Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Power Outage on Enlightenment

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage*. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment. Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment

*Nonage: the condition of "not [being] of age."

In The Dumbing of America, Susan Jacoby explores a concern dear to my heart, the self-imposed closing of the American mind as successive generations opt more and more for, in her words, video culture over print culture.

It's a point made previously by, inter alios, Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence and Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death.

At the core of the Protestant Revolution was a belief that man could learn about the world in which we live, in a sense, by himself. This, I believe, is true. Whether man is willing to do the work is another matter. Perhaps our material successes, or, maybe better stated, the material fruits of the ingenuity of those who came before has led many to the view that they needn't do the work- that such work is beneath them.

For, as Ms. Jacoby notes: the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism -- a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism.

Sometimes populations can be "scared straight," or in this case literate, and who knows, such a scare could be right around the corner.

Kurt Vonnegut may have hit the nail on the head in answering this question.

Int: you have any ideas for a really scary reality TV show?

Vonnegut: “C students from Yale.” It would stand your hair on end.

But hey, I've go to run. There's an episode of Law and Order starting in a few minutes.