Reading In All Media

There is no end to people complaining about technology and new media. It isn’t limited to luddites and other varieties of reactionaries. One hears all kinds of views why the world is going down the crapper, from high-minded critiques from academics to your mother’s nagging about her grandchildren. Recently, Michael Harris wrote about this on a personal level:

“For good reason. It’s embarrassing. Especially for someone like me. I’m supposed to be an author – words are kind of my job. Without reading, I’m not sure who I am. So, it’s been unnerving to realize: I have forgotten how to read – really read – and I’ve been refusing to talk about it out of pride. […]

“For a long time, I convinced myself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate me somehow from our new media climate – that I could keep on reading and writing in the old way because my mind was formed in pre-internet days. But the mind is plastic – and I have changed. I’m not the reader I was. […]

“For many writers, this is the new wisdom. A cynical style of reading gives way to a cynical style of writing. I’ve watched my own books become “useful” as they made their way into public conversation. I never meant them to be useful – in a self-help sense – but that was how they were often read. I say this with less reproach than surprise: Almost every interviewer has asked me for tips and practical life advice, despite the fact my books offer neither.

“Meanwhile, I admit it: The words I write now filter through a new set of criteria. Do they grab; do they anger? Can this be read without care? Are the sentences brief enough? And the thoughts? It’s tempting to let myself become so cynical a writer because I’m already such a cynical reader. I am giving what I get” (I have forgotten how to read).

There is some truth to it. I can’t deny that. But I can’t fully agree either, at least not for me personally. My brain doesn’t operate normally, something I know because I have the official tests from when I was diagnosed as learning disabled in childhood to when I was sent off to a psychiatric ward in my early 20s. I’m fully documented as ‘special’.

I don’t give a flying fuck if a book is written and presented in a linear manner. I never have been prone to linear thought, much less linear reading. It’s long been my habit to read dozens of books simultaneously. I skim books and I flit around them like a drunken butterfly. I often read the conclusion first and impressively will then proceed to read the text backwards, paragraph by paragraph. No linear cultural expectation is going to keep me confined. Fuck that!

All of that was true for me long before the internet. It’s why I hated formal education, to such an extent that I learned to read late, almost flunked out of 7th grade, only graduated high school by cheating on tests, and dropped out of college twice. Schools don’t teach the way my mind works. I remember when I first started spending much time on the world wide web. It was mind-blowing! For the first time in my freaking life, I was experiencing something in the larger society that operated the same way as my ‘abnormal’ brain. If I was abnormal, then all of the internet was abnormal and it was my kind of crazy.

I still love to read. And I feel little conflict or competition between literary media as a physical book and electronic media as the internet. I simply have different contexts in which I immerse myself in any given media. It’s all good.

I like to go for long walks in the morning and that is when I find the best time for concentrated reading. My reading-while-walking habit also began long before the internet, maybe back when I was in high school. I typically walk out to my parents’ house at the edge of town and it takes about an hour-and-half, allowing me to read a couple of short stories or maybe a few chapters of a book. I also like to snatch some time to read while riding in a car/bus or sitting around waiting for something, including free moments at work. I always keep a physical book nearby for any occasion with my ever present backpack usually containing many choices of reading material.

There are hundreds of books I’ve read that I never would have discovered if not for the internet. I’ve probably spent thousands of hours reading book reviews and perusing Google Books. On the other hand, I admit that social media can be addictive and pointlessly distracting. I had to learn to avoid much of social media or at least avoid the worst elements of it. I don’t have any doubt that I’m being subtly influenced in ways that I’m unaware. But I seem to have a certain amount of immunity that others lack, as it doesn’t feel unnatural or foreign to me. I love all the vast info available on the internet, as I love books. Media whore that I am, I love it all. I devour all forms of media. And after a while, they all blend together in my mind and experience.

Bring it on! Let the world be transformed by media. It will be a fun social experiment. Anyway, physical books are more likely to survive climate change than is the human species. For the last remaining humans huddled around fires as civilization collapses, there will still be plenty of physical books left in old decaying libraries. The survivors will have plenty of time to read, in between fighting off packs of mutants and evading zombie hordes. But until then, may media bloom like a thousand flowers.

