Susan Jacoby

Reading on the web is not really reading

Susan Jacoby laments the intellectual crisis now gripping America and says that the torrent of digital infotainment is threatening basic literacy and news knowledge

One of Senator Barack Obama’s persistent themes, since the drawn-out US presidential campaign began in the snows of 2007, has been the need for parents to turn off the television, put away video games, and spend more time reading to and talking with their children. Although no candidate would be dumb enough to call potential voters dumb, Obama is in fact referring to the dumbing down of American culture over the past three decades — a phenomenon that can be measured by everything from a sharp decline in book and newspaper reading to the mediocre performance of American students on international assessments of proficiency in science and mathematics.

Obama’s approach is notable and novel because he is connecting the dots between the failings of formal education and a more general level of public ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism. Obama, the internet-savvy candidate, is making a point which Senator John McCain (who doesn’t even know how to use email) is ill-placed to raise: that Americans are frittering away too much time in the land of digital infotainment. This is not an easy assertion to make — it carries a political risk. Anyone seen as a critic of the public’s intellectual laziness will inevitably be charged with what has become the most powerful pejorative in American culture — elitism.

But it’s a crucial point. The triumph of video over print is eroding the quality of American public life. Since the early days of the republic, it has been an article of faith that expansion of educational opportunity is essential to American democracy. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts delivered a eulogy for John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (who, in one of the more poignant coincidences of US history, both died on 4 July 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence), in which he asserted that the young nation was already distinguished by free inquiry and a ‘diffusion of knowledge through the community, such as has been before altogether unknown and unheard of’.

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