Glorifying the Doofus
Kung Fu Panda is the story of a martial arts fanatic named Po who's not very bright, in poor physical condition, but has a dream. He accidentally ends up being crowned the Dragon Warrior to fight a big battle, and is taught by serious warriors who have been training for years. He wins because he's lucky and has heart. Similarly, the guys in Tropic Thunder are actors thrust into a real dangerous situation. They also appear to be nincompoops put into extraordinary circumstances. And Monk is clearly deranged, with numerous neurotic symptoms, although his brilliant deductions solve the crimes. His perspicacity seems as accidental and unnerving as his neuroses.
Unlike previous movies and tv shows with a similar theme (i.e. Karate Kid), the characters do not improve in intelligence or mental health as part of the story. Po does not get into condition or become more suitable as a warrior. The character flaws remain, and changes come via the external world. The other warriors come to appreciate the panda, Monk is enabled by his co-workers, and the actors become famous because their reality documentary wins an Oscar.
This approach fits right in with reading I've been doing regarding the decline of knowledge among Americans. Anti-intellectualism is now cool. According to Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation, young people in particular don't mind that they know little factual information pertaining to citizenship or history. I haven't yet figured out whether that particular point is OK or not. My approach to history is not based on the retention of factual information, but rather the application of historical skills like interpretation and analysis. As I've read the book, two things have occurred to me. First, there's no doubt that students know less about everything than they used to. Second, parents who grew up during times of deprivation or war tend to want their kids to have an easier life. This has happened -- the current generation of young middle-class people have a high standard of living, to judge by their pasttimes. Each generation hopes that the next generation will not have to work as hard.
Schoolwork is hard work. It has been the method by which each generation has gotten ahead of their parents: earn a college degree, get a better career. And the opportunity to do so in this country has continually expanded for the last century. Access has become more important than anything, as the dream of mandatory schooling for everyone has become reality. Most middle class kids expect access to college, and a degree as a ticket to a job. College is a process, a series of hoops, not necessarily a learning experience or a place to obtain knowledge or wisdom. It's like Po entering the Jade Temple, where the real scholars are, those who have worked hard, are talented, have earned their place. Naster Shifu has to adapt his teaching methods to the panda, using food as a motivator. Only then can the student rise to the level necessary to win.
Why is it so cool to be anti-intellectual? I think it's the intensely social nature of our society. Modern technologies are all about connecting people to each other, often in ways that have nothing to do with the transfer of knowledge. Connections in and of themselves are the point. It's not the content, it's the connection. Po succeeds because not only does he win, he connects with his competitors and teachers, becomes appreciated by the community. The Tropic Thunder documentary gets public recognition. Monk wins his cases and is known around town.
All the same, I am concerned about the loss of characters who improve themselves, learn something, and turn to the intellect as a means of solving problems. The stories must be satisfying, or they wouldn't be so pervasive. Perhaps we're all at some level a doofus. And we want to believe we'll come out on top anyway. But I'm not sure where actual education stands if there is no motivation to improve oneself.
Cop or Mom?
As with the seat belt law, here's another one designed to make sure people do what they should do anyway. And now police are burdened with having to watch for drivers not buckling up and chatting on phones. I would much rather they get quickly to the scene of a crime, or monitor the crosswalks near our local school, where idiot drivers practically run over kids' heels every morning in the crosswalk. In fact, when I requested a patrol be sent there between 8:50 and 9:00 am on a weekday to witness this dangerous behavior, I was told there weren't enough officers to do that. Evidently they're needed for chat check instead.
Yep, this is a rant. The seat belt and cell phone laws are designed to make you do what you would do anyway if you'd listened to your mother. If you have or had a mom, she likely told you to be careful, do things the safe way. That's what most moms do. If you listened to your mom, you'd always buckle your seatbelt. You would not use the cell phone while driving, nor would you do what I consider the more hazardous "while driving" behaviors: arguing with your spouse, crying as you sing to that sad song on the radio, eating a hamburger, or putting on makeup, none of which is against the law...yet.
Grownups, however, by virtue of their advanced age, do not have to listen to their mother. So they drive like idiots, do unsafe things, endanger kids in crosswalks, etc. BTW, there is no law about the crosswalk thing. Apparently it's totally OK to start moving your car while a pedestrian is still in the crosswalk, so long as you came to a complete stop at the stop sign first. Nevertheless, I'd bet your mother would tell you it's not a safe thing to do.
Compelling does not mean accurate
But compelling does not mean accurate. Many false ideas are very compelling. Other works, like Thomas Gilovich's 1991 How We Know What Isn't So and the more recent Freakonomics (the authors have their own blog now) make this point well. People believe things they think of as facts which cannot be supported by evidence.
It seems to be trendy to base ones decisions, and even ones whole mindset, on elements that are irrational. I suppose in the larger sociological sense I am not surprised that people would act based on irrational impulses. But it makes me wonder what I'm doing as a college history instructor. History, of course, is about interpretation. But interpretation is based on facts; historical analysis must be proven with data and evidence. When students persist in sharing their feelings about a subject, and latching on to compelling but false information, it's hard to fight the trend.