Faith in the Power of Knowledge

I was continuing to think more about knowledge, learning and communication.

I’m always reading and researching. One thing I love about my Kindle is that it allows me to do a search of terms across all of my books, excluding the physical books on my shelves. I have enough ebooks now that doing searches is more fun activity.

That is how I was wasting my time recently. I was doing various searches just to see what would come up. I was looking up terms like “Anti-Federalism” and “Articles of Confederation”, but also terms such as “eligible” combined with “vote”. Doing this kind of activity reminds me of how much there is to know and how little I know in comparison.

With those last search terms, I found my way to Liberty in America’s Founding by Howard Schwartz. I always have so many books I’m meaning to start reading or finish that it is nice to have books brought back to my attention. This particular book I had almost entirely forgotten about. My search first brought me to a section on Jefferson and Locke, and then looking at the table of contents I noticed the author had a section on John Dickinson. Oh, what a lovely find/rediscovery.

Just reading a few short sections really did get me excited. The author was presenting a very original perspective. The guy is obviously well informed and he brings so much together. It is books like this that demonstrate the power of knowledge to shift one’s perspective. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if knowledge were to shift the perspective of our entire society, a shift to a new understanding, maybe even an entirely new paradigm.

That is why I so often return to the Axial Age, the Enlightenment, and the Revolutionary Era. Those were fulcrum points in history when entire worldviews shifted like plate tectonics. At the heart of those shifts were new understandings and perspectives. Beginning with the Axial Age in particular, books were what much of that hinged upon, books as a technology to transfer knowledge and insight from one mind to another, across boundaries of nations, religions and ethnicities.

I read and write so much because I have this genuine faith in the power of knowledge. I wish I had endless amounts of time to do nothing but read and write.

 

Fighting Ignorance With a Love of Learning

I sometimes write long posts, as anyone knows who has visited my blog. I don’t just ramble endlessly because I like to hear my own voice. The motivation is that I’m in a constant state of reading and learning, and my blog is the main way I process my own thinking and give it form. I do want to communicate in a way that can be understood by others, but that is a secondary process that arises from the act of writing itself.

Still, I sometimes wonder who may actually be paying attention, assuming anyone is. Most of my posts don’t necessarily get a ton of views or comments. Most don’t get any comments at all, although others get more comments than I know what to do with. I’m not sure why I feel like I need to justify my rambling posts to anyone. I know the rule of blogging, if you want a popular following, is to keep it short. But that ain’t me. My mind rambles… always has done and probably always will. I like my rambling mind, even if others don’t appreciate it as much.

I get so excited by things I learn that I want to share them. Learning is just plain awesome.

Just these past few days I’ve come to understand some things I hadn’t really understood before. For my entire adult life, I’ve heard quotes of Thomas Jefferson writing about dissent such as watering the tree of liberty, but I never really understood it. In reading about Anti-Federalists, I suddenly grasp the larger context of what dissent meant back then. It is kind of strange that an aristocrat like Jefferson would advocate dissent when many of the other founding elites were less welcoming to dissent and its relationship to agrarianism. The pieces came together in my mind and now I better understand something I didn’t fully understand before.

That makes me happy. I’m a tiny bit less ignorant today than I was yesterday. Fighting ignorance one day at a time.

I wish I was better at communicating my excitement about learning. Sometimes it is hard to express why a particular issue or quote fascinates me so much or, as I like to say, gets caught in my craw. I try to connect my thinking about larger issues to a more grounded level, abstract issues to subjective experience, historical issues to present realities. But I suspect I fail more often than I succeed. My rambling mind is my Achille’s Heel. When I ramble, I can really ramble. My mind just goes on and on and on, one thought leading to a thousand other thoughts, one book leading to book after book. My mind vomits out quotes and thoughts, ideas and observations… worthy or not. They are just there in my head and they want to be free.

To most people, I suppose subjects like history are boring. I used to be like that when I was younger. No one was able to communicate to my younger self why history mattered. I was raised to appreciate education, but it took me to leave school before I could develop a genuine love of learning. I’d love to inspire more people toward such a curiosity-driven attitude. The world, past and present, really is an endlessly fascinating place.

