William Henry wrote In Defense of Elitism in 1994. Though the title may come across as pompous the book is actually a rallying cry for curiosity, exploration, and discovery for all. Henry was the Pulitzer Prize-winning culture critic for Time magazine. The book was slammed by critics as a very thinly veiled stab at egalitarianism. In fact, it was an attack on the dumbing down of society. More specifically, it identified the strange path America was on and goes a long way to explaining where it finds itself today.
One passage points out, “Today, even critical books about ideas are expected to be prescriptive, to conclude with simple, step-by-step solutions to whatever crisis they discuss. Reading itself is becoming a way out of thinking.”
Henry was accurate but may have miscalculated how quickly and, to what extent, this has taken hold in society. One only has to see the headlines in once-respected newspapers and magazines or take in the astonishing range of poorly written blogs or view scrolling tweets of perpetuating nonsense to conclude that we are losing the ability to search for, develop, and discover knowledge. This morning I was greeted with the following headlines from various sources “7 Things You Need to Know About …”, “13 Do’s and Don’ts of …”, “The 9 Most Common …”, “Top 10 Tips for …”, “5 Ways to …”.
Life and its complexities cannot be aggregated into bite-size, trite bits or distilled into platitudes lacking context, relevance, and practicality. Most of us have lost the ability or patience to research, dissect, debate, weigh, and absorb new information and process it into knowledge. Instead we expect, wait for, and recite checklists and how-to’s.
Equally shocking is how we do not validate the source. In a world where everyone is sharing more and more, we are not questioning authenticity and credibility from those espousing their opinions and views. I personally detest that online publications allow people to comment without providing their real, validated names. It is the equivalent of wearing a mask and throwing a brick through a window.
Henry identified that “People like small, manageable worlds – hence our enduring fascination with doll houses, our addiction to epigrammatic best-sellers, our attachment to slogans and buzzwords that address complexity without unraveling it.” He wrote that over twenty years ago and the situation has only grown precipitously worse.
Magazines and newspapers I grew up with were once detailed and dense with the richness needed to understand an issue and begin to base an opinion. Now so many are slim and fanciful along with duplicative in subject matter and editorial direction.
We are all being fed the same information from many sources then we share it with the social media tools at our disposal perpetuating without questioning the value. Henry identified that such a world and culture “leaves no place for the nooks and pinnacles of genius or morality, the audience gets what it wants and wants what it gets.” The result is homogeneity and mediocrity in mass amounts.
We have to take responsibility for the pursuit and attainment of knowledge. We should be pushing ourselves and from those we seek content to simply get better at its development. We have to stop accepting what is promoted as intelligence and question if we are truly learning.
John Locke said, “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” Thinking, critical thought, and the democracy of debate will ensure that at least a fraction of society will eschew mediocrity in the pursuit of an intellectual elitism that can benefit everyone.