This month we wrap up our look at the deterioration of the American mind, particularly but not exclusively, as it relates to Christianity. As we saw last month, one of the foremost among the vectors of the new anti-intellectualism is video. The decline of book, newspaper, and magazine reading is by now old news. The drop-off is most pronounced among the young, but it continues to accelerate and afflict Americans of all ages and education levels.
A pronounced decline in reading is broad spectrum. Susan Jacoby (Washington Post) reports:
In 1982, 82 percent of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later, only 67 percent did. And more than 40 percent of Americans under 44 did not read a single book — fiction or nonfiction — over the course of a year. The proportion of 17-year-olds who read nothing (unless required to do so for school) more than doubled between 1984 and 2004. This time period, of course, encompasses the rise of personal computers, Web surfing and video games.
Neil Postman gives some brilliant insights on television’s impact on reading and thinking in his book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. He makes the case that we have moved from the age of exposition (that existed until the early 19th century) to the age of entertainment, which is all we have known. In the age of exposition, speakers and writers could assume a serious attention span, a deep comprehension level, a sophistication concerning the world and history, and a rigorous style of argument. On the other hand, the age of entertainment has led us to become visual learners with short attention spans, and an ignorance of world history and geography. Arguments are no longer made with propositions but with good looks, celebrities, and commercials.
Harvard University’s Kiku Adatto found that between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate — featuring the candidate’s own voice — dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds! Can you imagine only 7.8 seconds to get your point across? Contrast that to the format of the Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858: one candidate spoke for an hour, then the other candidate spoke for an hour and a half, and then the first candidate was allowed a half hour “rejoinder.” Can you imagine a debate like that today?
Jacoby’s third point (after our video culture and lack of basic history and geography skills) relates to our ethnocentricity. The mindset that only what happens between east coast and west coast matters leads us down a dangerous path that can also affect our view of missions. According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it “not at all important” to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it “very important.” This other factor of American dumbness is not lack of knowledge but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. This is basically anti-rationalism, a bias against a need to know. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism.
How can we, as globally-concerned Christians, afford to have an attitude like that? We can’t. As we close out this series, we must take a look at some cures for anti-intellectualism:
- Serious Bible study, scripture memory, a Bible read-through program.
- Develop a passion for reading.
- Turn off the TV. The average household has the TV on for 8 hours each day.
- Habitually engage in serious discourse over major topics of the day. Develop a disdain for trivia.
My prayer for each of us is that as we grow in Christ, we will also be developing the mind of Christ.
“For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).
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