The Dawn of Idiocracy

My son’s generation is poised to become perhaps the first that questions nothing at all…

“The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

~George Carlin

This week I read about the 900+ writers who signed a letter to Amazon asking the company to stop selective retaliation of authors published by Hachette who are in a dispute with Amazon over e-book pricing. You can read about the letter here. And for simple explanation of the dispute, you can view this LA Times article. In all of this a current runs much deeper than it appears on the surface, one aimed not at sticking it to writers who worked hard to be where they are now but at control.

What bothers me about Amazon and the alleged bullying is not that I feel sorry for successful authors in the thick of this debate. Ok, actually I do. I know a little about what it takes to start writing a novel and finishing it. The success part? I am still waiting, but that’s a separate issue. What bothers me is that Amazon has gone from selling books to everything under the sun. Need a lawn mower? Check out Amazon prices. Need body wax? Look no further than Amazon. Can’t find that doo-hickey that does the thinga-mah-bob? My guess is Amazon has it.

Amazon has obliterated brick and mortar bookstores, both chain stores and independent operators, and with no other competition around it is attempting to fix prices namely because there’s no other game in town. In other words, control is the law of the land.

Don’t get me wrong. I am an Amazon Prime member. I also have a couple of books for sale on Amazon. Shameless self-promotion here. And over the years I have purchased plenty of items from Amazon; mostly books, but a few videos and perhaps a video game or two for my son.

So, O’Brien, why are you so hung up on the control issue? For the last thirty years or so there has been a systematic drive to create less critical thinkers in our society. A good many corporations, Amazon, while relatively new, can be counted among them, contribute to this drive by steering attention away from books and learning. In Amazon’s case, at least in my humble opinion, by offering all kinds of crap readers do not need. If you don’t believe me, go over to the Amazon web site. If you’re already signed in, then sign out. And then look at the home page. Right now, as I write this, there are ads for men’s fashion, solid state drives (not that I would know what a solid state drive is if you dropped one on my head), videos, and digital cameras. Did I leave out the Bluetooth Audio Receiver? How about the ad from Xfinity Triple Play? Never mind. Moving on.

Call me crazy. Laugh if you want. Go ahead. I’m thick-skinned that way so I don’t mind. Then ask yourself this: how does critical thinking help me get what I want? In the question I pose there are two operative words that sum up our culture: get and want.

Someone smarter than me once wrote that Americans, despite whatever label they self-apply—mother, father, CEO, postal employee, teacher, factory worker, carpenter, philosopher, are first and foremost consumers. This word ‘consumer’ need not be applied to those of us who feel compelled to buy things. A consumer can also be someone like me consuming electricity to write these words. As such, we are more concerned with wanting and getting than we are with thinking.

But O’Brien, you say, I’m finished college. Why do I need to think critically now? Or to put it more bluntly, in the words of one of my former professors, the late great John C. Berkey: “Oh fuck that, man.” Why? Because I am a member of the society in which you live. Because year in and year out many of us accumulate worthless crap that we just don’t need. Because no matter what side of the political fence you fall on we all vote for the same people who, when you get right down to it, don’t give a rat’s ass about their constituency. Sure you can vote for the person whom you think will end the deficit, eradicate war, bolster big business, lower taxes, etc.; but ultimately we do not matter to them.

The eradication of critical thinkers in any society is bad. We weep for other countries or at least feel uneasy when we see in the news that teachers, humanitarian aid workers, religious figures, or what have you are rounded up and summarily executed in the name of a system ‘wanting’ to gain power. Ironically, we cruise through our own lives in what David Foster Wallace referred to as the ‘default setting,’ not questioning things, not caring about anyone else but ourselves (and what we want to get), and generally not interested in bettering ourselves. We eschew radical thinking, but we will not think twice about gaining benefit from such radical thinking if it somehow becomes mainstream (penicillin, electricity, the telephone, equal rights, the list goes on and on). And we appear, as Americans, to be quite comfortable with the continued dumbing down of our population.

Case in point: my son’s high school summer reading list. It is peppered with books on a middle school reading level. Dumbing down gone wild. Was it a dream? Or do I remember when teachers attempted to challenge students with reading assignments? For my son, and his contemporaries, it’s a brave new world; one in which corporations have the last say in education (or what they loosely define as education).

