Over dinner a few weeks ago, the novelist Lawrence Naumoff told a troubling story. He asked students in his introduction to creative writing course at UNC-Chapel Hill if they had read Jack Kerouac. Nobody raised their hand. Then he asked if anyone had ever heard of Jack Kerouac. More blank expressions.
Naumoff began describing the legend of the literary wild man. One student offered that he had a teacher who was just as crazy. Naumoff asked the professor’s name. The student said he didn’t know. Naumoff then asked this oblivious scholar, “Do you know my name?”
After a long pause, the young man replied, “No.”
“I guess I’ve always known that many students are just taking my course to get a requirement out of the way,” Naumoff said. “But it was disheartening to see that some couldn’t even go to the trouble of finding out the name of the person teaching the course.”
The floodgates were opened and the other UNC professors at the dinner began sharing their own dispiriting stories about the troubling state of curiosity on campus. Their experiences echoed the complaints voiced by many of my book reviewers who teach at some of the nation’s best schools.
All of them have noted that such ignorance isn’t new—students have always possessed far less knowledge than they should, or think they have. But in the past, ignorance tended to be a source of shame and motivation. Students were far more likely to be troubled by not-knowing, far more eager to fill such gaps by learning. As one of my reviewers, Stanley Trachtenberg, once said, “It’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t care about what they don’t know.”
This lack of curiosity is especially disturbing because it infects our broader culture. Unfortunately, it seems both inevitable and incurable.
In our increasingly complex world, the amount of information required to master any particular discipline—e.g. computers, life insurance, medicine—has expanded exponentially. We are forced to become specialists, people who know more and more about less and less.
This is occurring at a time when Americans increasingly put work at the center of their lives even as the rise of globalization and other free market approaches have turned job security into an anachronism. In this frightening new world, students do not turn to universities for mind expansion but vocational training. In the parlance of journalism, they want news they can use.
Upon graduation, they must devote ever more energy to mastering the floods of information that might help them keep their wobbly jobs. Crunched, they have little time to learn about far-flung subjects.
The narrowcasting of our lives is writ large in our culture. Faced with a near infinite range of knowledge, the Internet slices and dices it all into highly specialized niches that provide mountainous details about the slightest molehills. It is no wonder that the last mainstream outlet of general knowledge, the daily newspaper, is suffering declining readership. When people only care about what they care about, their desire to know something more, something new, evaporates like the morning dew.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. In comforting response to these exigencies, our culture gives us a pass, downplaying the importance of knowledge, culture, history and tradition. Not too long ago, students might have been embarrassed to admit they’d never heard of Jack Kerouac. Now they’re permitted to say “whatever.”
When was the last time you met anyone who was ashamed because they didn’t know something?
It hasn’t always been so. When my father, the son of Italian immigrants, was growing up in the 1930s and 40s, he aspired to be a learned man. Forced to go to work instead of college, he read “the best books,” listened to “the best music,” learned which fork to use for his salad. He watched Fred Astaire puttin’ on his top hat and tyin’ up his white tie, and dreamed of entering that world of distinction.
That mind-set seems as dead as my beloved Dad. The notion of an aspirational culture, in which one endeavors to learn what is right, proper and important in order to make something more of himself, is past.
In fairness, the assault on high culture and tradition that has transpired since the 1960s has paid great dividends, bringing long overdue attention to marginalized voices.
Unfortunately, this new freedom has sucker punched the notion of the educated person who is esteemed not because of the size of his bank account or the extent of his fame but the depth of his knowledge. Instead of a mainstream reverence for those who produce or appreciate works that represent the summit of human achievement, we have a corporatized and commodified culture that hypes the latest trend, the next new thing.
People are shaped by the world around them. In our here, now, get-the-job-done environment of modern America, the knowledge for knowledge’s sake ethos that is the foundation of a liberal arts education—and of a rich and satisfying life—has been shoved to the margins. Curiously, in a world where everything is worth knowing, nothing is.
This column is included in my new book, Off the Books: On Literature and Culture.