I finally read Doris Lessing’s Nobel lecture. I had been intending to for months, but kept getting sidetracked; you know how it is (yes, it’s that attention thing mentioned by Jacoby in the We Are Idiots post of a couple of days ago). My belated reading resulted in a timely convergence because Lessing reiterates the point made by Jacoby, that we live in a time in which education is not valued—even worse, according to Jacoby, is derided by a society that has become anti-intellectual. (Of course, Lessing’s speech came first; had I been up on my reading, Jacoby would have been reiterating Lessing‘s point.)
You might say that more young people than ever are graduating from college, but I would argue that education is generally not valued; what is appreciated is the income-enhancing benefit that degrees afford.
As the parent of a recent college graduate, I can honestly say that most students don’t have to do a lot to earn their degree (grading curves are a wonderful invention for those who don’t study and teachers are as loath to fail a college student as they are a high school student). I’m not talking about my daughter, who did work hard; I’m talking about the high percentage of her fellow undergrads who ended up collecting the same piece of paper she did, but who coasted right on through, never missing a party, relying on those beautiful curves.
It seems to be accepted now that kids go off to college to have fun. This is a very prevalent attitude—college is the big fling before you have to settle down and get serious about life. Students who are interested in learning, not just drinking for a few years and collecting a pair of initials at the end, are being cheated. It seems there was a time when education was the objective and parties the well earned perks.
Here is a portion of Lessing’s speech:
We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.
What has happened to us is an amazing invention — computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked, What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print? In the same way, we never thought to ask, How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by this internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc.
Very recently, anyone even mildly educated would respect learning, education, and our great store of literature. Of course, we all know that when this happy state was with us, people would pretend to read, would pretend respect for learning. But it is on record that working men and women longed for books, and this is evidenced by the founding of working men’s libraries and institutes, the colleges of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Reading, books, used to be part of a general education.
Older people, talking to young ones, must understand just how much of an education reading was, because the young ones know so much less. And if children cannot read, it is because they have not read.
She talks about poor, poor Africans who are desperate to read—who crave books—comparing them with Westerners, who have access to an incredible cornucopia of knowledge and literature and cannot be bothered to read, turning their backs on the feast laid out before them.
A young African man, eighteen perhaps, in tears, standing in what he hopes will be his “library.” A visiting American seeing that his library had no books, had sent a crate of them. The young man had taken each one out, reverently, and wrapped them in plastic. “But,” we say, “these books were sent to be read, surely?” “No,” he replies, “they will get dirty, and where will I get any more?”
How spoiled we are.
I have a friend from Zimbabwe, a Black writer. He taught himself to read from the labels on jam jars, the labels on preserved fruit cans. He was brought up in an area I have driven through, an area for rural blacks. The earth is grit and gravel, there are low sparse bushes. The huts are poor, nothing like the well cared-for huts of the better off. A school — but like one I have described. He found a discarded children’s encyclopaedia on a rubbish heap and taught himself from that.
We cannot imagine. How very much we take for granted.
And, as Jacoby pointed out, education is not merely a luxury that we can take or leave: “Americans are in serious intellectual trouble — in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.” Very low expectations.
Lessing’s speech can be found here.