themselves and to understand, communicate with, and coordinate with each other.

    I’m still setting up the market research for Visionary Vocabularies, but I’m quite confident in its power to clarify the confusion that humans currently find themselves in. Next will be making sure it’s explained well enough that people can understand and apply it themselves.

  5. I’m sceptical anytime I hear adults proclaim that today’s youth are critically deficient in some fundamental set of skills (critical thinking skills, work ethic, in-person communication skills, etc.). Doesn’t every adult generation view the upcoming generation as hopelessly adrift (except for one’s own children, of course)?

    Here is the The National Assessment of Educational Progress summary of reading performance over the last few decades:

    “At grade 4, the average reading score in 2019 (220) was lower than the score in 2017 (222), when the assessment was last administered, but it was higher than the score in 1992 (217). Similarly, at grade 8 the average reading score in 2019 (263) was lower than the score in 2017 (267), but it was higher than the score in 1992 (260).”

    The kids will be just fine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.