ZELINSKY: Intellectual doomsday?

On Point

If you haven’t yet seen Steven Spielberg’s new movie about Abraham Lincoln, you should. Daniel Day Lewis makes a compelling Abe, bringing human depth to the iconic American president. And the film faithfully portrays politics as it was in 1865 — gritty, nasty and personal.

I was a little surprised that the director of “E.T.” produced a historically accurate, yet still gripping movie. (For the record, I have some qualms with the accuracy of “Schindler’s List.”) But even more surprising: The theater I attended was packed with a sell-out crowd. Spielberg’s success is a heartwarming sign of American intellectual curiosity.

It has become common (and convincing) to argue that Americans are growing increasingly stupid. Consider just two examples: We hear constantly that our education system is broken, and that American children cannot compete internationally in math and the sciences. And the media, once the bastion of serious ideas, is crumbling, too. The patria of public intellectualism — long-form, print journalism — lies gasping on death’s doorstep. Twitter forces politicians to cram thoughts into 140 characters, an impossible task. On TV, insipid reality shows capture the most viewership.

All in all, it appears an intellectual doomsday is looming on the horizon.

Happily, Lincoln fights against this trend. Over Thanksgiving weekend, Spielberg’s film grossed $34.1 million, taking the number three spot for total ticket sales. The movie sold, despite having no sex and surprisingly little violence — you don’t even see Abe’s assassination on the screen. What did Lincoln have? Ideas. Ideas about the president’s powers in wartime, ideas about the purposes of the Constitution and ideas about the importance of rhetoric in American culture. Ideas and all, it still sold.

It’s true that “Skyfall” and “Twilight” both beat Spielberg in tickets sold over the holiday weekend. Sex and violence and vampires trumped 19th-century politics. At the same time, the fact that people want to see Lincoln, a movie that forces them to think, suggests that Americans rise to the occasion when given the intellectual opportunity.

And, if upcoming films are any indication, Lincoln is no flash in the pan of public interest. Soon to be released “Les Miserables” and “Anna Karenina” both come with star-studded casts. Personally, I cannot wait to see the hard-faced Russell Crowe as Javert; others seem to agree.

Admittedly, these movies will likely not change our perception of the everyman overnight. It is easy for us — read: me among that “us” — to believe in intellectual doomsday. After all, who can forget 2010 Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell who proudly “didn’t go to Yale,” a comment which won her 40 percent of the electorate in Delaware. This campaign season, we saw voters on both sides embrace populism and demagoguery over facts and figures. A Spielberg movie cannot erase those images from our mind or the realities behind the images.

So what’s a potential lesson for Yale? For one thing, the University might capitalize on Americans’ desire for serious intellectual engagement, if only to retain Yale’s public brand as institution of knowledge. In his acceptance speech, President-elect Peter Salovey recommitted the University to online education. That said, in this area, Yale’s showing has been dismal. We are far behind peer schools such as Stanford, whose wildly popular web courses give online “students” feedback and tests. Salovey should commit money, not just words, to an expansion of Yale’s Internet footprint.

On a broader note, we as an academy might pledge ourselves to creating intellectual products accessible — not just to our own, but to the public at large. In other words: Let’s go out and produce more Lincolns.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a senior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu .

Comments