Even so, the ignorance in the world sure can be frustrating at times. Ignorance is everywhere, including within myself. It is precisely because our ignorance is greater than our knowledge that one never has to worry about running out of things to learn. I sometimes want to devour the entire world with my mind. There is too much to know for too little time.

Aspergers and Chunking

I was reading Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman. I came across a section about Aspergers. The more I’ve read about it over the years the more I suspect that I have some form of it.*

A theory on Autism is that it is strong focus on details which can lead to not seeing the forest for the trees, but if high functioning enough this can be compensated for. The Aspie takes in so many details that this can lead to distraction and cognitive overload. There are two primary ways of dealing with this. First, Aspies might limit their interactions and narrow their focus to create a more manageable space in which to think and to feel more comfortable. Second, Aspies often learn to chunk information.

The second method is what I learned as a child when I was living in Deerfield, Illinois (a wealthy Jewish suburb of Chicago; more on this below). I was having trouble with reading and I stuttered. I had a hard time saying what a word was or even recalling the names of my friends, but I could describe what I meant when I wasn’t stuttering and the only reason I was stuttering was because I couldn’t recall.

I went to speech therapy, but even the therapist wasn’t sure my precise problem. This therapist and my mom, who also was a speech therapist, went to a talk given by Diane J. German from Northwestern University who maybe was working on her PhD dissertation at the time (my mom thinks this was in 1982 since I was diagnosed in first grade when I was 6 years old). She is now a professor emeritus at National Louis University. At the time, German was working on a new test for word recall issues. Here is an article about her work:

“The look on these children’s faces captures the problem in the most compelling way,” says Diane German, the principal researcher, who specializes in disorders of word-finding and a special education professor at National-Louis University in Chicago, Illinois. “They really struggle when they have to read a simple word like ‘nest’ out loud. Some grimace, others look stuck. Some just blurt out an answer that’s almost always wrong. Yet when asked to point to the same word on a page, they almost always get it right. Clearly they’ve got a problem and need help, but it’s not that they lack reading skills.”

One child in the study, previously diagnosed with these “word-finding” difficulties, couldn’t say “cocoon” as he tried to read a story aloud. When he got to the word, he stumbled and added, “You know, it is that brown thing hanging in the tree.”

“Clearly, this child had managed to ‘read’ the word to himself and comprehend it, or he could never have come up with that kind of description,” explains psychologist Rochelle Newman, co-author of the study and a University of Maryland professor of hearing and speech sciences. “He just couldn’t retrieve the sound pattern of the word.”

(Another piece by her: “Ask Yourself, Are You Doing Enough for Your Learners with Word Finding Difficulties?)

They immediately recognized that German was talking about my issues. German was looking to do a study. So, my mom did some of the testing for German’s study, but my mom recalls German coming to our house and testing me herself. That is how I became one of the kids used as a subject in her study. And that was the beginning of how I, unlike so many other kids, escaped the trap of sub-par remedial education and a life of low expectations.

My mom and the therapist learned about this new field of word recall issues. Before that time, no one was discussing any of this and speech therapists weren’t being taught about it. It was serendipity that I was beginning school at the time and nearby where this new field was being developed. With this new knowledge, my mom worked with my therapist to help me with word recall (along with a learning disability therapist, Diane Redfield, who taught me to read).

One of the things that helped me the most was the information chunking. My mom explained that this had to do with not just grouping similar words. It has to do with looking at words from every angle in order to understand its different aspects. It is a shifting of perspective and a breaking down into component parts. This is what allows word groupings to be useful. Grouping words goes hand in hand with chunking information. The more kinds of groupings and chunkings the increased capacity to think and communicate clearly.

I had an example of this just last night. I was thinking of early 20th century anarchists and I was trying to recall one specific person. From the word ‘anarchist’, I thought of women’s clinic. Then from that I connected to the last name Goldman. Once I had the last name, I could recall the first name and so had the full name: Emma Goldman. I couldn’t just pull the name out by itself. I had to go through a process to get to it.

