Two years after the bombing, Theodore J. Kaczynski, who would shortly be identified as the Unabomber, sent Gelernter a letter: "People with advanced degrees aren't as smart as they think they are," he wrote. "If you'd had any brains you would have realized that there are a lot of people out there who resent bitterly the way techno-nerds like you are changing the world." Gelernter himself, in fact, has always been profoundly ambivalent about technology. "Because David has a concern for the whole of human life, he doesn't fall for the view that technology can provide answers to our deepest needs and aspirations," says Kass. Gelernter's byline routinely appears over articles that include statements like: "American schools would do better if they junked their Macs and PC's and let students fool around somewhere else. Schools should be telling students to reads books, not play with computers."Thomas Bertonneau:
Gelernter traffics in ideas, but he despises intellectuals and blames them for irreparably degrading American culture. "Stop any person on the street and ask them to name a living poet, a living painter, or a living composer. There will be complete silence," Gelernter says. "When I was a child, artists were heroes. Everyday people knew Robert Frost's poems, and not only people like me, a respected Yale professor. Classical music was moving closer to the middle class, Leonard Bernstein concerts were broadcast on television. It was a marvelous thing to have poets, novelists, painters, and musicians representing the middle and working classes and giving them greater and greater artistic depth. All of this," he says, sweeping his arm through the air, "was killed or at least dealt a very serious blow by the encroachment of the universities."
Gelernter is perched on a stool in his airy, sunlit kitchen. Spread before him is a light lunch of crackers, cheese, hummus, and cookies. In an adjacent room, Audrey, a bright-red 10-year-old parrot, and Flint, a cockatiel, bustle about in their cages, which are positioned in front of a television tuned to Fox News. (He and his wife, he says later, leave the television on because the birds enjoy the stimulation. Audrey and Flint only watch Fox News. "I don't want them misinformed," Gelernter explains with a grin.)
Gelernter places himself firmly in the ranks of men—and they are almost all men—like E.B. White, so-called nonintellectuals who are dubious of ideology and abstraction, as well as patriotic (a rare quality among contemporary intellectuals, he says). Such figures—Gelernter's heroes—include White's colleagues at The New Yorker, A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell; Irving Kristol; and Norman Podhoretz, among others, all of whom operated, by and large, outside academe. "They were the smartest ones," he says. "Compare T.S. Eliot to an English professor at Yale." Now, Gelernter continues, academe has taken over the intelligentsia, turning "narrow-mindedness into a virtue, narrow-mindedness intellectually and narrow-mindedness politically." He scorns specialization as "a killer virus," the "toxic disease of the modern intelligentsia."
In response to complaints about the steadily declining preparation of incoming freshmen and the performance and interest levels of college students in general, apologists often tell us that while today’s undergraduates indeed read less well than their precursors of three or four decades ago (and have read much less), they are “media savvy.”One wonders, how will we remember the age of Obama?
This claim means that although students respond less than acutely to the demands and subtleties of the printed word, they possess keen understanding when it comes to images, especially moving images, and the spoken word. According to this idea, the contemporary college student is fully competent within the emergent cultural environment, dominated by the audio-visual media, in which books (quaint objects!) assume second place. The proliferation in humanities departments of “film-studies,” “media-studies,” and “popular-culture” courses is, in part, predicated on this chain of suppositions.
I remain strongly skeptical.
The conviction has grown on me that those who do best in a film course are those whose literacy is most developed. Those whose literacy is least developed, and whose general knowledge is restricted even when their acquaintance with current commercial entertainment is encyclopedic, perform only at a mediocre level. They miss as much in the movie as they do in the poem, play, or novel.
There is a moment in The Maltese Falcon when the hard-nosed detective, played by Humphrey Bogart, paying a visit to con man Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet), must feign chagrin and simulate a loss of temper. His purpose is to misdirect Gutman into thinking that he (Gutman) has gained the upper hand in their dealings.
As Spade leaves Gutman’s hotel room and takes a few steps along the corridor, all the exasperated tightness in Spade’s face—seen in his scowling mouth and narrowed eyes—relents and he breaks out in a broad and satisfied smile.
I cannot imagine that any ordinary audience member in the film’s first run, some seventy years ago, would have mistaken the signs: Spade has been as cool as a cucumber all along. He faked his anger, Gutman “bought it,” and the detective is as pleased as punch with himself for having pulled it off.
How did the students perceive it?
In a class of fifteen or sixteen students, hardly any indicated, in writing, that they had understood the tactical artificiality of Spade’s anger. Only the older, “non-traditional” students and one or two of the younger students could see Spade’s display as a critical technique for misleading Gutman in order to put him at a disadvantage in trying to locate the storied objet-d’art of the film’s title.
Some students’ explanations of Spade’s erupting grin were that he was frightened by Gutman and happy to be getting away from him, or that Spade was, like most people, prone to being frustrated and angry at times and that he had inappropriately taken his feelings out on an innocent party. Not only did the students, by and large, fail to understand the particular scene, but they could not even differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys or understand the motives of the protagonist. In short, they could not read faces.
In a series of articles for the Pope Center in 2009 I commented on the college students’ symptoms of what I dubbed (with no claim to originality) “post-literacy.” The term designates a society—modern Western society including its North American offshoot—in which alluring and fascinating technologies have massively subordinated the written word, the implicit rationality and discriminatory subtlety of which form the intangible bases of what educated people recognize as the civilized achievement. One effect of literacy, especially the literacy of narrative, on cognitive development is to create awareness of continuity, sequence, and ethical causality, especially as the last unfolds in a long-term temporal scheme. Today, many college students lack this awareness.
Think of any Regency-period or Victorian novel. The decisions of the characters early in the story bring forth their consequences with schematic obviousness in the later chapters. The plots are almost propositional. One can say that, in the upshot, Smith or Jones is finally happy or unhappy because he made this or that decision in the first place, which inevitably brought him where he ends.
To grasp the patterns, the reader must possess sufficient wit to remember in chapter two what he has read in chapter one, and so forth, right through to the denouement. The flashing screens of our techno-entertainments have grossly eroded the power of young people to pay attention with sufficient discipline to see such patterns.