Values

Revenge of the nerds

In “Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?” (nytimes.com, 2/14/008) Patricia Cohen profiles Susan Jacoby, author of “The Age of American Unreason.” Jacoby laments the “generalized hostility to knowledge” in American culture today.

On a similar note, I think common wisdom can be anti-intellectual and cynical. I’ve been wondering about impact of such pervasive pessimism.

Have you noticed that everyday conversations, especially with acquaintances, slide easily into expressions of co-miseration? It’s more common to express stress (about jobs, bills, or among lefties, the latest political outrage) than it is to express beauty, joy and gratitude.* People bond by co-miserating; they find affinity through “other-“ing.

Similarly, groups form their identities by distinguishing themselves from others. So working classes disdain the values of intellectual classes. But the don’t-be-too-smart attitude seems to pervade American culture—you might as well be uncouth or snobby.

As a kid, I figured that my peers would grow out of the too-cool-for-school mentality. But the peer pressure to not appear too earnest about learning hasn’t disappeared entirely. Even in graduate school, and especially among artists and professional development, enthusiasm for knowledge can be suspect.

But here’s what I can’t reconcile: Working-class culture and the American spirit—the high esteem of hard work, skill and fairness—are intimately tied. So how did rugged individualism—so optimistic: Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps! The dream of equal opportunity!—beget cynicism and materialism?

In the article, Cohen casts Jacoby as a curmudgeon. And while Jacoby is going against the grain by speaking out about a theme that pervades our culture, I think Cohen could be considered curmudgeonly. Her journalist’s skepticism seems to convey the sentiment that the mere discussion of intellectualism is too self-aware, too critical, too… nerdy.

*Why is it that “beauty, joy and gratitude” sounds so cheesy? The phrase “the good things in life” might be more common, or sound cooler, but it’s vague.

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