That isn’t my only method. I also use something similar to chunking that is more on a feeling level. I get an overall sense of something, a person or an idea or whatever. Once I have that sense, I just have to switch into the right state of mind and slowly feel into it. Anything I’m familiar with has a feeling-sense associated with it. This form of recall isn’t always efficient, but it works when I can’t use a direct chain of connections. This feeling-sense is very useful in general, though, for it allows me to chunk info in larger ways and helps me in feeling out patterns by sensing resonances.

All of this fits into why I’ve come to suspect I have Aspergers or something very similar. The one thing that demonstrated I wasn’t low IQ as a child was my ability to see patterns. This is also a talent of many Aspies. It is because Aspies see things in chunks of details that they are able to more flexibly scan for patterns. It is precisely where various chunks crossover that a whole begins to form, but this is building from the bottom up.

I do this in my thinking and writing. When taken to its extreme, I call them thought-webs. Connections form, connections build upon connections, and then a sense of meaning emerges from that. It is an organic process of synthesizing, rather than analyzing, although analyzing may follow as a secondary process. It is looking to the data to speak for itself, finding the harmony between the seemingly diparate.

It has its strengths and weaknesses. It is greatest strength is for research. My Asperger-like extraverted intuition (MBTI Ne) goes off in a million directions finding all the details until my brain is overloaded. Then begins the filtering and consolidating of it all into a unique synthesis, but that last part can be a doozy. I sometimes never get past the brain overload.

* More recently, I’ve learned of specific language impairment. It can have behavioral symptoms similar to autism, but it’s a different condition and much more common. It’s another possibility in describing my own difficulties, as much of it fits my experience.

As a side note, there is a reason I mentioned above that Deerfield is a wealthy Jewish suburb of Chicago. Here is an interesting detail of Deerfield’s history (from Wikipedia):

“In 1959, when Deerfield officials learned that a developer building a neighborhood of large new homes planned to make houses available to African Americans, they issued a stop-work order. An intense debate began about racial integration, property values, and the good faith of community officials and builders. For a brief time, Deerfield was spotlighted in the national news as “the Little Rock of the North.” Supporters of integration were denounced and ostracized by angry residents. Eventually, the village passed a referendum to build parks on the property, thus putting an end to the housing development. Two model homes already partially completed were sold to village officials. The remaining land lay dormant for years before it was developed into what is now Mitchell Pool and Park and Jaycee Park. At the time, Deerfield’s black population was 12 people out of a total population of 11,786. This episode in Deerfield’s history is described in But Not Next Door by Harry and David Rosen, both residents of Deerfield.
“Since the early 1980s, however, Deerfield has seen a large influx of Jews and, more recently, Asians and Greeks, giving the community a more diverse ethnic makeup.”

I guess it was a wealthy Jewish suburb of Chicago that has become a wealthy Jewish, Asian and Greek suburb of Chicago.

I can tell you one thing for certain. Few poor kids, especially poor minorities, are privileged in the way I was by my early education opportunities. I went to a public school in Deerfield, but that is way different than going to a public school in the inner city of Chicago. If I had been a poor black kid in a poor black neighborhood, I would have been designated low IQ and that would have been the end of it.

How many poor black kids failing in school are as intelligent as I am? The evidence points to the answer being many.

It is one thing to experience something like a learning disability or Aspergers. It is a whole other matter to deal with a learning disability or Aspergers while dealing with poverty and prejudice.

Even ignoring racism, classism by itself is a powerful form of prejudice. My mom was raised working class and she raised us with a working class sensibility. This meant she dressed us working class. My older brother was ridiculed in the Deerfield public school. It scarred him for life and it contributed to his hatred of school ever after. Part of that had to do with our having previously lived in Bellefontaine, Ohio which is a factory town at the edge of Appalachia. Apparently, we had picked up a bit of Appalachian speech, in that the rich kids in Deerfield ridiculed Clay for saying ‘zeero’ when meaning ‘zero’.

It was a clear giveaway to our class background. So, even though we were technically upper middle class because my dad was a factory manager, we were new money upper middle class and the other kids knew it. I was, at that time, fortunate enough to have been too young to understand and maybe, because of my Aspergers, too socially oblivious to care.

