Skip to comments.The Education of Gesture
Posted on 07/26/2006 4:41:58 PM PDT by Axhandle
Cognitive scientists are generally agreed that one of the most important faculties of the human brain and its associated sensory apparatus is the ability to detect patterns. It is patterns that make the world intelligible, that carry meaning, that make it possible for the past to be a guide to the future. So primordial and so powerful is this faculty, however, that it brings with it also a large capacity for error, for imputing patterns where there are none, or at least none that are meaningful.
It is with that in mind that I hesitate to claim that I have detected a pattern in some things that I have read lately. But denying that there is a pattern in these bits of published news and opinion strains my bump of skepticism. See what you think.
1. A student at the University of Iowa published an opinion piece in the campus newspaper titled "On schooling's useless lessons." The upshot was that she is in college to qualify for her chosen profession and cannot understand why she is required to take courses in subjects she deems irrelevant to her goals. Listen:
"[M]ost students aren't going to be mathematicians, historians, or chemists. So why do we have to take these classes?...
"Not only did the gen-ed classes waste my time and money, but they also hurt my GPA....Statistics and astronomy bored me, so I opted not to attend class and neglected to study for them....As it turned out, my GPA was below 3.0 after my first year. I had to take summer classes to raise it....I cannot imagine what I would have done if I were not admitted [to my chosen professional course]. I would have had to change my major.
"How is this fair?"
If that doesn't break your heart, you're made of sterner stuff than I.
2. A week later an AP wire story appeared in my local newspaper, informing me that an heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune has surrendered her 2004 degree from the University of Southern California after a classmate revealed that she had done the Walton scion's homework for over three years, netting about $20,000 for her efforts.
3. Same day. New York magazine published an article that opens thus:
"This story begins, as it inevitably must, in the Old Country.
"At some point during the tenth century, a group of Jews abandoned the lush hills of Lucca, Italy, and -- at the invitation of Charlemagne -- headed for the severer climes of the Rhineland and Northern France."
The author is a frequent and, presumably, trusted contributor, and New York magazine is, so far as I know, a respectable publication. So who was responsible for fact-checking? If you haven't caught it yet, here's the problem: Charlemagne died in 814 CE. No one is expected to know that particular fact, but many generally educated persons might recall that he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor at Christmas in 800. This would make his survival into the tenth century highly unlikely on the face of it.
Two points define a line; are three sufficient to establish a trend? Let me just note that the student's intended major was journalism; that the heiress's degree was from the Annenberg School for Communication at USC; and that, obviously, the New York author is a working journalist. One, already in the business, evidently doesn't know a simple fact of history (and didn't check it out). The other two have made quite manifest, in their distinctive ways, their disdain for knowledge.
But my aim is not to disrespect journalists or the schools in which they train. The problem I am suggesting is far wider. Thus my last piece of evidence:
4. Same day. The Wikipedia, an online project to create an encyclopedia by means of contributions and editing by volunteers, irrespective of their knowledge of their subjects or ability to write coherently, has just lately begun to come to grips with the fact that some substantial proportion of the articles thus generated are substandard. They have therefore launched "Project Galatea," whose aim is to have still more self-selected volunteers impose "large-scale, sweeping stylistic improvements." Note that the improvements hoped for are stylistic, not a matter of accuracy or adequacy. In the "Philosophy" of the project, prospective stylists are told this:
"While there is no need to be an expert on the article you're working on (in fact, there are some advantages to being completely ignorant of the subject to start with), by the time you're done, you will have at least a working knowledge of the topic."
Another point, spang on my line. How worried ought I to be? How worried are you?
Here is what I wonder: Whence this notion that citizens, especially those who aspire to careers of informing the rest of us, need not bother with what once would have been considered the common body of knowledge? And where on earth did the idea arise that knowledge might actually be a hindrance?
I do not blame computers or the Internet. Well...except for one thought that gives me pause. How is it that these tools that were to make achieving our lofty goals easier have instead been commandeered to move the goal posts?
What or whom then to blame, if any? Nicholas Carr has written lately in his blog "Rough Type" about the other-worldliness of much of the literature of the World Wide Web and the simple, communal, yet transcendent virtues it is imagined to foster. He notes, too, the strong preference for the amateur over the professional. I'm inclined to see this as a particular instance of a more general phenomenon, the replacement of the adult by the adolescent as the paradigm citizen.
Adolescents already know all they need to know. They are uninterested in what may have come before them and confident that it did so for naught. They see instantly into the heart of the world's problems and believe them to be simple of solution. They value sincerity, authenticity, getting real, over experience or effort. Approved attitude trumps informed opinion with them, and does so by means of social pressure rather than by, say, demonstrated efficacy. And their sense of entitlement can sometimes border on solipsism.
