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Culture Matters

Eugene Robinson is one of the more thoughtful members of America’s “pundocracy.” This morning’s column is an example; in descriptive paragraphs that suggest our politicians are fiddling while America burns, he says

“The central issue is the prospect of decline. For much of the 20th century, the United States boasted the biggest, most vibrant economy in the world and its citizens enjoyed the best quality of life. The former is still obviously true; the latter, arguably still the case. But there is a sense that we’re fading — that tomorrow might not be as bright as today.

Our systems seem to have become sclerotic. The United States still has the finest colleges and universities in the world, but now ranks no higher than fifth among 36 industrialized countries in the percentage of working-age adults who have at least an associate degree, according to a 2011 report by the College Board. We have the most expensive medical care in the world yet rank 50th in life expectancy, behind such nations as Jordan and Greece, according to the CIA Factbook. Our society now features less economic mobility than is found in Canada and much of Europe, according to the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Our manufacturing sector is just a shadow of what it once was, and that’s not China’s fault. Because of automation and the globalization of the labor market, rich countries can only excel at high-endmanufacturing that requires more brains than brawn. Our future lies in knowledge and information. So let’s go there.”

Well and good–it’s difficult to disagree with him. Certainly, this college professor isn’t going to dispute the importance of education. So why can’t we seem to “go there,” as Robinson urges?

I certainly don’t have a dispositive diagnosis for what ails us right now, but I think I can identify one piece of the problem. We have developed a culture that sneers at intellect, that dismisses expertise and knowledge as “elitist,” and that elevates impulse and “gut” over rationality. The popular culture elevates belief over knowledge (the Founders were all “bible-believing” Christians; there’s no such thing as global warming, etc. etc.), and minimizes the Enlightenment virtues–empirical investigation, respect for evidence, belief in human dignity–that animated our origins.

I don’t know how we got here (although I have a couple of theories), and I don’t know how to turn things around, but I know where such a culture will take us if we cannot reverse course. Anyone who has ever raised children understands that they aspire to the goals and live by the values of their environments, primarily but not exclusively the values held by their families. “Do as I say and not as I do” rarely works. Children know what sorts of achievement are genuinely valued, what sorts of behavior will really be admired.

Right now, the message our culture is sending is not conducive to intellectual rigor–or to intellectual honesty, for that matter.

And that matters.