TCS Daily

The Education of Gesture

By Robert McHenry - October 25, 2005 12:00 AM

Cognitive scientists are generally agreed that one of the most important faculties of the human brain and its associated sensory apparatus is the ability to detect patterns. It is patterns that make the world intelligible, that carry meaning, that make it possible for the past to be a guide to the future. So primordial and so powerful is this faculty, however, that it brings with it also a large capacity for error, for imputing patterns where there are none, or at least none that are meaningful.

It is with that in mind that I hesitate to claim that I have detected a pattern in some things that I have read lately. But denying that there is a pattern in these bits of published news and opinion strains my bump of skepticism. See what you think.

1. A student at the University of Iowa published an opinion piece in the campus newspaper titled "On schooling's useless lessons." The upshot was that she is in college to qualify for her chosen profession and cannot understand why she is required to take courses in subjects she deems irrelevant to her goals. Listen:

        "[M]ost students aren't going to be mathematicians, historians, or chemists. 
        So why do we have to take these classes?...

        "Not only did the gen-ed classes waste my time and money, but they also 
        hurt my GPA....Statistics and astronomy bored me, so I opted not to attend 
        class and neglected to study for them....As it turned out, my GPA was 
        below 3.0 after my first year. I had to take summer classes to raise 
        it....I cannot imagine what I would have done if I were not admitted 
        [to my chosen professional course]. I would have had to change my major.

        "How is this fair?"

If that doesn't break your heart, you're made of sterner stuff than I.

2. A week later an AP wire story appeared in my local newspaper, informing me that an heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune has surrendered her 2004 degree from the University of Southern California after a classmate revealed that she had done the Walton scion's homework for over three years, netting about $20,000 for her efforts.

3. Same day. New York magazine published an article that opens thus:

        "This story begins, as it inevitably must, in the Old Country.

        "At some point during the tenth century, a group of Jews abandoned 
        the lush hills of Lucca, Italy, and -- at the invitation 
        of Charlemagne -- headed for the severer climes of the Rhineland and 
        Northern France."

The author is a frequent and, presumably, trusted contributor, and New York magazine is, so far as I know, a respectable publication. So who was responsible for fact-checking? If you haven't caught it yet, here's the problem: Charlemagne died in 814 CE. No one is expected to know that particular fact, but many generally educated persons might recall that he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor at Christmas in 800. This would make his survival into the tenth century highly unlikely on the face of it.

Two points define a line; are three sufficient to establish a trend? Let me just note that the student's intended major was journalism; that the heiress's degree was from the Annenberg School for Communication at USC; and that, obviously, the New York author is a working journalist. One, already in the business, evidently doesn't know a simple fact of history (and didn't check it out). The other two have made quite manifest, in their distinctive ways, their disdain for knowledge.

But my aim is not to disrespect journalists or the schools in which they train. The problem I am suggesting is far wider. Thus my last piece of evidence:

4. Same day. The Wikipedia, an online project to create an encyclopedia by means of contributions and editing by volunteers, irrespective of their knowledge of their subjects or ability to write coherently, has just lately begun to come to grips with the fact that some substantial proportion of the articles thus generated are substandard. They have therefore launched "Project Galatea," whose aim is to have still more self-selected volunteers impose "large-scale, sweeping stylistic improvements." Note that the improvements hoped for are stylistic, not a matter of accuracy or adequacy. In the "Philosophy" of the project, prospective stylists are told this:

        "While there is no need to be an expert on the article you're working 
        on (in fact, there are some advantages to being completely ignorant 
        of the subject to start with), by the time you're done, you will have at 
        least a working knowledge of the topic."

Another point, spang on my line. How worried ought I to be? How worried are you?

Here is what I wonder: Whence this notion that citizens, especially those who aspire to careers of informing the rest of us, need not bother with what once would have been considered the common body of knowledge? And where on earth did the idea arise that knowledge might actually be a hindrance?

I do not blame computers or the Internet. Well...except for one thought that gives me pause. How is it that these tools that were to make achieving our lofty goals easier have instead been commandeered to move the goal posts?

What or whom then to blame, if any? Nicholas Carr has written lately in his blog "Rough Type" about the other-worldliness of much of the literature of the World Wide Web and the simple, communal, yet transcendent virtues it is imagined to foster. He notes, too, the strong preference for the amateur over the professional. I'm inclined to see this as a particular instance of a more general phenomenon, the replacement of the adult by the adolescent as the paradigm citizen.

Adolescents already know all they need to know. They are uninterested in what may have come before them and confident that it did so for naught. They see instantly into the heart of the world's problems and believe them to be simple of solution. They value sincerity, authenticity, getting real, over experience or effort. Approved attitude trumps informed opinion with them, and does so by means of social pressure rather than by, say, demonstrated efficacy. And their sense of entitlement can sometimes border on solipsism.

For some time now, and increasingly, our schooling, our politics, and our cultural life have played to the adolescent in us. Young students are encouraged to focus on their feelings and to express them in any way they find comfortable, while teachers are discouraged from correcting them. Officeholders and seekers rely on the sound bite and the scandal, not to mention their allies in the braying media, to steer or frustrate public policy. Jejune amusements are labeled "Adult." And the marketers who control our media and what passes for our national dialogue are only too happy to pander to the free-spending of any age or persuasion. It's a no-sweat world, and welcome to it.

The adolescentization of politics, begun in the 1960s, has given us the politics of gesture. A couple of years ago some 60-ish women of my acquaintance, as a protest of the Iraq war, went down to the beach and took their clothes off. This seemed to satisfy them, though as I watched the newspapers closely for days afterward I could detect no effect. We are increasingly countenancing an education of gesture, in which self-expression does not merely take precedence over but displaces that which is worth expressing; in which the tokens of achievement are wholly disconnected from achievement itself; in which teachers-in-training are being turned out of their chosen career, not on account of a subpar GPA, but because they fail to display the approved attitude toward certain issues of "social justice'; in which, to put it in plain and concrete terms, a majority of our high school graduates cannot read with comprehension the sixth-grade McGuffey Reader of yore. And do they care? lol

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


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