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>> Friday, July 09, 2010

I imagine you've seen this: radio and television personality Glenn Beck is starting some kind of online seminar series he's calling "Glenn Beck University". The jokes write themselves, and that's really why I've been avoiding it (even though Roger Ebert made that difficult on Twitter, spending what seemed like several days having entirely too much fun with tweets like this one).

But after watching P.Z. Myers' link to Beck's video announcement, there was one thing that seemed worth commenting on. The video can be watched here (embedding is disabled), and I recommend you suffer through it and see if you can spot the biggest and most profoundly anti-intellectual goof Beck makes in it. I'll be here when you get back.

Didja catch it? It's all bad, but the thing that's absolutely the worst is right there in the very first seconds of it when Beck talks about zinging a history professor with a trivia question, and it goes on and on with Beck's grab-bag of name-drops, factoids and books. The common thread is that Beck seems to think that knowing things about a subject is the same as being educated about it.

No field, whether you're talking about the liberal arts or the sciences, is memorization. The ability to recite facts is not an education. What a good college program teaches, rather, is how to think about a problem, analyze it and organize an answer. If one needs to know about the Black Tom explosion, one can look it up. (It's not something I knew about until Beck mentioned it, frankly, so look it up is exactly what I did.) How to look things up is one of the things you get taught in college.

And it's one of the first things you get taught because it's only a foundational skill, not an end to itself. If you graduate from a college program in _____ and all you know how to do is find answers to things you didn't know, you haven't really learned much of anything at all. What you should have after your education if you actually learned something meaningful is how to put things you looked up together and assemble them into ideas, making connections between these ideas and having learned how to assemble those ideas into thoughts.

Which, hate to say it, doesn't seem like a skill set you're likely to acquire watching Beck's video series. What one expects from what Beck advertises is that you'll be sitting through some fellows reciting facts which you can then turn around and use as zingers when you want to surprise all those people who actually learned how to think at some point in their lives; here's as good a point as any for the obvious aside that some people graduate college without learning to think and other people learn to think outside of college, which is really sort of beside the point (college is intended to serve a purpose, whether it succeeds or not, while reinventing informed critical thinking for yourself instead of being taught how to do it is an inefficient way to go about it).

There's nothing wrong with sitting through such a series, or with paying for it. What is a little appalling, however, is the way Beck promotes sitting through this series and learning factoids and trivia you can recite on call as being somehow equivalent to learning how to apply and engage knowledge. And it's this fundamental misunderstanding that can really be found at the heart of a lot of American anti-intellectualism.

I'm using some weasel-words in that last sentence because American anti-intellectualism is an ironically complex subject with a history going back at least as far as the 1830s, and I'm only singling out one sizable component of it. There seems to be a long-standing tension between people who have learned how to engage the world intellectually, critically, analytically on the one hand and those who lack that skill and are, for want of a better word, intimidated by it. I don't mean to imply anything like real inferiority; let's say you're an educated person who's fairly good at thinking (I like to put myself in this category) and you've met somebody who is just smarter than you are, really, who can think on an entirely different level (and I've met people like this): then you probably know how it can be as intimidating as it might be inspiring or impressive--there you are, thinking you grok things pretty well, and then here's this other person who's noticing things you missed and putting them together in ways that seem really, really obvious in retrospect while it's equally obvious you would've taken a million years to get to the same place if you could've gotten there at all. That experience, if you know it (and admit it, you probably do--or maybe you're too smart to be reading this blog, honestly), scales: imagine an adequate thinker returning, say, to a home where nobody's gotten very far along in being able to really intellectually tear something apart and how they feel in the presence of this superior thinker who's maybe only kind of average in the great scheme of things.

There are a couple of ways you can react to somebody who's a better thinker than you are, and I think education plays a role here, too. If you've received an okay education, you've probably been taught by or read something by someone who blew you out of the water and were humbled an impressed; at any rate, you've learned that you're not quite as special as you thought you were, and you might even get used to the idea that you're smart at some things but other people are smarter. (You've surely been taught by and read things by people who weren't as smart as you are, but there again, if you learned from that you learned there's a whole range of ability in any subject.) At least one hopes this is how you react, because it's a rational way to cope, really.

But the other way you can react, and this is all-too-common, is to seethe with jealousy and decide that Mr. Smarty-Pants is just trying to impress everybody and you would have thought of whatever he did, he just managed to get there first, possibly by cheating in some obscurely-sensed but inscrutable manner. This is, one fears, the Beckian way to react, and it's pretty irrational because it takes a sort of blind egalitarianism past the point of noble idealism and into the absurd. "I could have thought of that or done that or said that," is among the stupidest things anyone can say when presented with something new, because it begs the question, "Well then, why didn't you?" (with an obligatory "dumbass" whispered at the end of the question).

Hence Beck's inordinate pride in zinging the history prof he mentions. Nobody knows everything, but it's obvious Beck felt pretty smart asking the unnamed professor a question that stumped him. The problem is that the question wasn't something like, "What can we learn from contemporary reactions to the Big Tom attack that can be applied to present anti-terrorist policies?" or something like that (and that's not even that good or deep a question, I'm just riffing one out) but was instead more along the lines of a trivia question; I guess if it was wings-and-trivia night at a local bar and I really cared about winning more than I cared about the company, I should be sitting at Beck's table instead of the prof's, but which one do I want analyzing historical trends in national security policies?

(And all this, you may have noticed, ignores specialization. I mean, for fuck's sake, for all we know about Beck's dumbfounded history professor, he might be an expert on Depression-era Appalachian migration or fifth-century BCE Gallic military tactics or Stalinist fiscal policies or something. For better or worse, every field of human knowing has become narrow and deep, and I'd hardly feel impressed with myself if I stumped a microbiologist with a question about quantum physics or a distinguished professor of medieval neo-Platonism with a pop-quiz about Hegelian dialectics.)

It's a shame, really, that the kind of people who sign up for Beck's "course"--and this will likely include some people who technically received an education and have a college diploma to show for it and who should have learned better but didn't--are exactly the kind of people who will stuff their craniums full of trivia and rote-memorized pet crank theories of Beck's speakers and think it's an education. They have the idea that learning stuff means knowing stuff, and have no idea that knowing stuff has little-or-no bearing on an ability to think in an educated way about stuff.

Still, I guess they'll be good folks to know on wings night, if you can put up with the chatter.


Janiece Friday, July 9, 2010 at 10:25:00 AM EDT  

How very timely. I'm currently reading "Idiot America," and this latest Beckian escapade serves to put a big, fat "Q.E.D." at the end of Pierce's thesis.

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