Half isn't always better
In this instance, it's taken me about three weeks. First came the author (guy by the name of Muller) and just this morning in all of an instance I recalled the book's title and the author's full name. It popped into my head as my wife was telling me about some bit of office politics where she works. Ironically, I could recall the exact place on the open page where the idea appeared (upper left-hand corner) even when I couldn't remember much else.
Then, poof, there it was: "The Uses of History" by Herbert J. Muller. A quick Google search corrected me. The actual title is The Uses of the Past: Profiles of Former Societies. Muller was a mid-century historian, but "Uses" is not an academic history. It's more a meditation on past societies and their uses for understanding today (or at least 1955). It's a book filled with mind candy insights and historical incongruities.
The particular idea that has stuck with me all these years was Muller's reminder that mass public education is a relatively recent and unique feature of the human experience. Historically speaking, most societies have been comprised of a thin veneer of extremely well-educated people and a horde of ignorant and illiterate people. That's it. In fact, it's only been in the past 200 years or so (and then only in more industrialized societies) that there has been any effort to change this ratio.
What has emerged, Muller notes, is not a swelling of the ranks of the well-educated; rather, it has been the emergence of an entirely new class of people: the half-educated. These are people who can read but often don't. Or at least they don't read critically or with any mindfulness of how their own biases may cripple their judgments. These are people who can put together arguments and often do, but they can't do it well or with anything resembling consistency or intellectual humility. In short, they have some of the tools for thinking but they lack the inclination or facility for disciplined thought.
Today, Muller points out, the half-educated make up a sizable portion of the population. They also have access to enormous amounts of information and are quick to form judgments. I recently sat and listened to someone I like very much make judgment after judgment on a subject with absolute conviction after having read a single article on "white identity" politics. This isn't surprising, I suppose. I see students form judgments on dubious or incomplete information all the time. What struck me in this case was the impassioned certainty of my friend's convictions. He had read something and he knew. Any other view of the matter was absurd. It simply did not need to be considered.
Where the low caliber of debate in the most recent election had depressed me, it had invigorated my friend, who had never previously taken much interest in politics. Listening to him, I was reminded of a scene from Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, in which the narrator likens the workings of the totalitarian mind to a cogwheel with a few metal teeth missing. It revolves perfectly for a few moments, then slides violently past the broken cog only to catch and start turning in unison once more. The wheels are moving--not perfectly by any means and with some unruly jerks and slides--but there is a semblance of functionality.
Many of my colleagues have taken the recent revelations of fake news and the talk of "post-truth" politics as evidence that the critical thinking and information literacy skills we prize in the academy are more needed and relevant today than ever before. I don't disagree. But I also can't help wondering if it's also an indictment of all the half-educated we've credentialed and cranked out year after year after year...