Never in human history has so much knowledge been available and accessible, and yet so little curiosity or effort been expended to obtain it.
In 2010 Google estimated that there are about 130 million unique books in the world. Google Books launched in 2004 (by now 15 million books), GoodReads in 2007 (5 million members), Copia in 2009, New York Times e-book best-seller lists in 2011.
What are we doing with all this information and opportunity? What is the most accessed item on the internet? Sex.
“To Read, or Not to Read,” a report based on research conducted in 2007 by the National Endowment for the Arts found that while young Americans spend almost two hours a day watching television, only seven minutes of their daily leisure time is spent reading. Almost half of 18-24-years-old Americans read no books for pleasure.
Societies have always institutionalized inequalities of one sort or another. In the past, the pursuit of knowledge and culture was very much an elite preoccupation. In the Renaissance, for example, whether it was Leonardo da Vinci (scholar/scientist in pursuit of art/knowledge/etc) or the MEdici (commissioning creation of art/knowledge/etc), the engine of culture that produced advances in science/technology/art/philosophy was driven by a minority. It is thus not counter-intuitive that despite the overall increase in educational attainment, a large segment of society reflects “non-elite” interests. In this view, “high” (i.e. educated/intelligent) culture has always been the prerogative of the few/elites. Modern political/economic/social democratization/development has therefore merely placed majority culture (which was always there but not exposed as much) in full view.
The transmission of knowledge/tradition is one of the most important functions of any society. Usually, this function is fulfilled by the intelligentsia/elite/minority of the society. The problem is not that the elite failed to “bring culture to the masses,” but that the usual mode of cultural transmission has been inverted—the supposed culture of the masses has become the currency of the intellectual elite. As the decline in literary reading amongst the most educated indicates, the pursuit of ignorance has become a cultural imperative.
Paris Hilton’s latest leather bag, Brad Pitt’s latest sunglasses and alike are the buzzword and bread of masses who do not and want not to know anything say for example about global economic crises under way, or climate changes that already affect us.
Firstly, modern intelligentsia is no longer a transmitter and beacon of high culture but more a great zombie that spearheads trashy, hippy and vulgar (from Greek term meaning “popular”). In the past, this transfer was impeded by a myriad of factors including, lack of access to information, unavailability of information, transportation/transfer difficulties, information/knowledge reproduction costs, etc.
Youth who has university degrees – if I were to generalize somewhat – is the staple good of the (“intellectual”) society and which represents a large proportion of its future leaders.
Yet, according to professor Bauerlein’s book (2008) “The Dumbest Generation,” more than half of American school leavers score below basic achievement levels even in American history; 52% think that Germany, Italy and Japan were US allies in the WW2. It is the Digital Age which has, he postulates, stunted and diminished not only the knowledge young people attain, but the very tools they require to attain it. Calculator – adding numbers. Google Translate – translate entire text without review/analysis and thought. Baroness Susan Greenfield uses the term “mind change” to highlight the potential danger to human cognitive development in the unmonitored and unregulated exposure of young minds to digital technology/media.
Second reason, apart from reversal of knowledge transfer from the elite to masses, is the manner in which education is “packaged” and delivered at schools/universities. History books, for example, are narrow in their scope and tend to have biases (for example, history Easter Europe usually doesn’t get much adequate exposure in most modern European historic treatises – a notable exception is Fischer’s history of Europe). Thus, packaging is wanty. Delivery as well became less comprehensive as teachers are less and less educated/prepared for their jobs.
A third important aspect is that history has become more idealized/romanticized. In the pursuit of “real history,” history courses depict an ideological construct that they fabricate largely in the absence of evidence or filling in the “desired” course of actions (depending on history and politics of a country). Many contemporary history courses are actually a-historical, in which the social experience and context of the past float in a timeless and eventless “now” and where all regional/temporal differences are ignored.
Socrates realized that to “know thyself” one has to go through interaction with others. We are social animals, and understanding the “other” is essential to how we live and learn. The process of gaining this knowledge to inner worlds of others is called theory of mind. It’s a developmental process whereby children gradually achieve understanding that their mental view and perception of the world is different from that of others. Older children begin to be able to place themselves in someone else’s position, to understand something from someone else’s point of view.
Reading – check the fabulous introduction to Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin why we need to read – is the ultimate form of exercise of theory of mind. It places us within the consciousness of both the writer and the characters of the book, while also giving us access to the writer’s world/experiences/imagination.
Current trend is that people want to be read, they don’t want to read. They don’t have time, nor feel there is much knowledge (beyond what they already know) that can enrich them – there is always some excuse.
The failure of our social/cultural institutions to counterbalance unwanted consequences of modern socio-technological pressures is what might bring to the point of make-or-break our modern society and its intellectual and economic achievements.
There are specks of hope though. In the spring of 1971, a librarian Marguerite Hart set out to inspire the Troy (America) youngsters to read and love the library. Her letter-writing campaign invited writers, actors, musicians, politicians to share what made reading special for them. She got 97 letters, including notes from Neil Armstrong and Isaac Asimov. The collection became known as Letters to the Children of Troy.