Yale students are familiar with studying for standardized tests in high school. You ceaselessly review flashcards, committing unfamiliar words like “impecunious” and “noisome” to memory. You go through trigonometry and geometry problems, mastering the methods for finding the areas of different figures or solving word problems. And you memorize the main themes of “The Great Gatsby” in order to write an essay on what it teaches you about the American dream.
We generally accept that these tests provide little in the way of serious intellectual pursuit. At best, we consider them a necessary inconvenience. But to what extent does studying for the SAT differ from our academic experience at Yale? Even at such a prestigious college, cramming for a midterm consists at best of rehashing concepts and at worst of rote memorization of facts and dates. Writing papers often requires little more than a few Wikipedia searches to glean important points.
Rarely are we challenged to make a serious, extended argument about a text. Rarely do we need to grapple with the real-world implications of political or philosophical concepts. One would expect a rigorous liberal arts education to ask more of us than Google searches. However, in the past fifty years or so, synopses and sound bites have replaced books as the primary conduit of knowledge. In the Internet age, American thought has atomized and thinned.
In his 2011 book, “Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order,” Charles Hill argues that literature was displaced by popular entertainment as the primary method of acquiring knowledge in the late mid-twentieth century. Before the advent of television and mass entertainment, literature was the be-all and end-all of intellectual discourse. Because books forced readers to think deeply and ask questions of a text, public intellectual life consisted of complex inquiry and rich debate. This changed after the Internet became the primary landscape of knowledge.
“The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan famously proclaimed in 1964. “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.” More significant than the content delivered is the way it is delivered, as this affects how society absorbs information.
Our abandonment of literary texts rears its ugly head in many ways but has been most pronounced in the realm of politics. Whereas we used to listen to the nuanced views of Irving Kristol and Noam Chomsky, who wrote tomes on issues ranging from foreign policy to sociology, today’s best-known political commentators are pundits such as Rachel Maddows and Bill O’Reilly, who provide little serious analysis. Our discourse offers simplistic, partisan sound bites but no real debate. It is no surprise, then, that our national conversation has grown so inane. When making normative political judgments, we take our conclusions for granted, rarely considering how these opinions were formed.
Our thinking proceeds from broad, unquestioned axioms. Democracy: good. Authoritarianism: bad. Social justice: good. Inequality: bad. That’s it. No more room for discussion. It is no coincidence that this has been the global year of referenda. Democracy is an unalloyed good, so we should let the people decide everything and anything.
The nomination of Donald Trump is one of many results of our nation’s misunderstanding of its political institutions. The primary process, which used to allow party leaders deeply embedded in a complex political system to choose their party’s candidates, has become an election of binding delegates. Consequently, the system has increasingly ceded decision-making to the masses. In the case of a demagogue like Donald Trump, who can stir up a strong provincial base, party leaders have no discretion to prevent his candidacy. Consider the scandal when a leak revealed that the Democratic National Committee tried to keep Bernie Sanders from winning the nomination. Detractors charged that this stifled democracy, rather than considering why a body like the DNC even exists (hint: largely to stifle democracy).
I would be willing to bet that these critics have never read “The Federalist Papers.” In Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton uses Athenian leader Pericles as an example of why popular democracy fails. He explains that when societies become overly democratic, demagogic leaders can force destructive changes with minimal deliberation. This deep understanding of political institutions and human nature can only come from someone steeped in literature. While our founding fathers read Thucydides and Cicero, today’s politicians read tweets and headlines.
This mode of thinking has diminished our understanding of political institutions to cheap value judgments. The speed and emptiness of our cognitive processes threaten to inflict serious damage on our republic. If Yale students want to make a difference, we can start by putting down our phones and picking up a book.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .