Neal Gabler, with whom I seldom agree, has written a recent article in the NYT Magazine bemoaning the lack of “big ideas” in American society. One passage in particular struck me:

It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief.

He goes on to argue that it is the flood of information from the internet and social media that has squeezed out the the analytical modes of rationality, science, evidence, logical argument etc. to open the floodgates to superstition, faith, orthodoxy and opinion. The lack of these “Enlightenment” forms of analysis has in his view prevented the creation and dissemination of “big ideas.” Although I too have complained about the movement in American thought from rationality to these other forms of analysis (particularly in the abomination currently called political discourse), I would look for the cause elsewhere. Being both a teacher and somewhat of a the-political-economy-is-the-root-of-all-evil person, I would look for an explanation to how the current political and economic structure hamstrings education. In fact as many if not more of Gabler’s big ideas are being generated and even more widely disseminated than in days of yore. Academia is full of them. However they are being confined to increasingly isolated groups and are not reaching the mainstream media or the general public. They are not even throwing the distant shadows in the mainstream media that Gabler extolls. Part of this is the bifurcation of the educational system in which one part may be exposed to “big ideas” but the other is content to concentrate on instilling basic skills and is by the way failing to do even that. This is producing a public that does not care about these “big ideas” and a mainstream media that feels it has to cater to them to be profitable or attract an audience.

To be fair it has never been the case that  Freud, Marx, Einstein or John Rawls  (just to repeat some names that Gabler mentions) has ever made the NYT bestseller list or network television. Their ideas however have been mediated by  policy wonks, news-makers, or public intellectuals and through them to the general society. It is this link that has been reduced if not severed. We may still have wonks or public intellectuals and plenty of news-makers, but they seldom transmit these “big ideas.” Even when they do (e.g. small government is the best government) it is as ideologies of faith that cannot be compromised or debated rather than as ideas that need logic and evidence as support. This has led to intransigence and gridlock in a Washington D.C. that fiddles as America burns. It has led to a Karl Rove politics in which emotion and feelings matter more than truth, evidence and facts in getting people elected. It has led to an electorate that has divided itself into small faith based groups wielding disproportionate political power. It has led to people aligning their political support with those who do not have their best interests at heart. None of this is entirely new.  It is just that the extent of it has overwhelmed politics to the detriment of the country.

There is no panacea, no easy fix. The answer in the long run has to come from education even though it seems further away every day. Teachers have to transmit a respect for the “big ideas” as ideas that can be discussed, challenged, changed or even eventually accepted after careful consideration. The big ideas can come from the left or the right as long as they are considered “ideas” and not fact, as long as they are accepted as statements for debate not ideologies to be swallowed unquestioningly. This needs to be done in the education for the elite but more importantly in the education for the non-elite.  The ability to think for one’s self, logically consider what one hears, and to view another’s statements as points to be proven rather than “facts” to be accepted, these are the skills basic to the enlightened public necessary for a healthy democracy. They are also the basis for both art or science and the platform for innovation. If we want to be the country we say we want to be, we must do this better.

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