Friday, November 26, 2010

Losing the American Mind

At 46, she had a premature senior moment the other day, referring to our "North Korean allies" on Fox TV. No big deal, but Sarah Palin has become so pervasive an image for where the country is heading that her little lapse reflects larger issues about the state of the American mind.

Government researchers report more than 45 million Americans, or 20 percent of adults, had some form of mental illness last year, with 11 million suffering from a serious condition. Surprisingly, the rate is highest for those aged 18 to 25 at 30 percent, and lowest for those 50 and older at 13.7.

Economic depression may naturally lead to psychological, but something more seems to be going on here. It is not just mental health measurements of the American mind that are troubling, but the diminishing quality of its contents.

David Brooks, in ruminating on the death of national magazines, observes that a generation ago the "self-improvement ethic" came under attack, the Emersonian idea of a "well-furnished mind."

Men and women of character, salesman, farmer or housewife, he notes, used to "have a responsibility to be familiar with the best that has been thought and said" to spend some "leisure time sampling the great masterworks of culture" and "be conversant in philosophy, theology and the great political events of the wider world."

This middle-brow culture fed a large publishing world in which I worked of magazines, book clubs, encyclopedia sales and shelves of popular volumes about the Great Books, Great Ideas, World History et al. All that didn't make for great thinkers but did help create a reasonably well-informed electorate

In those days, columnists for mass women's magazines were the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead and Clare Booth Luce. Not a Sarah Palin in the lot.

Now all that has been swept away by a new culture that, as Brooks notes, values hipness, not class as "self-esteem hurricanes blew across the landscape. You don’t have to read or listen to boring stuff to possess character. You are wonderful just the way you are."

If you don't know something, Google or Bing it and get the answer. The only problem is that no search engine can tell you the right questions to ask and how to understand the context of the answers. You can't tweet your way to social, political or moral knowledge.

Palin will keep communicating with her Tea Party fans with everything from what looks like books to Facebook pronunciamentos, but the American base of shared knowledge and understanding is eroding under a Tower of Babble.

If it keeps going this way, we may need more than one Daily Show to provide subtitles for what we're seeing and hearing.


Christina G. said...

Really good points made here...

Instant Internet access is entirely responsible for the apparent demise of our magazines/newspapers/books printed on PAPER industries - and I think this is worse than sad. I find it a bit alarming. Our country was founded on principles written by hand on parchment (paper!). "Common Sense" was a pamphlet. The words & ideas that fanned the flames of Freedom were written on flyers, posted, handed out. I know many if not all of these activities continue online today, and thank God that such is the case - and I, too, participate in this - but to the degree that America relinquishes books etc on paper, I think she relinquishes a part of her soul.

You will NEVER find me reading a book on a Kindle. I buy books used, yes, online - but I will always, God willing, be holding a book, made from PAPER in my hands.

MorganLvr said...

I couldn't agree more. I was born in 1944, and the changes in education, general knowledge and attitude are shocking. No one seems to know anything any more. Stuff that I remember knowing as a child now eludes adults.

I recently read that an astounding percentage of high schoolers can't find the United States on a world globe!

And the Tea Party and Palin - better not get started. I have been stunned at the prejudice I've seen even before President Obama was elected. And make no mistake - this was NOT political differences, this was personal HATRED. I have never seen anything like the unabashed hate that rained down before the man was even elected. I guess we weren't ready for a Black President after all...

Many of the Tea Party ilk don't even believe in science and are working hard to try to get creationism and other religious philosophies into our public schools. I find this terrifying. Just imagine a generation of American kids who don't believe in evolution? Are these the scientists of tomorrow?

We ARE in trouble.