For some time now, and increasingly, our schooling, our politics, and our cultural life have played to the adolescent in us. Young students are encouraged to focus on their feelings and to express them in any way they find comfortable, while teachers are discouraged from correcting them. Officeholders and seekers rely on the sound bite and the scandal, not to mention their allies in the braying media, to steer or frustrate public policy. Jejune amusements are labeled "Adult." And the marketers who control our media and what passes for our national dialogue are only too happy to pander to the free-spending of any age or persuasion. It's a no-sweat world, and welcome to it.
The adolescentization of politics, begun in the 1960s, has given us the politics of gesture. A couple of years ago some 60-ish women of my acquaintance, as a protest of the Iraq war, went down to the beach and took their clothes off. This seemed to satisfy them, though as I watched the newspapers closely for days afterward I could detect no effect. We are increasingly countenancing an education of gesture, in which self-expression does not merely take precedence over but displaces that which is worth expressing; in which the tokens of achievement are wholly disconnected from achievement itself; in which teachers-in-training are being turned out of their chosen career, not on account of a subpar GPA, but because they fail to display the approved attitude toward certain issues of "social justice'; in which, to put it in plain and concrete terms, a majority of our high school graduates cannot read with comprehension the sixth-grade McGuffey Reader of yore. And do they care? lol
Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (Booklocker.com, 2004).
I've had the first argument numerous times with people attending universities. They seem to think the U is some kind of tech school where they learn only their chosen field and nothing else. I try to explain that a UNIVERSity education is about obtaining a breadth of knowledge, a "UNIVERSE" of learning, not just a narrow band. I suggest to them that an unwillingness to be exposed to a variety of subjects, some of them admittedly obscure and irrelevant to one's chosen profession, might lend itself better to a community college or certification program. No, they want the university degree, just not the university program.
Bravo! Excellent post!
Anybody who can use jejune in a sentence and make it light up the page must have a passing acquaintance with the power of the written word; yet, as he admits, no one is going to bother reading it.
Seat Belts save 10,000 lives
The story then went on to relate how during the 90s there was a steady decline in traffic deaths of about 200 people per year. The first couple paragraphs described how modern brakes, better tire treads, better highway engineering of crash prone locations and stricter DUI enforcement all contributed to the safety improvement.
Then the final paragraph attributed the entire improvement in traffic deaths to seatbelts, totally negating the previous paragraphs.
As one who has been in P&C insurance all my adult life, first as a loss prevention and safety specialist, and now in management of the databases that have the raw data and the statistics the facts are clear.
One can find NO CORRELATION at all between seat belts and traffic deaths. Look at the timing of when each state passed voluntary and then primary seatbelt laws. Look at the published statistics on adoption rate by geographic or demographic group. Compare each those to the crash, injury and death rates. There is no correlaton. The two states with the weakest seat belt laws have the lowest fatality rates.
In contrast, with each of the other factors listed, DUI, highway engineering, anti-lock brakes, etc a strong correlation with specific factual proof to support the statistics can show that they were each very effective in saving both life, limb and property.
But things like seatbelts have become religious icons. To not believe in them is to be condemned to hell.
How does one play the guardian of western culture and use CE instead of AD.
Sadly, I believe that he's correct. Excellent article; thanks for posting it.
The adolescentization of politics, begun in the 1960s, has given us the politics of gesture. A couple of years ago some 60-ish women of my acquaintance, as a protest of the Iraq war, went down to the beach and took their clothes off. This seemed to satisfy them, though as I watched the newspapers closely for days afterward I could detect no effect. We are increasingly countenancing an education of gesture, in which self-expression does not merely take precedence over but displaces that which is worth expressing...was made better, and sadder, by Milan Kundera in his (fantastic) book Immortality.
She walked around the pool toward the exit. She passed the lifeguard, and after she had gone some three or four steps beyond him, she turned her head, smiled, and waved to him. At that instant I felt a pang in my heart! That smile and that gesture belonged to a twenty-year-old girl! Her arm rose with bewitching ease. It was as if she were playfully tossing a brightly colored ball to her lover. That smile and that gesture had charm and elegance, while the face and the body no longer had any charm. It was the charm of a gesture drowning in the charmlessness of the body. But the woman, though she must of course have realized that she was no longer beautiful, forgot that for the moment. There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless. In any case, the instant she turned, smiled, and waved to the young lifeguard (who couldn't control himself and burst out laughing), she was unaware of her age. The essence of her charm, independent of time, revealed itself for a second in that gesture and dazzled me. I was strangely moved.
And here it is, almost august already!