It's All Connected

What happens when the people coming into power have no critical thinking skills?

My oldest  brother and me, what seems like aeons ago.

My oldest  brother and me, what seems like aeons ago.

Back in the early 2000s, when the U.S. was going wild over Dan Brown’s book The DaVinci Code, I picked up a copy to see what all the fuss was about. I loved the idea of it—a sprint through ancient history wrapped up in a mystery involving secret orders, sarcophagi, and various international cities. I ended up having to force myself to finish it, though. Usually when I have to prod myself through a volume it takes weeks, but in this unusual case I may have finished the book within 24-hours. My oldest brother, Charles, had given the book to me and he was eager to talk about it when I’d finished.

“Well? What did you think? Wasn’t it great?” he asked one Sunday evening when Aaron and I had driven down to my parents’ house for dinner, followed by long rounds of drinks on their patio.

“Eh,” was about all of the enthusiasm I could muster.

“You didn’t like it?”

“Not really,” I replied. “It was too easy. It dumbed down some of the most important artistic and historical events of our civilization.”

Charles cocked an eyebrow at me and took a sip of his wine. When I was eight and he spent the summers giving tennis lessons at the local club back in Wisconsin, I would constantly annoy him by swiping his books. It never dawned on me that most third-graders weren’t reading Asimov or the autobiography of Lee Iacocca (to be honest, I didn’t get more than ten pages into that autobiography). I was just trying to be as cool as my big brothers. 

Almost twenty years later, on my parents’ porch in Orangeburg, South Carolina, we were both adults. I’m not sure that Charles expected me to disagree with him on the topic of a book he’d read before me.

I continued, “It was fluffy. There were moments when I had a hard time believing the writer knew anything about the cities where the plot takes place.”

The mask hiding Charles’s surprise dropped, “What?”

“Yeah.”

“Shani, you’re being an elitist, intellectual snob.”

I laughed out loud. The idea of one of the people who helped shape my intellectual curiosity now calling me a snob was hilarious. I was in my early 20s, newly married, and still not really feeling like an adult. While my brother didn’t mean what he said to be taken as a compliment, I definitely received it as one. Being fourteen years his junior, it felt kind of special to have my brother sneer at me for being an intellectual snob. Is that crazy?

Anyhow, my point—in a very round, fat, post-Christmas haze of vaguely connected ideas—is that in that moment I felt as if I was being treated as a fellow adult because I was thinking critically in a normal, everyday situation and getting called on it. I’d reached what I thought was a normal milestone for youngest siblings trying to become adults—the ability to shoot off on opinion over an after dinner drink when called upon, and have the ability to back that opinion up with my reasons.

Today, as a full-fledged, mortgage-holding, child-rearing adult, I feel like such a milestone is disappearing from our cultural landscape. At some point after I touched that flagstone, critical thinking skills fell off the curriculum checklists applied to the kids sitting in high school and college classrooms. I recognize that I sound more geezerly than my 35 years on this planet should allow, but I promise there are examples piled in heaps everywhere at the moment. One of the most glaring—yet less obvious—examples is the Chris Hughes debacle at The New Republic. If you’re only vaguely familiar with the meltdown that occurred within the venerable magazine’s offices a few weeks ago, the paragraph that best sums it up comes from Dante Ramos at the Boston Globe:

It’s grim to watch a venerable publication get sliced up in the name of e-business platitudes. On Thursday, the top editors of The New Republic abruptly left, as owner Chris Hughes and his chief executive officer, Guy Vidra, announced a new vision for the century-old publication. Known for its in-depth political journalism and its long, expansive book reviews, TNR will be reimagined, according to Vidra’s memo, as a ‘vertically integrated digital media company’ — whatever that means.
— Dante Ramos, “Does The New Republic’s Chris Hughes Understand What He Bought?” The Boston Globe, 5 Dec 2014,
Slightly silly image of Chris Hughes courtesy of The Daily Beast

Slightly silly image of Chris Hughes courtesy of The Daily Beast

My brothers were a key component in my development as a devourer of books and ideas. I grew up in a household where one was required to have the ability to hold his or her own during dinner table conversations ranging from politics to neighborhood gossip. As a little girl I quickly learned that opinions were the currency that bought entry into grownup conversations. As long as the possessor of the opinion had a working knowledge of both sides of the argument and had enough experience/done enough reading, anyone was welcome. The teachers at the school I attended from seventh through twelfth grade reinforced this idea. Actually they beat us over the head with it on a daily basis. When I was fifteen I was accepted into the Presidential Classroom Scholars program, an intense, weeklong program for high school students to learn about political and civic engagement in Washington, DC. As we prepared ourselves for debates, interviews with elected officials, and more, the tenets of critical thinking were hammered into us until we all thought we were going to puke or pass out from mental exhaustion.  If an article in The Washington Post sparked our interest, we were required to read the Wall Street Journal’s take on it. If we were to bring the topic up for discussion we had to be able to analyze both side of the argument in question.

