Saturday, January 30, 2010

Is attention-fracturing modern technology (and professional specialization) making today's students worse than parrots?

Thoughts from two writers, David Gelernter and Thomas Bertonneau.

David Gelernter:

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."
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."
Thomas Bertonneau:

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.”

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.
One wonders, how will we remember the age of Obama?


Dag said...

I've posted a couple of things at No Dhimmitude recently that likely fall on deaf ears: two videos of sound effects with unimportant visuals I can't rid the videos of. The point of both videos is so obvious and, to me, humorous that I laugh even now just thinking about them. I'm in a tiny minority of humour-extremists.

So too it seems with the scene Bertonneau writes of, Bogart laughing in the hallway. I think we spoke of that scene recently. I loved it, seeing Bogart as a fine actor and a thinking one. His "acting" in the scene was pretty obvious, but that he could (would and did) do it and still be a "tough guy" is so cool to see, that he would ham up a scene without fear of losing his image; and to see him now, at my age, as Bogart a youngish man doing so in a time when being so exaggerated or unmanly was frowned upon, gives him boffo praise in my mind. His uncoolness appeals greatly, because he is so cool, and has the confidence and control to be uncool when it suits him or is needed.

Somewhere from Quebec, I think, is a songline like, "Everybody wants to be Marilyn Monroe/ Everybody wants everyone to love them/ but nobody, nobody loves everyone."

Sam Spade is cool and he is so cool he doesn't have to be cool to be so. It doesn't matter to him if everybody loves him: he is a hard-core moralist who will not bend for love or money. He can dump the gal he loves because she's a crook; and he can pass up an easy score with the cheating wife of his low-life dead partner because he's a hard-core moralist who still worked his job with a low-life partner. And he can laugh like a boy when he does some really cool stunt and gets away with it. Tragedy and comedy and high morality, it's not likely to pop out at someone who specializes in watching tv, I think. Those who miss that are definitely conned out of the good in life, hard as it is.

Sending Mary Astor to The Chair, that's high tragedy. A guy who can laugh and do that too, that's totally cool.

truepeers said...

Yes, I think we spoke of it too. So I posted it in part for you, and glad to see your inspiration...

Good god, does anyone really think we all want to be Marilyn Monroe, even if we are all 20-yr-old women looking for looks? As you say, not tragedy. Maybe I'm becoming cool at last because I keep bumping into people I don't want to like me...:)

Dag said...

I missed a chance to make a friend recently: a black guy sitting out having coffee uptown, a cool guy, for sure, who had White guys stopping by and saying to their White guy friends, "Hey, this is my (black) friend, X." The third time that happened, the Black guy lost it in a very cool way, to my mind, and yelled, "You ain't my friend! I don't want no friends!" The Black guy was definitely not cool, which is "coolness" in itself. There's being a "victim," and there's manipulating ones coolness. Both are uncool. This guy did neither. But then, I didn't see any white girls hit on him. That might have been a different story. Mind, he would hae had to compete with me and my Chick Magnet: I casually left a copy of a book in plain view of passer-by babes, "A conservative History of the Left." I figured even at main and Broadway, a trendy part of town, the babes would be all over me. No such luck. Well, no exactly: I did see one gal with the strongest will-power any woman has ever possessed: she walked past me and didn't even skip a beat. That is coolness, resisting both me and my book at the same time.

Not being able to read faces, missing the whole story because people are captivated by images and imaginings flashing past, filling in the gaps with day-dreams about how it like is because that's the way it should be; and then believing it to be so because that's how one has decided it is; all narratives flowing into one grand narrative of wholeness and meaning of ones own making: I see Obama in the making. I see teenagers writing poetry and dismissing Eliot as a dead white man. I see people falling asleep during the St. Matthew Passion. I see people who tell me the Bible and the Qur'an are the same, though the latter is assumed to be better for being "multi-cultural" somehow. I also see theologians complaining that Internet comments are too long. But to my great relief, I see Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. II waiting for me....

[He exists, laughing like Bogie.]

truepeers said...

Ahh, I was wondering how that theologian was going to respond to your opus....

truepeers said...

Thanks to Charles for adding the excellent frame grabs from the film.

Dag said...

I should slow down enough to proofread and perhaps think a bit before I hit the send button. But life is short.

Everybody wants to be Marilyn Monroe, a star, the centre of attention, someone everybody loves; but nobody wants to be in the audience loving. Or so go the lyrics. Everybody wants to be famous and important; but to have to pay attention to someone else, that's not so cool for some. Nothing changes, not now and not in the Victorian period or any other. Theologians still want to be Marilyn Monroe, still want others to see how cool they are, showing off and being the high-point of the show, even if they're just bit-players walking past another's life. Call them on it, like the Black guy did, like Bogart does, and they fall apart. The Black guy must have gone home and burst out laughing when no one saw him. I like to think so.

That guy must have found the flash and fancy of being a prop in other people's dramas at last too much to bear. He might have sat and said, to no one but himself, that he has a complete being in himself, a concept most others would smile and say, "Yeah, brother, I too can dig it even if I'm not as Black as you, bro." and if he shouts them down and goes to some private place and laughs!? Well, it makes me laugh to think of him doing so. But I like to make the world as it should be, too. I like to think these things, but I leave room for reality, a force stronger than I. Everybody is their own Marilyn Monroe, I guess, in their own play. When they lose sight of the plot and the fact that they need the audience, then the thing flops. Then they whinge.

I see kids, not so much anymore, who think that today is eternal, that today is all there should be, that this now is the eternal now; that all other time prior, its highs and lows, that all other lives are silly at best, evil more likely, and certainly not like their now; and thus they promote the now as the Good, themselves at its priests and philosophers, the Gnostic knowers of the Truth, of MTV's latest and the Great. These leaves in this wind, right now, are the eternal leaves in the eternal wind. Then, tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, life creeps past them, leaving a whole in the now that was, making it all and ash-heap to fill up again with today's now. All our yesterdays are old litter, out of today's fashion, shabby, silly, and not to be taken seriously by those whoo know. And who can tell anyone anything about Marilyn Monroe? She died, a silly woman, yesterday's suicide who didn't mean anything at all to most but their own projection, the light bulb burnt out, the curtain fallen with those leaves.

So I usually laugh and carry on. It's not very funny, but it sure is humorous.

truepeers said...

Nothing changes, not now and not in the Victorian period or any other.

Heck, I'll call you on that. No doubt the problem of status being a game of few big winners and in comparison many losers is a problem throughout time, at least since the rise of hierarchical agrarian societies. But the way this game is played is indeed ever-changing. Our times, for example, could not produce another Marilyn Monroe, let alone a Victorian celebrity like say Darwin who continues to hold down a status no scientist of our time, however great, can aspire to have. On the other hand, the 1950s could not have produced an Obama or Palin.

The way in which the centre, that we would like to but usually can't occupy, changes its figures that are ever finding new ways to attract us and push us away, is the very essence of history, over which we are bound to obsess. For example, it's not MTV that matters much anymore, but Youtube, a different game. Kids today barely even know what a real 20th century cult of celebrity is or was like. We're in a Warholian world. Your cool, invoking the never-changing essence, is a Platonic form of cool. But, alas, you will find few young people today who "get" the Platonic and will come to invest time with us in dialogue.

But not I'm coming full circle to share in your laugh. You see people constantly running and you say "it never changes"; and I see people constantly running for/after changes.