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.