If such minor forms of prejudice could have such powerful impact on my brother, imagine what more severe (and systemic) forms of prejudice will do to a child. To this day, my brother remains traumatized from his childhood experience of class prejudice and, sadly, has internalized it in ridiculing his ‘white trash’ neighbors in the small working class town he now lives in. Racism and classism, they are shitty mentalities that cause much damage, but unless you’ve been on the receiving end of prejudice it is hard to understand and appreciate.

* * *

Below is part of the section from Ungifted where Aspergers is discussed.

pp. 223-226:

An alternative perspective, which has gained a lot of research support in recent years, is that autism is merely a different way of processing incoming information. 23 Individuals with ASD have a greater attention to detail and tend to adopt a bottom-up strategy— they first perceive the parts of an object and then build up to the whole. 24 As Uta Frith puts it, people with autism have difficulty “seeing the forest for the trees.” There is neurological evidence that the unique mind of the person with ASD is due in part to an excessive number of short-distance, disorganized local connections in the prefrontal cortex (required for attention to detail) along with a reduced number of long-range or global connections necessary for integrating information from widespread and diverse brain regions. 25 As a result, people with high-functioning autism tend to have difficulty switching attention from the local to the global level. 26

This sometimes plays itself out in social communications. People with ASD focus on details in the environment most people find “irrelevant,” which can lead to some awkward social encounters. When people with ASD are shown photographs with social information (such as friends chatting) or movie clips from soap operas, their attention is focused much less on the people’s faces and eyes than the background scenery, such as light switches. 27 Differences among toddlers in attention to social speech is a robust predictor of ASD, and social attention differences in preschool lead to a deficit in theory of mind. 28 This is important , considering that an early lack of attention to social information can deprive the developing child of the social inputs and learning opportunities they require to develop expertise in social cognition. 29 It’s likely that from multiple unrewarding social interactions during the course of development, people with ASD learn that social interactions are unrewarding, and retreat even further into themselves.

Kate O’Connor and Ian Kirk argue that the atypical social behaviors found in people with ASD are more likely the result of a processing difference than a social deficit, and may represent a strategy to filter out too much sensory information . 30 Indeed , people with ASD often report emotional confusion during social interactions, in which they interpret expressions, gestures, and body language to mean something different from or even the opposite of what the other person intended. 31 Many people with ASD report that the eye region is particularly “confusing” and “frightening.” 32

Indeed, the eye region is very complex, transmitting a lot of information in a brief time span. For one thing, it’s always in motion (blinking, squinting, saccadic movement, and so on). But the eye region also can depict a wide range of emotions in rapid succession. It’s likely that over the course of many overwhelming interactions with people in the context of other sensory information coming in from the environment, people with ASD learn to look less at the eye region of faces. 33 People with ASD do frequently report being distracted by sensory information in the environment, including background noise, fluorescent light, shiny objects, body movement, and smells. 34

[ . . . ]

One robust finding is that people with ASD have enhanced perceptual functioning. 40 People with ASD tend to perform better than people without ASD symptoms on IQ subtests that involve nonverbal fluid reasoning and the segmentation and reconstruction of novel visual designs. 41 Individuals with ASD also perform better than controls on the Embedded Figures Task (EFT), which requires quick detection of a target within a complex pattern. 42 The ASD tendency to see patterns as collections of details instead of as wholes helps people with ASD to segment and chunk visual information, freeing up visual working memory resources and allowing them to handle a higher perceptual load than typical adults. 43

Matt Cardin: What I read in 2009

I was just now checking out Matt Cardin’s blog The Teeming Brain.  He had some new posts since the last time I visited.  I was impressed by one in particular: What I read in 2009.  He listed a wide variety of reading material.  Some I was already familiar with, but there was much I hadn’t come across before.  I particularly appreciated his listing of articles.  The following are a few that caught my attention.

Whose Country?
By Andrew Sullivan

Buchanan, of all people, should know better than these tedious recurring explosions of racial panic. And, of course, he does know better. He has read more history than most pundits. He is personally a civil and decent man. But he feels these things in such a profound and tribal way that what he knows is submerged by tribal fear and expressed as hateful hackery. But this much is true and deserves restating:

Black Americans have shed blood in every American war since the Revolution. This country, even the very Capitol building in which today’s legislators now demand to see the birth certificate of the first black president, was built on the sweat and sinew of slaves. Before we were people in the eyes of the law, before we had the right to vote, before we had a black president, we were here, helping make this country as it is today. We are as American as it gets. And frankly, the time of people who think otherwise is passing. If that’s the country Buchanan wants to hold onto, well, he’s right, he is losing it.

