Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Reverend Father, make our intellects less than yours"

Susan Jacoby wrote an excellent article entitled The Dumbing of America. The piece appeared in the February 17th edition of The Washington Post. Here is the article with my own comments in italics. If you would like the read the entire article, it is available at the website of the Washington Post. Kudos to Susan Jacoby for hitting the nail on the head, and especially for fearlessly stating the truth. I provide my comments in regard to the Church. Indeed the dumbing-down can be witnessed not only in everyday life, but especially with the Church. Note the context of my comments. I commend and applaud those who do much for education and who foster knowledge, but sadly, as Ms. Jacoby points out, these are in the minority. Why does the call to excellence go ignored in so many places?

The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself." Ralph Waldo Emerson offered that observation in 1837, but his words echo with painful prescience in today's very different United States. Americans are in serious intellectual trouble -- in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.
Let’s cite some examples: cantors who are forced to sing not only the items assigned to them by the GIRM, but also everything else generally assigned to the choir or the congregation; The notion that the choir is present only to “lead” congregational singing; The discarding of traditional choral repertoire and Gregorian chant in favor of “congregational song” (known in most places as cantor song); The failure to use the Latin language in the Latin rite, because “the people don’t understand it”.

This is the last subject that any candidate would dare raise on the long and winding road to the White House. It is almost impossible to talk about the manner in which public ignorance contributes to grave national problems without being labeled an "elitist," one of the most powerful pejoratives that can be applied to anyone aspiring to high office. Instead, our politicians repeatedly assure Americans that they are just "folks," a patronizing term that you will search for in vain in important presidential speeches before 1980. (Just imagine: "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . and that government of the folks, by the folks, for the folks, shall not perish from the earth.") Such exaltations of ordinariness are among the distinguishing traits of anti-intellectualism in any era.
Here we have the idea that the “song leader” needs to be from “people”. Trained professionals have oftentimes no place in the church and are indeed seen as arrogant or “elitists”, because the music they have studied and teach is considered “high brow” or “out of reach” of the congregation’s intellect – a successful dumbing-down campaign headed by priests and liturgists alike. In many cases, it’s easier to ditch the professionals and hire a drone because 1) it’s cheaper (minimum skills, minimum pay) and 2) it saves time in having to re-educate the faithful who have been brainwashed for 40 years that what is traditional is moribund and of no use in the “modern” Church, despite the instruction which comes almost daily from Rome and which has been written in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Knowledge is power, as they say, and an empowered laity in the eyes of a self-conscious, low-esteemed Roman clergy is an intimidating threat to a self-serving sense of authority. Crowd control is easier if the “Big Kahuna” is the only one allowed to think (or to be perceived as a thinker). Read George Orwell’s Animal Farm for an expanded explanation of this topic. My musing: with this line of thinking, why haven’t the Roman Catholic icon writers embraced Stalinist Social Realism in their iconography? Wouldn’t that more accurately express the spirit of the pervasive ecclesial world view?

The classic work on this subject by Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," was published in early 1963, between the anti-communist crusades of the McCarthy era and the social convulsions of the late 1960s. Hofstadter saw American anti-intellectualism as a basically cyclical phenomenon that often manifested itself as the dark side of the country's democratic impulses in religion and education. But today's brand of anti-intellectualism is less a cycle than a flood. If Hofstadter (who died of leukemia in 1970 at age 54) had lived long enough to write a modern-day sequel, he would have found that our era of 24/7 infotainment has outstripped his most apocalyptic predictions about the future of American culture.
When did the Second Vatican Council close? And what was that buzz word? Antiestablishment? The catty commentator said, “The hippie bus has left the Church parking lot” But has it really?

Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture (and by video, I mean every form of digital media, as well as older electronic ones); a disjunction between Americans' rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.
How easy it is to dismiss Church tradition in such an atmosphere: “I think on your behalf, since you don’t know and are not allowed to know.” Re-define what history is, what tradition is, what the documents say (since the faithful shouldn’t really read them – woe on him who does and speaks up!), and the result is indeed a new Church, twisted and contorted to the whims of low-rung clergy and to the detriment of the faithful who blindly follow their shepherds like good Romans: all we like sheep have gone astray! Have we not learned that if the man dons a black cassock, this doesn’t necessarily mean he has the good of the faithful at heart de facto (my apologies for that elitist use of Latin). The priesthood is no handy and convenient refuge for the asocial, an instant character sanitizer which can transform even the basest letch into model of piety. One doesn’t measure piety by how loud he clacks his Rosary beads or from how long he can gaze upon a monstrance luna.

First and foremost among the vectors of the new anti-intellectualism is video. The decline of book, newspaper and magazine reading is by now an old story. The drop-off is most pronounced among the young, but it continues to accelerate and afflict Americans of all ages and education levels.
Who needs hymnals and missals? Let’s erect video screens in church! Bishops letters read aloud? No more. Let’s have a CD and to show us our good bishop.

Reading has declined not only among the poorly educated, according to a report last year by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1982, 82 percent of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later, only 67 percent did. And more than 40 percent of Americans under 44 did not read a single book -- fiction or nonfiction -- over the course of a year. The proportion of 17-year-olds who read nothing (unless required to do so for school) more than doubled between 1984 and 2004. This time period, of course, encompasses the rise of personal computers, Web surfing and video games.
Church documents must be read. As far as I know, the materials of the Second Vatican Council (and the writings from other councils for that matter) haven’t been made into movies yet. If no one reads, no one learns. Again: knowledge is power.

Does all this matter? Technophiles pooh-pooh jeremiads about the end of print culture as the navel-gazing of (what else?) elitists. In his book "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," the science writer Steven Johnson assures us that we have nothing to worry about. Sure, parents may see their "vibrant and active children gazing silently, mouths agape, at the screen." But these zombie-like characteristics "are not signs of mental atrophy. They're signs of focus." Balderdash. The real question is what toddlers are screening out, not what they are focusing on, while they sit mesmerized by videos they have seen dozens of times.
Navel-gazing is a good description. To those who have been told that polyphony and chant, and choral repertoire organically and historically linked to both have no use in the Church, fossils from the past, the study of the same is indeed nothing more than navel-gazing. It’s something like visiting the bones of dinosaurs in a museum. It’s too difficult for the “people” to sing, it’s old and doesn’t sound like Hannah Montana, so it has no spiritual use. What we need today is a church that’s more like the world. The next step: remove God from the Church as well so we can achieve a complete secularization of the Church and make everyone feel welcome! And the Church dares speak out against Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass? It’s a mirror! Take a good hard look! Somehow today the concept of “killing God” doesn’t seem so odd.

…I cannot prove that reading for hours in a treehouse (which is what I was doing when I was 13) creates more informed citizens than hammering away at a Microsoft Xbox or obsessing about Facebook profiles. But the inability to concentrate for long periods of time -- as distinct from brief reading hits for information on the Web -- seems to me intimately related to the inability of the public to remember even recent news events. It is not surprising, for example, that less has been heard from the presidential candidates about the Iraq war in the later stages of the primary campaign than in the earlier ones, simply because there have been fewer video reports of violence in Iraq. Candidates, like voters, emphasize the latest news, not necessarily the most important news.
Let’s omit the Credo, speak the Gradual, shorten the procession, keep the chalice from the faithful, silence the chant scholas, scorn the orchestral Masses. All that makes Mass last longer than an hour. And how long was the Super Bowl broadcast?

…The shrinking public attention span fostered by video is closely tied to the second important anti-intellectual force in American culture: the erosion of general knowledge.
Religious education departments: this means you! Why haven’t you been teaching? I always have said I learned more about Roman Catholicism as a Lutheran child in Sunday School than I’ve ever learned sitting and waiting for Holy Spirit discernment in a Roman Ed class. Learn from the Protestants here: you have to teach the people what they need to know. Stop sending them on retreat after retreat, expecting them to sit and channel the Holy Spirit. If that approach really had any merit, the channeling of knowledge through prayer, I would have been a wizard in chemistry back in high school – if only I had known, that all I had to do was to meditate upon the textbook and pray!

