Glorifying the Doofus

I’m detecting a cultural theme here, as I watch Monk for the first time (I’m trying out Hulu). I’m also just coming off the Olympics, which I watched at, for the most part. That means I saw the trailer for Tropic Thunder about 132 times. And this summer, I saw Kung Fu Panda.

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.