I honestly cannot recall a time in my 67-year-old life when America seemed more disjointed. Sure, the Vietnam era was one heckava mess, and the civil rights era was pretty messy too. But from the standpoint of governance, there was the presumption that politics was the art of compromise, and that the nation’s problems needed attention.
In addition, people voted. The major issues of the day were actually discussed and examined. Journalism and news reporting were taken seriously; the likes of Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, David Brinkley and Chet Huntley – all reporters who had spent time at the front in WW2 – lent an air of authority and gravity to television news. And newspapers were so popular that major cities like New York had not just one or two, but many dailies which included morning and afternoon editions. Time and Newsweek, along with Life and Look and The New Yorker were thick-paged, information-packed magazines eagerly awaited by a reading public.
And the public loved to read. Independent bookstores dotted the American landscape, and paperbacks could be found in drug stores and supermarkets, where today racks of health bars and sugarless gum are found. Though radio and television had changed the way people got their news, books were an indispensable element of American life, and had been for a very long time. The commitment to universal education in America began with its very first immigrants. Alexis DeToqueville, in his voluminous 18th century examination of Americans, remarked upon the fact that throughout America citizens loved to read books and converse on the issues.
Most, if not all this, has changed. Television news is nearly irrelevant; 140-character Tweets and Facebook posts are now the way breaking events are communicated. The same goes for print newspapers; by the time the single daily paper arrives, the information in it has already been disseminated over the Internet. Newspapers have become little more than advertising, and even that has diminished so greatly in our social-media era that revenues don’t exist to cover the expense of serious journalism.
But the most striking change is the dumbing-down of America. College students, focused almost entirely on getting credentials to help secure jobs, don’t know the basic facts of history, even recent history. School has become embedded within our materialist, consumer-based system; it’s not about learning to think it’s about charting a path to making money.
Over the course of the past 30 years, knowledge and the capacity to analyze and utilize it has so diminished that what used to pass for a college-educated American is now all but below the high-school level. As author Neil Postman sagely observed in the 1980’s, Americans are entertaining themselves to death.
Learning and reading take time, and America is in a terribly big hurry, too big a hurry to be bothered. Corporate values have turned workers into 24/7 drones; everything is about being “crazy busy” and time for thought and contemplation is an unavailable luxury. No wonder streaming media, selfies, virtual-reality headsets, Netflix downloads, 3-D movies and playlists have flourished; entertainment has become the “opiate of the masses.”
The development of curiosity, scholarship and critical thinking skills, sadly, are things of the past. Americans are getting dumber. Is there any other explanation for the rise of Donald Trump?