Roger Ebert has gotten mighty cantankerous of late, and I love it. He’s always been one of my favorite critical thinkers, and his latest blog rant endears me to him even more.
The piece, entitled “The Gathering Dark Age,” is mostly Ebert complaining about the fact that young filmgoers are increasingly apathetic about reading reviews, which is exacerbated by the ever more insipid mass media machine that refuses the sort of intelligence and critical thinking which characterized older eras of journalism. Instead, the marketing and advertising arms of media conglomerates are setting the agenda and setting it low. With few in the media asking challenging or provocative questions of films anymore, it’s no wonder that most people under 25 have learned to consume media without the filter of critical thinking.
But it was this paragraph of Ebert’s article that particularly struck me:
"If I mention the cliché "the dumbing-down of America," it's only because there's no way around it. And this dumbing-down seems more pronounced among younger Americans. It has nothing to do with higher educational or income levels. It proceeds from a lack of curiosity and, in many cases, a criminally useless system of primary and secondary education. Until a few decades ago, almost all high school graduates could read a daily newspaper. The issue today is not whether they read a daily paper, but whether they can."
The problem with kids today is not that they aren’t motivated to be successful and/or change the world, it’s that they aren’t curious about the world. They aren’t interested in thinking critically, deliberately, and probingly about anything, unless it spells immediate pleasure and or advancement for their life. They are utilitarians in the first place, bored by any inquiry that lasts more that a few minutes or which requires more than a few Wikipedia searches.
Some people will say that this is because young people today don’t read. They don’t read newspapers, they don’t read journals or magazines, and fewer and fewer of them read books of any real depth. I’m not sure this is the source of the problem as much as it is one side effect. Media changes. If the future of media is indeed “bite sized” or visual or interactive in some way, so be it. Meaningful ideas will always find a way to be mediated, whether it’s books or films or Kindle. The real question is: will anyone be interested in ideas in the future?
The real problem—the true crisis that needs to be addressed in our lifetime—is that kids these days are raised with no enchantment of the world. They’re born into a world where every answer is at their fingertips (just a Google search away), every wonder and excitement is available on X-Box or Netflix, and little in existence is shrouded in any sort of mystery or transcendence. There’s a lot that entertains us but very little anymore that intrigues us. There is a ton of stuff that provides us pleasure but hardly anything that piques our interest.
One of the big culprits of this predicament, as Ebert noted, is the failure of our education system. Our schools are more like factories these days than they are centers of learning. They are places of standardization where students are numbers, degrees are barcodes, and ideas are merely yes or no questions on the SAT. Where are the schools that are truly interested in inspiring students to want to learn? Where are the teachers willing to model an inquisitive spirit for their pupils? They are out there, to be sure, but the system does so little to support them.
More important than systems and bureaucracies in all this, however, are families. Parents. If we want our kids to care about learning and thinking and discovering, we have to model this curiosity for them and raise them in that spirit. We have to read books to them constantly, take them to the zoo, the museum, but we also have to keep them shielded from the desensitizing, demystifying influences of mass culture. Turn off the TV. I don’t care if it’s PBS. Give your kids a paintbrush instead. Take them to the park. Show them the stars and constellations. Teach them to ask questions.
The crisis of the 21st century will not necessarily be a lack of intelligence or the inability to think. Rather, the crisis will be the lack of knowing what to think about or caring to think about anything in the first place.