Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tomthemick@gmail.com

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Zeitgeist

Can you remember the last time you looked up something on the internet and didn’t find it? I can’t. There were times I had to approach my search using different key words, but I’ve always been able to find something, and usually way more than I thought there would be. Often I’d consume hours and hours drinking in what other had learned before me. It’s a great time to be alive.

We live in an age when we can learn nearly anything and we don’t have to even leave our favorite chair to do so. With smart phones, we can do it in the dentist’s office waiting for our appointment. We can do it while sitting on a park bench or on the beach. When I say anything, I mean facts and figures concerning that part of the world subject to the laws of physics. Learning in the spiritual realm is different. The internet can help with that too but silence, meditation, and contemplation are better methods. Many find that using the internet can impede those time-tested paths, and about this time last year I wrote about those impediments in a piece called “Electronic Distraction.”


Learning in the 21st century can be decentralized because all that’s needed is an internet hookup and a mentor willing to guide one along a path of “Cultural Literacy” in the tradition of E. D. Hirsch’s book of that title published in 1987. There is a body of content knowledge with which any educated person must be familiar in order to interact with other educated persons around the globe. Call it “Liberal Arts” if you will - with the understanding of “liberal” in the classic sense of being broad-minded and wide-ranging in our acquisition of knowledge.

The best example of what happens when one lacks grounding in cultural literacy or the liberal arts would be a young person who, when in the company of his elders a double entendre or pun is made and those who get it laugh appreciatively. The young person realizes he doesn’t understand something others do, and, after a delay, awkwardly forces a laugh as though he does.

The American education establishment is moving steadily away from classic liberal arts education but pretends it isn’t - and that’s what prompted Hirsch to write his book. Unfortunately, that trend continues and it’s best measured today by something called Google Zeitgeist. We all know Google, but for culturally illiterate readers, “Zeitgeist” means “the spirit of the times.”

Beginning in 2001, Google began publishing data on what sorts of knowledge for which its users were searching the web. Given the World Trade Center attacks in September, it’s not surprising that the top five were:
1. Nostradamus
2. CNN
3. World Trade Center
4. Harry Potter
5. Anthrax

However, 2002’s results indicated abrupt decline in what people most wanted to learn about:

1. Spiderman
2. Shakira
3. Winter Olympics
4. World Cup
5. Avril Lavigne

Spiderman is frivolous in my opinion and I was ignorant of who Shakira and Avril Lavigne were until I clicked on them to discover they looked alike and were two blondes who sang. It seemed appropriate that Lavigne was famous for singing: “Here’s To Never Growing Up.” Was that the eponymous slogan for a generation of Americans? Maybe I’m the one who is culturally illiterate here, but I don’t think so.


Decline continued in 2003 with:
1. Britney Spears
2. Harry Potter
3. Matrix
4. Shakira
5. David Beckham

Could any of those be at all edifying in the furtherance of Cultural Literacy? Well, maybe. At least Harry Potter is a character in a book.

Britney Spears
2004 results are even worse:
1. Britney Spears
2. Paris Hilton
3. Christina Aquilera
4. Pamela Anderson
5. Chat

The first four are dumb blondes famous for being dumb blondes. That’s the “spirit of the times”? Dumb blonde obsession? Number five is “chat” - about dumb blondes, I would guess. You can Google subsequent years if you want to depress yourself further, but it doesn’t get any better. Remember, we 21st century Americans can learn virtually anything we want to just by reaching in our pocket for our smart phone, but most of us only want to know more about dumb blondes. Then consider that about 30% of all internet sites are pornographic, and that’s probably a low estimate. I’m not sure Google Zeitgeist included information on porn sites when compiling their most-searched data.
A recent question by columnist Mark Steyn is haunting me at this point: “Can a country be too stupid to survive?” he asked. There’s evidence to back up Steyn’s pessimism, certainly, but I must remain optimistic about America’s future, in the inherent goodness of the American people and their tendency to do the right thing - even if that should happen only after all else fails.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Texas Transplant said...

The last paragraph in your column contains the only thought which keeps me going in these times of cultural illiteracy.

4/17/13, 11:14 AM  
Anonymous rhonda said...

“Can a country be too stupid to survive?” I guess it can if we elected Obama twice. It's the result of the dumbing down of America, which is ultimately the result of our murdering 50 million babies since Roe vs Wade.

4/18/13, 6:44 PM  

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