I subscribe to a number of listservs dedicated to social justice advocates and educators for the exchange of information, resources, and ideas. Today a member from one of these lists distributed the website for a thought-provoking, cogent, and accessible article. Reading it, I found it very interesting because it challenged us to investigate and rethink some of the strategies increasingly gaining credibility within our work. The article's author also challenged us to look at how our organizations and conference organizers actually confirm our credentialing society by granting higher "degrees" of power and privilege to people with formal educational certification and by using this as a prime criterion for conference speakership.
As many questions swirled throughout my head, I distributed the article's internet address to my network of websites for members' reflections and comments. I was surprised to receive an almost immediate response: "Sorry. This is TA, TL, DR. (Too long, too academic, didn't read.)" The quote, pithy by containing a mere sixty-four characters including spaces and punctuation, followed a photo of a smiling white-appearing middle-age couple.
I took a slow breathe to ease my stunned perplexity, and I asked myself a number of questions to make some sense of it all:
In our so-called "information age," do the twittering birds of 148 characters, the short YouTube videos under 2.5 minutes, the Hollywood-produced movies that expose and resolve plots in under two hours dump flame inhibitors on the passion fires of learning?
Do the iTunes streaming through the nooks and crannies of our brains by wires attached to pods around our necks and "smart" phones in our hands give us a new type of "opiate for the masses," in Marx's terms, insulating us within a false Nirvana inhibiting our contact with humanity and inoculating us from the realities of the world?
In other words, are we finding ourselves inhabiting an anti-intellectual, circumscribed, and sound bite environment paradoxically as we dwell within an "information age"?
I find that this new reality is not limited to any specific age group, for as the interest- and skills-gaps steadily fade, as access to the gadgets reach more, and as subscription rates balance in social media sites between the so-called technological "immigrants" (those born before and traveling to the technologies) and "natives" (those born into in the technology), effects of this new age touch greater numbers than ever before.
Or, on the other hand, have we always resided in an anti-intellectual society? For example, I observe a certain anti-intellectualism in political discourse. How often do we hear politicians "accuse" particular candidates or those serving in public office of being part of some so-called "elitist" intellectual establishment that is out of touch with "real" Americans, which implies that "real" Americans have no need or desire for learning? And what about the epithets lodged throughout society targeting so-called "nerds" and "geeks"?
Though presented in incredibly stereotypical ways, I'm actually moderately encouraged by the popularity of the TV comedy "The Big Bang Theory," which, at least, challenges its audience to rethink social behavioral norms. I would hope someday soon we could eliminate these epithets from our standard lexicon.
No matter what the cause, the United States is in jeopardy of collapse if we deemphasize educational, and yes, intellectual excellence. Recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment judged the United States as "average" in its world-wide education rankings. In the study comparing the knowledge and skills foundations of 15-year olds throughout the world, the United States ranked 14th out of the 34 OECD countries in reading skills, 17th in science, and 25th in mathematics. I wonder how we would have ranked if social science and humanities knowledge had been assessed.
To be clear, I do not "blame" technology for the anti-intellectual sentiments I find in our larger society, and yes, even within many classrooms in our institutions of "higher learning." I wonder, though, whether and to what extent these technologies and the philosophical underpinnings surrounding them contribute to these sentiments.