From: Age of Ignorance by Charles Simic, New York Review of Books (edited)
It took years of indifference and stupidity to make us as ignorant as we are today.
Anyone who has taught college over the last forty years, as I have, can tell you how much less students coming out of high school know every year.
At first it was shocking, but it no longer surprises any college instructor that the nice and eager young people enrolled in your classes have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught.
Teaching American literature, as I have been doing, has become harder and harder in recent years, since the students read little literature before coming to college and often lack the most basic historical information about the period in which the novel or the poem was written, including what important ideas and issues occupied thinking people at the time.
One is confronted with the problem of how to remedy their vast ignorance about things they should have already been familiar with as the generations of students before them were.
The pernicious kind of ignorance we confront is the product of years of political polarization and the deliberate effort by the most fanatical and intolerant parties to lie about many aspects of our history and even our recent past.
I recall being stunned when I read that a majority of Americans told pollsters that Saddam Hussein was behind September 11 terrorist attacks. It struck me as a propaganda feat unsurpassed by the worst authoritarian regimes of the past — many of which had to resort to labor camps and firing squads to force their people to believe some untruth, without comparable success.
The Internet and cable television have allowed various political and corporate interests to spread disinformation on a scale that was not possible before, but to have it believed requires a badly educated population unaccustomed to verifying things they are being told.
“Stupidity is sometimes the greatest of historical forces,” Sidney Hook said once. No doubt. What we have in this country is the rebellion of dull minds against the intellect.