And about time too.

I couldn’t agree more.

Rand’s Atlas Is Shrugging With a Growing Load
By Amity Shlaes

Some assumed the libertarian philosopher would fall from view when the Berlin Wall fell. Or that at least there would be a sense of mission accomplished. One Rand fan, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, wrote in his memoir that he regretted Rand hadn’t lived until 1989 or 1990. She’d missed the collapse of communism that she had so often predicted.

But “Atlas Shrugged” is becoming a political “Harry Potter” because Rand shone a spotlight on a problem that still exists: Not pre-1989 Soviet communism, but 2009-style state capitalism. Rand depicted government and companies colluding in the name of economic rescue at the expense of the entrepreneur. That entrepreneur is like the titan Atlas who carries the rest of the world on his shoulders — until he doesn’t.

Yeah, this is true to an extent.  I, however, think it misses a major issue. 

The companies colluding with the government once were entrepreneurs themselves.  The entrepreneurs became successful by beating out the other entrepreneurs.  As history shows, many successful entrepreneurs became powerful by fighting dirty which included using political influence when it was convenient.  The problem is that many of these pro-capitalists use Rand’s capitalistic mythology to support their views of state corporatism. 

Sadly, Rand’s vision of honest, hardworking entrepreneurs are the exception to the rule; and they aren’t the ones that get filthy rich.  In reality as it is, entrepreneurs are as devious as any other group of people including politicians.  There is a very good reason that Rand is most popular for her fiction that reads like Romance novels.  She does tell a good story.

Critical thinking? You need knowledge
By Diane Ravitch

Just a couple of years later, “the project method’’ took the education world by storm. Instead of a sequential curriculum laid out in advance, the program urged that boys and girls engage in hands-on projects of their own choosing, ideally working cooperatively in a group. It required activity, not docility, and awakened student motivation. It’s remarkably similar to the model advocated by 21st-century skills enthusiasts.

This article does make some good criticisms.  However, the traditional method of teaching is problematic in its own way.  Traditional rote memory does have its merits, but it has its weaknesses in a world of such vastly increasing amounts of knowledge.  It is true that the hands-on approach doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of helping kids to really understand.

This article isn’t criticizing critical thinking.  Neither the traditional rote memorizing nor the modern hands-on methodology teaches critical thinking skills to any great degree.  I personally think that education should include the best of both of these methods all the while teaching actual critical thinking skills.  I don’t have any solutions to offer, but I’m always irritated by the attitude that the past was better.

The problem, for certain, isn’t that good teaching methodologies don’t exist.  The problem is that teachers have little motivation to take risks by stepping outside of pre-packaged curriculum.  Most parents aren’t wealthy enough to send their kids to private schools that offer the best of education and most politicians aren’t interested in encouraging public schools to offer the best of education.

Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students
By David Glenn

If you’ve ever sat through a teaching seminar, you’ve probably heard a lecture about “learning styles.” Perhaps you were told that some students are visual learners, some are auditory learners, and others are kinesthetic learners. Or maybe you were given one of the dozens of other learning-style taxonomies that scholars and consultants have developed.

Almost certainly, you were told that your instruction should match your students’ styles. For example, kinesthetic learners—students who learn best through hands-on activities—are said to do better in classes that feature plenty of experiments, while verbal learners are said to do worse.

Now four psychologists argue that you were told wrong. There is no strong scientific evidence to support the “matching” idea, they contend in a paper published this week in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. And there is absolutely no reason for professors to adopt it in the classroom.

I was prepared to be critical of this article, but it turns out to have been a fair analysis of a complex topic.  Basically, the conclusion is that there needs to be more research.

Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor
By W.A. Pannapacker

The Great Books—along with all those Time-Life series—were often “purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing,” Jacoby writes. They represented an old American belief—now endangered—that “anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself.”