It is the dawning of the age of idiocracy. My son’s generation is poised to become perhaps the first that questions nothing at all, that knows not how to offer resistance to detrimental conditions, that will not understand what all the fuss was about in the Sixties with Vietnam protests or even the Eighties with protests against nuclear proliferation, that closer to home none in his generation will stand up against police brutality, genetically modified foods, etc. Worse, my son’s generation will no longer understand why it is important to nurture their own ideas with the ideas of those who came before them. In short, they will lack critical thinking. As a parent, a writer, an educator, and a human being, I find that troubling.

But I Wanted an ‘A’ or, How to Avoid being a Tool

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It’s three days before Christmas. I have survived my first semester as an adjunct English professor. Today, despite every hunch telling me not to, I logged into my email account at one of the schools where I work. That was two hours ago. I am still reeling from the various emails I had received since I posted final grades.

There was one message from Student A that stood out from the rest. We will call her Tsunami. Over the semester, Tsunami showed promise; but, somewhere in week ten, she shut down. Being the kindhearted, likeable fellow I am, equal parts fuzzy warm thoughts and fairness, I spoke to Tsunami about her lack of enthusiasm for two essay assignments; neither of which she turned in by the cutoff date (a rather liberal one that I would have never been afforded in my days as an undergraduate student).

“I just don’t get it,” came her reply.

So we talked some more. Our class was met twice a week. One of those days were devoted entirely to writing in a computer lab. Thinking this may be of benefit, since I am there with my students, I discussed this with Tsunami.

“I can’t write with other people around me,” she told me.

After that, Tsunami missed class quite a few times between that day and the semester’s end. Admittedly, I am not a believer in taking attendance. Nothing says ‘you’re not really adults, even though college is supposed to mean you are’ like taking attendance.

On the day the final essay was due, Tsunami came to class. She shuffled through some papers in a binder. When I asked her if she had her paper ready to turn in she looked at me with big doe eyes and replied, “No.”

Today, Tsunami’s email read as follows: ‘I am very upset about my final grade. I thought I was doing well in your class. I thought I would at least get a B. I need to keep my GPA closer to the A range.’

Well, I would like to have a winged horse like Pegasus to fly to and from work so I can avoid brain-dead drivers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I would also like to, in no particular order, do the following:

A) Publish my novel with a big-house publisher and make oodles of money, maybe even get a movie deal, and, if not, at least a television mini-series deal.

B) Eradicate cancer (even though I know next to nothing about the science behind disease eradication).

C) Own the aforementioned winged horse that would live in a posh stable located on the first floor of my magic castle (see D).

D) Live in a magic castle where it’s never too cold or never too hot, where the libraries (that’s right, plural) are made soundproof, and there are plenty of rooms with in-wall, state of the art gigantic flat screen televisions, where no one has to climb stairs; instead, the rooms shift like blocks in a Rubik’s Cube (it is, after all, a magic castle), and where many other fine accoutrements satisfy my every whim.

The list goes on, but for our purposes here these four items should suffice.

I am not sure where the disconnect occurred in recent history; the one in which college students have become obsessed with all things grade-point-average-related. Maybe they are victims of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ legislature. Maybe this culture of instant satisfaction we live in fostered these ideals. Or maybe they equate a high GPA and a degree with some magic elixir that will allow others to see them as ‘smart,’ land the job they dream about, and make a decent living.

The purpose of college, at its most basic level, is to promote a level of literacy that students need not only to function in society but to aid in developing changes. This comes not only from English composition classes like mine, but other disciplines such as mathematics, psychology, the sciences, and a host of others, both required and elective, that aid in shaping a still developing mind.

In helping to shape a mind, the job of the educator, as it was explained by someone dear to me and far more intelligent than I ever hope to be, is to take students out of their comfort zone and explore ideas that they would be unwilling to on their own. If an educator is successful, students will bounce back toward the comfort zone, but never occupy the same space again.

What will happen to students like Tsunami? They will be hard-pressed to become culturally literate, and while they may think they are free, they will remain unable to to contribute to society in the way people who live in a democratic society should.

Of course if there is a silver lining, it this: Tsunami, like so many others who desire fantastic grades and perfect GPAs without doing any of the work, will remain ignorant of the injustices being carried out within the society which she lives. She will remain a tool: an instrument used by others.