(Apologia: I finally finished this post late at night, with an encroaching headache. It’s probably half-baked and full of inane rambling, and I may revise it later. For now, I’m just glad I’ve finished something.)
Last week, P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula pointed to an Esquire article about “Idiot America”—a term used by author Charles P. Pierce to refer to “the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good.” Idiot America doesn’t just devalue the pursuit of knowledge. Idiot America is deeply suspicious of knowledge itself. The mere presence of expertise gives it a rotten, nauseous inferiority complex deep in the gut with which it makes its decisions. “If this expert claims to know more than me,” it reasons, “maybe he thinks he’s better than me.” In self-defense, Idiot America has surrounded itself with a strange mental landscape, a surreal place where a hunch is as good—hell, better than—knowledge; where feelings matter more than facts and a wild guess is worth as much as an informed opinion.
(But don’t start feeling too superior, because Idiot America is everywhere. Sometimes it finds its way into my head; and probably yours, too. It’s an insidiously comfortable place.)
Myers is especially aggravated by Idiot Journalism. He’s seen one too many scientific articles that balanced quotations from scholars and crackpots and gave no context at all:
Nobody at the New York Times seem to get it: they are one of the mothers of Idiot America, nursing the country on a strange ideal of balance, where every example of expertise is precisely neutralized with a dollop of inanity, which is treated as if it is as equally valuable as the actual facts.
Coincidentally, on exactly the same day, the local student newspaper published an absolutely perfect insight into where Idiot Journalists come from.
I loved high school. I loved the memories I have of parties, football games, and hanging out with my friends. These are the things I have taken with me, not the useless information acquired in the classroom.
That’s the lede of an astonishing little op-ed piece called “On Schooling’s Useless Lessons,” by a vapid half-formed protojournalist attending the University of Iowa. Previous experience with op-ed pages might lead think this is the ironic setup to some moral fable about appreciating your education. You would be profoundly and entirely wrong. It gets worse.
A problem exists within the high-school education system: It doesn’t prepare students for their careers.
A world of insight into Idiot America is contained within that sentence. Idiot America doesn’t want education, it wants training. It dreams of rote skills allowing it to sleepwalk through a lucrative career with a minimum of thought. Education as preparation for life is a foreign concept.
When I decided in high school that my major was going to be journalism, I took the only class offered by my school in hopes of learning the journalistic writing style. I didn’t learn anything from that class. My teacher was not a journalism teacher; she was an English teacher. We spent every class silent reading instead of learning about the inverted pyramid.
You can learn a lot about good writing by reading, if you’re not too blinkered by single-minded career goals to pay attention. The kind of things good journalists learn long before they master the inverted pyramid. Things our columnist must not have learned, since she writes with the style and insight of a petulant junior high student.
The school system needs a reality check; most students aren’t going to be mathematicians, historians, or chemists. So why do we have to take these classes?
Because our knowledge of history grants us insight into the present. Because an understanding of science grants increased understanding of the physical world. Because we, as individuals and as a society, are faced with countless problems every day, political, technical, and moral; and knowledge of science and history helps us to make wiser and more informed decisions about those problems.
All of which means nothing to Idiot America. Idiot America doesn’t think. It prefers to act on instinct. Like our columnist, who gets more and more amazing the further you read:
Not only did the gen-ed classes waste my time and money, but they also hurt my GPA. Being forced to take classes makes them less interesting. If they aren’t interesting, you won’t do well in them. Statistics and astronomy bored me, so I opted not to attend class and neglected to study for them. These gen-ed classes caused my GPA to plummet.
It was the classes that hurt her GPA. Not lack of studying. I think she honestly doesn’t understand the connection.
You might think this isn’t anything terribly important. After all, it’s just one student, and her career goals will put her in a safe place where she can’t hurt anyone:
How is this fair? I shouldn’t have to give up my dream of working at Glamour magazine because my GPA was low – all because of some stupid gen-ed classes that I was forced to take. Let’s just get rid of them.
But it’s not just one student. This was published. The rest of the Daily Iowan’s staff, our journalists of tomorrow, thought this inane pap was worth publishing. On their editorial page.
Like I said in the title: journalism is doomed.