What has been lost, according to Jacoby, is a culture of intellectual effort. We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed. If we are determined to get on in life, we believe it will not have anything to do with our ability to reference Machiavelli or Adam Smith at the office Christmas party. The rejection of the Great Books signifies a declining belief in the value of anything without a direct practical application, combined with the triumph of a passive entertainment—as anyone who teaches college students can probably affirm.

For all their shortcomings, the Great Books—along with many other varieties of middlebrow culture—reflected a time when the liberal arts commanded more respect. They were thought to have practical value as a remedy for parochialism, bigotry, social isolation, fanaticism, and political and economic exploitation. The Great Books had a narrower conception of “greatness” than we might like today, but their foundational ideals were radically egalitarian and proudly intellectual.

As Beam concludes, “The Great Books are dead. Long live the Great Books.” And, I might add: Long live middlebrow culture.

I’m always of a mixed opinion about The Great Books.  I do think that many of them are great for a reason, but I’m also a fan of lowbrow philosophizing and counterculture thought.  I want the best of both worlds.  What I dislike is ignorance.  I don’t like the populist ignorance of intellectual knowledge and I don’t like the intellectual elite ignorance of anything that exists outside of their specialization.

This middlebrow perspective seems admirable in that it’s taking a broad perspective.  It was originally the purpose of a liberal arts education.  It’s at the heart of the ideal of meritocracy.  It feels like the reality of meritocracy is dead, but the ideal is still lovely.  This article relates to another article (Multicultural Critical Theory. At B-School?) which I wrote about in another post (Interesting Stuff on the Web: 1/13/10).

Please Save This Nation From the Birthers
By Laurie Fendrich

Instead, I’d like to ask everyone involved in education–at any level–the following question. Where did we go wrong? Why did we end up with so many citizens who have been through our schools who don’t know how to distinguish between fiction and fact, or rumor and truth?

Some, like Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, blame the Internet. Would that it were so simple. True, it takes only a few bucks to get yourself a Web site where you can post whatever slimy hogwash you want. And even the dullest crayons in the box can stumble their way to that post. But posting hogwash and mustering passionate followers is an entirely different matter. “True believers” (as opposed to people using their reason) frequently morph into an ugly mob. (Shouting down your Congressional representative, for example, constitutes ugly mob behavior.)

Scariest of all is the “mainstream media,” which keeps stoking this stinky fire–especially Lou Dobbs at CNN, and with the implicit approval of CNN. After giving credence to “Birthers” by saying, “Well, perhaps, maybe, blah, blah, blah,” Dobbs wasn’t even chastised. Instead, CNN’s president Jonathan Klein hid behind the wretchedly abused excuse of “freedom of speech.” Freedom of speech! That lofty idea, born of the Enlightenment, now used as a smokescreen for a major news organization to deliberately spread malicious rumors? (If you’re wondering about the reason for CNN’s behavior, you don’t need to look far. Hint: money.)

The Birther movement reflects our failure as parents and teachers to educate our children. We no longer seem to care if they become rational adults. This absurd movement reflects a wholesale abandonment of the original American idea of an educated, democratic citizenry.

Three definitely is a failure somewhere.  If it isn’t the education system at the root of the problem, then I don’t know what is.  There will always be an irrational element to society, but it’s perplexing how it becomes mainstream in a society that has so much educational opportunities.

The Rural Brain Drain
By Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas

What is going on in small-town America? The nation’s mythology of small towns comes to us straight from the The Music Man’s set designers. Many Americans think about flyover country or Red America only during the culture war’s skirmishes or campaign season. Most of the time, the rural crisis takes a back seat to more visible big-city troubles. So while there is a veritable academic industry devoted to chronicling urban decline, small towns’ struggles are off the grid.

And yet, upon close inspection, the rural and urban downturns have much in common, even though conventional wisdom casts the small town as embodiment of all that is right with America and the inner city as all that is wrong with it.

I’ve been thinking about this recently.  It’s from these rural areas that much of the outrage arises.  Combined with how electoral colleges represent underpopulated areas, this creates a weird political dynamic.  The problematic part is that the media pays a lot of attention to the outrage that results but little attention to the social context that creates that outrage.