…That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism -- a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.
Why use Latin in the Latin Rite? Why be forced to listen to a sermon lasting longer than 3 minutes? Why listen to choral motets? Why learn about the Church ourselves when the priest tells us what we need to know? If the King James Bible was good enough for St. Paul, why, it’s good enough for me! Drink the fruit punch! Wake up, folks: knowledge is power. And people actually believe it when they get emails from Nigeria informing them they’ve won some African lottery? Why, of course they must be winners, naturally.

There is no quick cure for this epidemic of arrogant anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism; rote efforts to raise standardized test scores by stuffing students with specific answers to specific questions on specific tests will not do the job. Moreover, the people who exemplify the problem are usually oblivious to it. ("Hardly anyone believes himself to be against thought and culture," Hofstadter noted.) It is past time for a serious national discussion about whether, as a nation, we truly value intellect and rationality. If this indeed turns out to be a "change election," the low level of discourse in a country with a mind taught to aim at low objects ought to be the first item on the change agenda.
Of course it’s all no one’s fault. Five witnesses stand around a murdered corpse. No one saw a thing...


Richard Chonak said...

Here's a companion theme to yours: the refusal to exercise adult judgment, discussed today in the FT blog.

Our Lord teaches us to be compassionate and respectful to the poor, the unlettered, and children, but there is a certain Romanticism that glorifies poverty and childishness. It pretends that they are marks of sanctity, even to the point of exalting intellectual poverty and cultural deprivation over ordinary human development and achievement.

Jason Pennington said...

Thanks for that cross-reference, RC. The First Things article is indeed a related theme to the one that Jacoby puts forth. One might entitle a general overview theme as "the loss of common sense in America."


Adrienne said...

On Monday's news we are told that our young people scored 24th in Math against other developed nations.

Tonight some high school teacher on the news said this is the smartest generation ever. Huh?

I work with the kids at church and, except for a few exceptions, they are incapable of thinking and are suffused with a sense on entitlement. They are not stupid they are uneducated. Sad!

Jason Pennington said...

Thank You Adrienne, that links in with the related article that RC shared with us from Frist Things -- the glorification of poverty and childishness. At least it's been my experience from listening to Bishop's appeals for the poor and various "outreach" programs sponsored by religious orders and parishes, that the Church really sees itself in many places as nothing more than a giant welfare organization. It's true the poor are always with us, however, it seems the latest montra of the Church is "thank God for the poor. They give us a reason to be!" There's a difference between fighting poverty and perpetuating it. It goes back to the "give a man a fish" cliche. Bottom line: it's easier and less costly to give the fish than to teach how to fish -- and when you can guilt soemene else into giving a fish, that's even better. What's the sin? Telling the indigent to get a job or training them for one, or keeping the indigent where they are in order to make onesself feel good for the justification of one's own existence? I hate to attack a sacred cow, however, here's another example: I recall reading an article in a magazine back in the 80's about Mother T. of Calcutta. The author of the article had wanted to interview her. She made arrangements with Mother T's nuns, she traveled to India, and when it came time to meet, Mother T. didn't show. The reporter persisted, returning a second time with a check for a substantial amount. Mother T. came out and talked with her on the spot, never having made mention or acknowledged that she was supposed to have met with the reporter only days before. This little episode has always made me rather cynical when it comes to the Indian nuns, and fosters the idea: To catch the attention of the most charitable person in the world, you need one or both of two things: leprosy or a check.


Adrienne said...

The thing that is bugging lots of people in our Diocese is the money being spent on Spanish only programs. I think it would make more sense to set up programs to teach them English. I would be happy to help with that endeavor.

Those that don't learn English well will be always be second class citizens. Doesn't seem very charitable to me.