Monday, May 19, 2008

Weekly Geeking: The Social Issues Installment

This week's Weekly Geeks topic:

"Choose a political or social issue that matters to you. Find several books addressing that issue; they don’t have to books you’ve read, just books you might like to read. Using images (of the book covers or whatever you feel illustrates your topic) present these books in your blog."

I was going to choose environmental issues, but that's just too darn easy. Since I've really become impassioned about the environment lately, I thought I'd give you a dose of something new that's equally titillating to me. Because I am an educator I'm always involved in enriching my students' critical thinking skills, and as I age, and as I continue to grow as a critical thinker and chronic questioner, I'm incredibly interested in issues of intellectualism (or anti-intellectualism as you'll see in some of the titles below) and education.

It's been a number of years ago, but as a high school teacher I once had a student say to me,

"Miss Miller, you're smarter than you act." At first I wasn't sure what to make of his comment. Flattered or flustered? I tend to be one of those teachers that does not break into lengthy impassioned speeches with my students. I rarely hop on a soap box. I rarely hit them over the head with my values and ideals. Instead, I like to lead through example, asking open-ended and "devil's advocate" types of questions in an effort to lead my students into some critical thinking of their own and leave them free to express their ideas no matter how different from my own they might be. In short, I try to ask students the questions they've never had to answer. Back then, as a 22-year-old high school teacher, I was not brave as an educator. I was not a creative educator, and I certainly didn't want to make too many waves or come off as pretentious.

That, folks, is the problem. So many times in my own life, and in the lives of my students, we've run into situations where a family member, a loved one, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a stranger with balls the size of basketballs says, "You and that education. You're gettin' above your raisin'!" or "God, you think too much. You make things so much more complicated than they should be."

In other words, many of the folks who get really vocal about education, social issues, etc. are simply labeled pretentious, overthinkers, wave makers. Trouble makers. I've gotten old enough and secure enough to say "damn those people" and go on with my overthinking. To me, these types of attitudes tend toward a sweeping plague of anti-intellectualism in this country, and I'm really interested in reading some books about the topic to explore it further.

Generally, my laid back, "devil's advocate" approach seems to work in my classroom. It's rare that a semester passes without a few students telling me, "Wow, you really made me think. It was hard work, but I learned a lot." And I can only hope that my students will continue to think critically, question those things that are generally considered "givens," and confront the everyday binaries they run into.

With these sentiments in mind, I bring you some titles on intellectualism, anti-intellectualism, and education. I have no idea whether or not I agree with these folks--as I haven't read the books--but they're definitely on my wishlist.

The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby

Blurb: Jacoby offers an unsparing indictment of the American addiction to infotainment--from television to the Web--and cites this toxic dependency as the major element distinguishing our current age of unreason from earlier outbreaks of American anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism. With reading on the decline and scientific and historical illiteracy on the rise, an increasingly ignorant public square is dominated by debased media-driven language and received opinion.

At this critical political juncture, nothing could be more important than recognizing the "overarching crisis of memory and knowledge" described in this impassioned, tough-minded book, which challenges Americans to face the painful truth about what the flights from reason has cost us as individuals and as a nation.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter

Blurb: A book which throws light on many features of the American character. Its concern is not merely to portray the scorners of intellect in American life, but to say something about what the intellectual is, and can be, as a force in a democratic society.

The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, by Elvin T. Lim

Blurb: How is it that contemporary presidents talk so much and yet say so little, as H. L. Mencken once described, like "dogs barking idiotically through endless nights?" In The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, Elvin Lim tackles this puzzle and argues forcefully that it is because we have been too preoccupied in our search for a "Great Communicator," and have failed to take presidents to task for what they communicate to us. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, he argues, spoke in a qualitatively different style than Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan and Clinton merely connected with us; the two Roosevelts educated us. To alert us to the gradual rot of presidential rhetoric, Lim examines two centuries of presidential speeches to demonstrate the relentless and ever-increasing simplificaton of presidential rhetoric. If these trends persist, Lim projects that the State of the Union addresses in the next century could actually read at the fifth-grade level.

Post-Intellectualism and the Decline of Democracy, by Donald N. Wood

Blurb: Our society's institutional infrastructures — our democratic political system, economic structures, legal practices, and educational establishment — were all created as intellectual outgrowths of the Enlightenment. All our cultural institutions are based on the intellectual idea that an enlightened citizenry could govern its affairs with reason and responsibility. In the late 20th century, however, we are witnessing the disintegration of much of our cultural heritage. Wood argues that this is due to our evolution into a post-intellectual society — a society characterized by a loss of critical thinking, the substitution of information for knowledge, mediated reality, increasing illiteracy, loss of privacy, specialization, psychological isolation, hyper-urbanization, moral anarchy, and political debilitation. These post-intellectual realities are all triggered by three underlying determinants: the failure of linear growth and expansion to sustain our economic system; the runaway information overload; and technological determinism. Wood presents a new and innovative social theory, challenging readers to analyze all our post-intellectual cultural malaise in terms of these three fundamental determinants.

Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, by Rafe Esquith

Blurb: From the man whom The New York Times calls "a genius and a saint" comes a revelatory program for educating today's youth. In Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, Rafe Esquith reveals the techniques that have made him one of the most acclaimed educators of our time. The two mottoes in Esquith's classroom are "Be Nice, Work Hard," and "There Are No Shortcuts." His students voluntarily come to school at 6:30 in the morning and work until 5:00 in the afternoon. They learn to handle money responsibly, tackle algebra, and travel the country to study history. They pair Hamlet with rock and roll, and read the American classics. Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire is a brilliant and inspiring road map for parents, teachers, and anyone who cares about the future success of our nation's children.


  1. I know what you mean about the occasional anti-intellectual comments. My favourites are the ones about how I'm supposedly trying to avoid the real world by doing the PhD.

  2. GREAT post, Andi - the books look fascinating too. I haven't decided yet what I'm going to pick for this week's Weekly Geeks...

  3. Very interesting topic! And not one that I think about too often, but I probably should. :) I think that one about how our presidents' rhetoric is getting dumber sounds both fascinating and terribly depressing, lol. And the teaching one at the end sounds like fun!

  4. I don't think we've gone quite as far in the anti-intellectual stakes in the UK as you seem to be suggesting is the case in the US, but you can definitely find people who feel that way. Most of my academic life was spent working with students who were the first in their families to go to University and every year i would have one or two students who would drop out because they couldn't handle the pressure that was being put on them by family members because they were 'different'. Most often this was the case when the student was a mature woman with a husband who felt threatened by the change he saw coming about. A very difficult situation.

  5. Oh, awesome, you have some books I didn't even know about. Sweet!

    As an aside, whereabouts do you live? Not exact location, but general area? I like in northeast Arkansas, and moved here from central for college -- I've never been out of Arkansas, really, so all my experience is a small sample of rural, religious life. I don't think it's possible to say anti-intellectualism is terrible everywhere, but instead that there are specific pockets of the country who are at risk for the behavior.

  6. These are some interesting books. I've actually ordered Susan Jacoby's book for our library. It is quite scary to see the direction this is going, isn't it? By the way, your pics were beautiful. Glad you had a good time!

  7. You sound like a great teacher. APPLAUSE! Great post. This is a good WeeklyGeek week.

  8. Oh, Stu, I hear ya on that. When I was going to do a PhD in English I had a number of people ask, "And what can you do with that?" Urrrg.

    Thanks, Wendy! I can't wait to see what you come up with for WG!

    Eva, that one looked especially interesting to me, too. And of course made me think of Dubya and "nucular." But that's just me. LOL

    That is such a good point, Ann. I see the same thing, and oftne it's those women with pressure from home not to be so darn smart or think so darn hard.

    Botte-of-sunshine...I'm in North Carolina now, but I grew up in rural Texas. From the sounds of things my students have a harder time of it here than I did growing up in Texas, although I did encounter it many times in my formative years.

    Thanks, Lisa! And yes, very scary. I saw an interview with Jacoby on BookTV, and while I do agree with many of the points I heard her discuss, she takes things to a different level than I might be willing to comply with. I'll talk about it at length when I read the book, but it seems like she's way more anti pop culture than I am. I did a good bit of my graduate work on issues that fall under the blanket of pop culture (film studies, graphic narrative studies).

    Thanks so much, BK!

  9. Great post, Andi . . . this semester, after I told my students that the NEA had found that reading helped people be more successful, one of my students said, "they must have slanted the results. Reading doesn't help anybody . . . " I nearly passed out and would have it this kind of mindset was uncommon in my classroom. Thanks for these recs - I'll have to check them out with ya.

  10. These all sound awesome--particularly the book about the Presidency and democracy.

    Awesome topic and suggestions.

  11. Thank you for reminding me to put Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire on my wishlist :-) The presidency one looks interesting also ...

  12. couple of other ones with a real political slant you might like: The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney and The Assault on Reason by Al Gore.

    I live in TN and i have heard the "reading doesn't do anything for anyone" way too many times. even from college students, which makes me wonder if they give any assignments in this state.


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