Tuesday, June 21, 2016

This un-sexy post will not titillate you

"I loved the philosophy classes."  The young man, who only a decade ago was a college freshman, recalled his experiences as we met over a wonderful breakfast, which I never imagined could happen in the dull and boring town that serves as my state's capital ;)

He did not major, nor minor, in philosophy.  But, the three required courses he still remembers and relishes.  "In my classes now, I try to sneak in some philosophy ideas" he gleefully added.

Ever the party-pooper, I cleared my throat.  "Ahem, the university and the program now operate in a business model where customers have to be kept happy.  So, guess what?  Because lots of students complained about philosophy, it has been trimmed down in the curriculum."

The old master crushed the old student's spirits  :(

I am always the bearer of bad news, apparently.  Why can't I ever be like Oprah telling the audience, "You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!"

For years now, I have been talking and writing about the dilution of higher education.  In one of my newspaper op-eds, I wrote that there is nothing higher nor education in "higher education."  But, I was warned that such will be the society in which I will work and live--Ray Bradbury predicted with uncanny accuracy (except the physical act of book burning) in his Fahrenheit 451:
Fahrenheit 451 also speaks of, and to, a culture that was becoming more superficial and philistine, in which television screens cover entire walls, where, in the words of the fire-chief Beatty: ‘School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected… Life is immediate… Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches.’ Bradbury had expressed his disquiet at ‘the great centrifuge of radio, television, pre-thought-out movies, and so forth. Give us no time to “stop and stare”.’
Bradbury, who to me was always more a social commentator disguised as a science fiction writer, wrote Fahrenheit 451 well before the age of flat screen TVs that seem to cover entire walls, and before anybody had even imagined a smartphone.  The book was published in 1953!  Here we are in 2016, discussing how philosophy courses have been dropped from the curriculum.  Language proficiency is no longer a mark of an educated person, it seems.  Spelling is old-fashioned.  Nobody wants to stand and stare, and think.  Because, after all, thinking could possibly lead to unhappiness.

Over the years, I have asked practically every introductory class of mine whether students have read Fahrenheit 451. It is a percentage that gets to be a smaller and smaller number with every passing year.  One year, I practically dared students to read it over the spring break and then discuss it with me.  Guess how many showed up in my office?

The contemporary life is all about momentary happiness.  Instant gratification seems to be our collective motto.  Therefore, not a moment shall be spent in deep thinking, which requires people to turn away from the flat screens on the walls and the bright screens in their hands.

Bradbury wrote:
Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right?... That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure and titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.
We seem to live for "pleasure and titillation."  Everywhere we turn, society now offers more and more avenues for "pleasure and titillation."  The pleasure from reading Fahrenheit 451 is certainly not titillation!

The author of the essay, which reminded me about my own thoughts on Fahrenheit 451, writes:
Forever trying to be the optimist, Ray Bradbury couldn’t but help demand vigilance about the future. He was like Orwell: a progressive who banefully acknowledged man’s flawed nature, his timeless thirst for power, forever wanting to push people around and tell others what to do and what to say. And, as with Orwell, Bradbury recognised that tyranny is at its most potent when it’s superficially most benevolent, when it dresses up coercion and censorship in kindly, caring language. A society that believes it paramount to keep its citizens safe, happy and comfortable for the greater good can not, and will not, tolerate dangerous words.
Which is why I wrote, in response to this debater's comment, that serious fiction makes us worry about down the continuum, if the trends continued along in the same direction.  After all, as the old Chinese saying goes, "if we don’t change the direction in which we are headed, we will end up where we are going."


Ramesh said...

I haven't read Fahrenheit 451. I can't read it in the spring break because firstly we don't have spring and secondly, I don't have a break. I will however read it when I get back to blogging and then debate with you :)

If you really view history not from rose tinted glasses, but realistically, the percentage of people who deeply thought or contemplated was not very different from today. Most of the population did care only for instant gratification and titillation - just that it may have been in a different form. I am not convinced that the percentage has widely varied over the years. Sure there are periods like the Renaissance, but they are the exceptions.

That doesn't take away the central point of your argument. Serious reading, thought, contemplation and articulation of ideas should be fundamental to humankind. Except that I think when it comes to Nabokov, I must draw the line :)

Sriram Khé said...

I would not have cared if a hundred years ago people did not read and think. But, now, we--across the world--are the most literate and educated ever. But, if, despite that, we continue to be unthinking and preferring instant gratification, then what is the point of being educated? Are money and entertainment all that matter in life?

Anne in SALEM said...

Ahem?? "The dull and boring town that serves as my state's capital ;)" I'll have you know that Salem is not dull or boring, especially when it has curious, fascinating people like me! Tee hee.