The End of Literacy and Reality in the Age of Trump

Pulitzer prize–winner Chris Hedges charts the dramatic and disturbing rise of a post-literate society that craves fantasy, ecstasy and illusion.

Chris Hedges argues that we now live in two societies: One, the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world, that can cope with complexity and can separate illusion from truth. The other, a growing majority, is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic. In this “other society,” serious film and theater, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins.

– via Google Books “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” by Chris Hedges, 2009

I have not read the book, I have included a video by the author discussing his book in depth and a short excerpt.  My comments are from my own general observations.

“Journalist Chris Hedges discusses his book, “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,” at Cambridge Forum. Hedges argues that we now live in two societies; the first is literate and can cope with complexity. The second is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic.”

Journalism is dying from neglect.  “Intellectual” is elitist.  Donald Trump is a candidate, a political tsunami, in the 2016 presidential campaign.  We rally around the illusions of “personality cults”.  Indifferent to viability or detail, it’s how they make you feel and what they represent that matters.  We are attracted to sensational and inflammatory material like moths to flames, like flies to shit.   We have dumbed down to only reading and reacting to a sensational (often misleading) headline, scrolling news blurb, or a meme on Facebook.  People get the “news” from Facebook.  Shallow bits and pieces that are out of context become the story.  I am one of the few that actually reads articles before I post or comment on Facebook.

In our divided nation we defer to sources that support our of points of view.  We presume to know and discount “the other side”.   Liberals and conservatives, intellectuals or not – we cultivate our viewpoint with like-minded, biased, agenda driven, sources.   They filter, interpret, and encode information to solicit responses – engage the audience.  We have become uncompromising, but easily manipulated, tools.  I am always mindful of bias.  When I read an important article from an unfamiliar source, I quickly investigate that source.   If the piece cites other articles, statistics, or published studies, I seek out those sources.  I value opposing views and I check their sources too.

We have been dramatically defunding, devaluing, and restructuring education at all levels away from academics to quantified, empirical, performance.  The process of learning through guided inquiry, exploration, discovery, and analysis is officially discouraged.   Formulating a theory or a question, to explore, research, analyze, and draw your own conclusions – independent, reliable and objective source-based, conclusions – or just being well informed, has collectively been abandoned. Exposure to literature, history, analysis, and writing skills has collapsed without support. Our children memorize and practice what is necessary to achieve a number.  They may learn the value of opinion, but nothing about the quality.

The assault on education began more than a century ago by industrialists and capitalists such as Andrew Carnegie. In 1891, Carnegie congratulated the graduates of the Pierce College of Business for being “fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting” rather than wasting time “upon dead languages.”

The industrialist Richard Teller Crane was even more pointed in his 1911 dismissal of what humanists call the “life of the mind.” No one who has “a taste for literature has a right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness… is those who are useful.”

The arrival of industrialists on university boards of trustees began as early as the 1870s and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business offered the first academic credential in business administration in 1881. The capitalists, from the start, complained that universities were unprofitable. These early twentieth century capitalists, like heads of investment houses and hedge-fund managers, were, as Donoghue writes,

“motivated by an ethically based anti-intellectualism that transcended interest in the financial bottom line. Their distrust of the ideal of intellectual inquiry for its own sake, led them to insist that if universities were to be preserved at all, they must operate on a different set of principles from those governing the liberal arts.”

― Chris Hedges, “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle”

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