While I’m sure Presidential Classroom still operates from its core values, it’s been a while since such values were taught on an everyday basis in most classrooms or at most dinner tables. Now we’re starting to see the fallout of this loss through Chris Hughes, a very young, very (newly) rich, socially awkward tech geek* who is showing a gravely low amount of intellectual agility. America’s shifts in educational philosophy and cultural norms have failed Hughes.  The result is that he has single-handedly dismantled one of the country’s last magazines aimed at providing quality information to people who tend to form positions on either side of an issue. These people have traditionally been part of a civically engaged, influential and, yes, elite group. They typically have much larger quantities of social, economic and cultural capital than most of us can imagine—and that’s okay. If we’re going to live in a capitalist society there is going to be some degree of economic inequality. Before you jump all over that statement, check out Nick Hanauer’s TED talk on the topic, where the billionaire explains that economic inequality is inevitable in a capitalist society, but the United States has taken it to crazy extremes.

My point is that critical thinking was an expectation when I was growing up, not a rare exception to be praised loudly. It was an organic thread that ran through all public and private school curricula. Today? Not so much. The students who missed this critical ingredient are becoming adults, we’re seeing the fallout. In this case, we’re seeing a student who came into mountain ranges of money rather quickly—something that can cause the most sane, intelligent person make rash decisions—and he’s using that money to establish his place of power in the world by purchasing a magazine that represents an important block of what intellectual culture exists in the United States. Hughes’s inability to understand what it is that he purchased and what historical value it contains has quite possibly ruined one of America’s intellectual feeding grounds, and the symbolic nature of this scares the hell out of me. 

We’re heading into 2015 tomorrow (!!), and while I’ve joked around about a couple of resolutions there’s one in particular to which I’m going to vehemently adhere... 

When you want something say it, and say it loud. 

So, here comes the first of quite a few upcoming statements. 

I want to do my part—whether big or small— to place intellectual, critical conversation back onto the A-list next to glitzed-out celebrities.

I want to have a hot fire poker in my right hand and a powerful magnet in my left. I’d use the magnet to draw people in to observe a literary community worthy of national pride and the fire poker to shove those observers forward toward new conversations and connections.

Every now and then when you look back on the history of Celebrated People, a writer will pop up as an influencer or ringleader, like Truman Capote, for instance.

Yes, he was a weirdo, but Truman Capote was one of those writers who was known by every literate American. Image via fineartamerica.com

Yes, he was a weirdo, but Truman Capote was one of those writers who was known by every literate American. Image via fineartamerica.com

When was the last time you saw a few writers getting shouted at by the paparazzi on the red carpet?** One could argue that the United States has always been staunchly anti-intellectual. If you’ve known me all my life you could probably argue that my early years provided a rose-colored bubble in which intellectual strengths were praised. I can’t argue with either of those points, but the fact is that as our technology has shrunk the globe to fit within our grasp, America has turned away—in what, fear?—and further separated itself into categories according to socioeconomic status, race, us, them, and those people. Suspicion of those who aren’t like ourselves and the inability to think critically have come together into a whole new version of the Ugly American, and this caricature is finally getting up the nerve (and has made enough money) to reach out and yank on some powerful strings. We’re experiencing a regression, and the Hughes debacle is just the latest example, this time dressed up in the garments of the nouveau riche, wielding tech money instead of a gun. The dismantling of TNR seems completely unrelated to the events resulting in and surrounding the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner. I assure you that in the big picture these things are all related. They are definitive proof of what happens when a country dumbs itself down through it’s media, entertainment channels, educational systems, cultural offerings and more. 

In her book entitled The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life, the iconic choreographer, Twyla Tharp, discusses a sentiment that mirrors my own when it comes to elevating an important art form. All you have to do is substitute the words dance and dancer with writing and writer, switch one or two other words around and she’s said it for me:

I’ve always been resentful of the fact that some of the so-called elite art forms can’t survive on their own without sponsorship and subsidies. It bothers me that dance companies around the world are not-for-profit organizations and that dancers, who are as devoted and disciplined as any NFL or NBA superstar, are at the low end of the entertainment industry’s income scale.
— Twyla Tharp

We don’t live in that reality, which is why organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts, the South Carolina Arts Foundation, the Sustainable Arts Foundation and so many others have become vital to keeping the refrigerator full for many artists of all genres. But even these avenues are in danger of crumbling because our willingly uninformed culture is leaning increasingly toward the belief that the people who shape and preserve our nation’s history through the arts are undeserving of these lean nonprofits. 

As generation after generation receives lower quality education, we’re going to have more misunderstanding amongst ourselves, more separation, and—as long as some laws stay the way they are—more horrifying headlines. It’s dangerous to be a racial minority in America. At this rate it will one day become dangerous to be an artist or someone who presents ideas that don’t perfectly line up with the thinning national curriculum. The way that abhorrent racist tactics have been allowed to be placed on display lately*** shows an increased acceptance—if not celebration—of ignorance that has given birth to nightmares that are shaking up our definitions of diversity and human decency, as well as major symbols of cultural influence like The New Republic.

We need to stop this. We need to eliminate the fear of thought. How about this… do you have any ideas on what we should do? I’d love to hear them.

*Hughes made his fortune as co-founder of Facebook, then bowed out to pursue whatever it is he’s pursuing

**I’m not saying that I should be the one on the red carpet. I am a klutz. In addition to that, after 8 years of motherhood towering stilettos are no longer my BFFs. Put me on a step-and-repeat and there’s a 55% chance I’ll fall the way Jennifer Lawrence did at the Oscars last year. I know. It’s already happened (not at the Oscar’s!).

***Again, we can thank Facebook for having a part in this. In a (fairly honest) attempt to combat racism, the social media ringleader exposed the worst of the new audacity of everyday racists. Read about it at the Culture Club on Medium.