Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

October 27, 2008

Host: Ted Simons

Intellectual Laziness

  • Americans have become intellectually lazy, and it's costing us as a nation, according to Susan Jacoby, author of �The Age of American Unreason.�
  • Susan Jacoby - Author, The Age of American Unreason

View Transcript

Ted Simons
>> Well, Americans have become intellectually lazy and it's costing us. So says author Susan Jacoby in her book "The Age of American Unreason." I spoke to her earlier about her career as a writer for "The Washington Post."

Ted Simons
>> Thanks for joining us on Horizon.

Susan Jacoby
>> So happy to be here.

Ted Simons
>> Let's talk about the concept of and think. Political, social and apathy. Worse now than ever?

Susan Jacoby
>> Apathetic is not the word I would use. People are heated up about this election for example. But what this follows on is we've been intellectually lazy. And that's when something like the economic crisis happens, everybody blames everybody else. It's someone out there in Washington, it's somewhere on wall street. Nobody thinks about their own part in it. And in this case, one of our parts in it is we're about 25th out of 29th in the industrialized world in what our children know about math. That's fifth from the bottom. You think that doesn't have something to do with people not knowing what a variable interest rate is? Laziness precedes apathy and then precedes anger when things don't turn out all right without your making any effort to educate yourself.

Ted Simons
>> So we're lazy now approaching if not playing touch and go with apathy. Is anger too far away?

Susan Jacoby
>> Well, I would say we're much more angry now. But one of the things we're angry about is we have this idea in America that things are automatic, that we're number one, that it can't be any other way. And one of the reasons people are angry now is that it's clear right now that we're not number one anymore in many areas. We're not number one in education. We're not number one economically as we've seen. And then what that ought to lead to is our asking ourselves, why aren't we number one? And in fact, a cab driver was driving me to the airport this morning. And he was an immigrant from Jordan. And he said, you know, this is the greatest country in the world. But people don't seem to think they have to work to make it that way.

Ted Simons
>> Does a crisis have to happen, whether it's economic, whether it's some sort of militaristic action somewhere either against us or by us, some serious crisis have to happen to get people's attention?

Susan Jacoby
>> Yes. And one of the major reasons for this are the same things that affect our politics. Our politics, you know, people always talking about Washington and politicians as though they were somebody out there in space who got there automatically. We elected these people. We let them do things without looking at what they were doing. And so I don't think that -- part of this is the whole responsibility shifting thing. And one of the reasons, we're captives of media -- what I call infotainment. We are captives of passive entertainment. The fact is the average American home has the TV on seven hours a day. In half of these homes people watch whatever is on. They don't care. That's double the percentage who watch whatever is on. Half of all kids under the age of six have TV’s in their bedrooms. What does it say about our preparation for knowing things when we are so dependent on all of our toys? You know, this isn't an original observation. But for the first time in human history, we're connected to these toys 24 hours a day. The iPod, the iPhone, the blackberry, iTunes, all of this is possibly connected to an entertainment apparatus every hour of the day. When you're doing one thick thing you can't be doing another. You can't play a video game and read a book at the same time. You can't follow politics and watch the Biggest Loser at the same time.

Ted Simons
>> But you hear folks say, I work hard all day. I’m stuck in traffic getting home. Or, I've got kids. I've got cooking. I've got my own job to do. What's wrong with sitting home at night watching a little bit of "American Idol" just to decompress?

Susan Jacoby
>> Nothing if it's watching a little bit of "American Idol." That's the whole point. Of course there's nothing wrong with watching a little bit of "American Idol" or whatever you fancy or "Mad Men" or ""Desperate Housewives". The problem is when the hour turns into two hours and three hours and four hours. The problem is when instead of reading to their little kids before they go to bed, the parents put the kid in front of a video and that's how the kid gets to sleep. It's a matter of proportion. It doesn't have to be either or. What we have done in our age of unreason and indifference to learning is we've gone overboard. We've imagined -- Thomas Jefferson said, if a nation expect to be both ignorant and free in a state of civilization it expects what never was and never will be." Barack Obama is right. Haven't heard much about this lately. Early in his campaign he's always saying what we have to do is turn off the TV set more often as parents, put away the video games more often, talk to our kids more, read to our kids more. This was in a discussion of education. One of the usual blame the teachers discussion. And of course there's plenty of blame to go around. But if kids come into school for the first time at 5 or 6 and they've been spending seven hours a day watching TV, it's not the teacher who's to blame for what they bring to school. People have to take some responsibility.

Ted Simons
>> There is an antiintellectualism underneath everything we've talked about so far and seems to be pretty strong. A pretty strong current in the country. Whatever happened to the concept of being elite? Elite is almost a pejorative right now.

Susan Jacoby
>> It didn't used to be. Elite was once an elite athlete is a world-class athlete. An elite surgeon is a world-class surgeon. And as I ask you, when you're having an operation do you want a Joe the Plumber type surgeon or do you want an elite surgeon? Or for that matter, also, I’m not talking about being an intellectual. There was a time in this country when everyone aspired to some level of learning. There's no reason that we should think of the essence of elitism for people to talk about Joe the Plumber as though people who are dropouts or happen to live in small towns are necessarily stupid. That's real elitism. There's no reason why any ordinary person -- you don't have to be a college graduate or intellectual to know where Iraq is located on a map, which two-thirds of the American people don't.

Ted Simons
>> Okay. How did we get there? And how do we move on from this? How do we try to get away from what seems to be, whether it's laziness, apathy, anticuriosity, whatever. How do we get past this?

Susan Jacoby
>> I think I’ll take the how do we get past this. The first thing, I don't have any easy remedies. But the first thing for beginning to get past this is we all have to be more aware of how we spend our time. It has to be brought to consciousness that it's not just something that we can blame on everybody else. But we have to look at how we spend our time, how we spend our time with our children, how much time we're spending on pouring junk into our heads, instead of trying to learn the things we need to know. Not just to compete in the global economy, which is what everyone talks about, but to be real citizens. You can't be a real citizen and not know that there are three branches of government. You can't be a real citizen and not know what the bill of rights is. And too many Americans don't. And this is why we're easy prey for stupid political talk.

Ted Simons
>> Last question real quickly: are you optimistic that we will change, as society in general will change?

Susan Jacoby
>> I think like a pessimist, act like an optimist.

Ted Simons
>> Susan, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

Susan Jacoby
>> Thank you very much.

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