Take for example the Columbus story. Many people believe that Columbus was a hero because he defied the idea of a flat earth. And yet no one has ever seriously believed that the earth was flat. Most of my students reside near the beach, where one can gaze out across the Pacific Ocean and actually see the curvature of the earth. The myth seems to have developed to give recent immigrants pride in the European heritage during the early 20th century, by showing Columbus as an individualistic visionary. The flat-earth story is, in other words, powerful enough to stick. It sticks because Americans feel it is right to succeed in the face of stodginess, to boldly venture out and be proven correct in ones singular mission. The story feels good even though Columbus' success was based on accident because his own geographic information was, in fact, false.
Similarly, I often read final exams claiming that in today's society, women are socially and economically on equal footing with men. This is despite clear statistics indicating it isn't so. It is compelling, and important, for students to believe that we have total equality. It seems emotionally necessary. Most of the white students feel the same way about racism, that it's an issue of the past. Despite the very real possibility that such a view could prevent people from generating any positive social change, the idea of equality sticks because it is so satisfying.
This modern form of woolly thinking, as Gilovich notes, is simply more comfortable to the mind than actual analysis of the facts. Fewer Americans these days seem to enjoy intellectual activity for its own sake. Regardless of how much we "teach" people to think clearly, and use evidence, it's much easier for them to express how they feel, which ideas they've found compelling, which fit with the concepts they already believe.
Belief seems to be becoming the foundation of thought. Scientific, rational issues, such as global warming or wiretapping, have become areas of belief rather than cogent analysis. I hear people say "do you believe in global warming?" If I believe that two plus two equals five, if that idea is compelling to me, it becomes my foundation for thought on the issue of arithmetic. If I see a movie that shows me that Queen Elizabeth was a closet romantic, or that Achilles had a California accent, or that Hitler was a tragic figure, and I feel these ideas "make sense" to me, it will color my view of history.
Robert Draper's recent book on the Bush presidency, Dead Certain, indicates that such a belief-based approach can be helpful in running a country -- there is no substitute for knowing you are right, even when you're wrong. Somehow certitude itself is now seen as admirable. The attachment to powerful ideas rather than facts is seen as the moral stand, the righteous position. But it isn't, at least not in a society based on rational ideas rather than fanaticism.
I am supposed to teach history as a social science, not a set of moral precepts. It makes me wonder whether the ancient Greeks were right, that history is a subject for teaching morality rather than objectivity. I begin to wonder whether it is possible to do both without transforming history into a belief system?
Oolong and pop culture
It not only made me laugh (and who wouldn't need that after my last post?) but I had to go look it up and discover the story of Oolong the rabbit, who balanced things on his head.
The student was answering a question about how pop culture signifies a need for change, and here was an internet meme which, while perhaps not expressing a need for change, was definitely pop culture. And, after grading a bunch of exams, a bunny with a dorayaki on his head was definitely what I needed!
next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water
-- e e cummings
In the blogosphere and on websites, the story is titled "Heather Mills bores plane passengers", "Heather Mills 'Humiliated' After Impromptu Dance", and even "Heather Mills Does a Rubbish Dance on a Plane".
Now, you might think I'd consider this a non-story, but I am seeing here a distancing of a generation of people from other people. Whether or not she was a celebrity, Mills and Roberts tried to entertain the passengers, and were greeted with total silence. How rude. Non-response after giving it your all. Did the passengers think they were watching TV? Did it never enter their minds that it might hurt the dance couple's feelings, or be socially inappropriate to not respond?
I have had similar experiences in teaching (I'm sure most teachers have). You give it your all, and are stared at in stony silence. I see a connection between passive media and this sort of behavior. One becomes accustomed to TV and the web presenting without requiring a response. At times I have wanted to dance around myself and say, "excuse me, I am not a TV, but a real live person -- can you give me some feedback, please?"
On the other hand, perhaps the performers were used to it. I actually watched a single episode of "Dancing with the Stars" (I am so not a TV watcher), and was stunned. I watched because I enjoy ballroom dancing, and was told in dance class that lessons nationwide are experiencing enrollment growth because of this show. The totally lack of civility (not to mention the minimal time showing actual dancing) appalled me. Amazing levels of rudeness from the judges and contestants, and it was obvious that (a) that was what viewers tuned in for, and (b) everyone behaving badly thought they were being witty. Voltaire would be horrified.
When I mentioned my reaction to people who watch TV a lot, they said, "oh, yeah, all the reality shows are like that". So reality is performers doing things and getting insulted. Then real reality is people trying to entertain others on a plane and being treated rudely. The implication for civil social discourse is scary. Manners are sometimes called the oil that makes the machine of society run more smoothly. I guess we're more interested in the friction.
Quotation for Today
-- Albert Einstein, Why Socialism? (1949)
The Sound of Clocks
In this case, as I lay in bed listening to the clock ticking, it occurred to me how many people don't. I have a number of clocks, and the watches I wear are all wind-ups, most of them bought on eBay.
I object to digital clocks and watches on the grounds that they make no functional sound and do not demonstrate the sweep of time. Time moves, it passes, it doesn't just add up like a numerical equation (i.e. McDonalds' "24 billion served"). It is cyclical, like our bodies, our lives, our history. The face of a real watch shows the sweep of time; you can see not only how far the day has gone but how far it has yet to go.
And the sound is not only of time itself ticking away, but of the actually function of the device. Not an electronic beep that has to be set, but the tune of the watch mechanism functioning. And when it stops, that stopping is completely predictable -- I must wind it every 24 hours. None of this "ohmigod I'm late -- my watch battery died!". I become part of the passing of time.