It has been suggested that we take full advantage of 2013 to disentangle ourselves from the “toils of partisanship,” relax, and read a book or two before the electoral hullaballoo resumes in 2014 and 2016. The obvious implication here is that, during all the politically important years, the many people feel they cannot stop to read books because they are too busy reading headlines.
This advice has been given before by many. C.S. Lewis, for instance, went bit further, having the audacity to suggest that schoolboys should never be encouraged to read the newspapers (not even during election years):
“…I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis an interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.”
Here Lewis observes that the media, since it seeks to be both emotionally stirring and novel, tends to be both superficial and hasty. However, the most interesting and relevant take-away from this quote is not that these characteristics are not simply reasons for literary criticism, but that they are habit forming. Lewis seems to believe that not only is the journalistic style a bit on the crude, but it is also detrimental to ones intellectual health. Is it possible that C.S. Lewis was making a prophecy that Solzhenitsyn later confirmed when he said that this same “hastiness and superficiality” had become the psychic diseases of the 20th century?
In contrast to the suggestion that youths should never read the papers, it is instead considered very important that every responsible youth be “informed”—and by the slogan “being informed” it is usually meant that every youth should be reading the newspapers. The respectable citizen used to be the “learned” citizen. Then he sort of slacked off a bit, and became “well-read.” Now, being informed is all the rage.
The evolution of the language itself reveals a slight trend from activity to passivity—from man acting on the knowledge to the knowledge acting on the man. I can sit on the couch eating potato chips and become “informed” without ever having to think at all. “Being informed” is an exercise in compliance. Computers are informed, but computers are also stupid. They do not think; they carry out instructions. They have information; they do not have understanding. You can “inform” them right off a cliff.
We all know of people on opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum that are each highly informed, but who hold opposite opinions about everything. One must be wrong, and the other right—or perhaps they are both wrong. Regardless, this shows that simply being informed does not guarantee you access to the truth.
When a media pundit tells us that such-and-such “was not what this country was founded on” and we choose to take him at his word, then we have been informed. In contrast: if we listen to him, read the Federalist Papers or the Constitution, and synthesize his information with our own experience in order to determine the truth for ourselves, then we are approaching “understanding.” We are then not simply dealing in facts, but in discernment.
This is why a slogan telling people to “be informed” is quite harmful. It tells society that being passively informed is an appropriate path to truth. It subtly says to them “here are the facts, don’t bother yourself about the interpretation.” The fact of the matter is: the facts always need interpretation. If anyone tells you differently—if anyone suggests that it is a matter only of being informed—it is probably because they prefer to do the interpretation for you. In this way, the slogan “be informed” results in a public which is constantly discouraged from actually forming opinions for itself. Instead, opinions are formed without their knowledge, neatly packaged, along with a few carefully selected “facts,” and then delivered to them via Fox News, CNN, or some other opinion manufacturing service.
Come to think of it, isn’t it sort of funny that television stations commonly refer to their services as “programming?”
The educator Mortimer Adler observed that such services give a man the pleasant and satisfying feeling of having made up his own mind, when actually he “does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and ‘plays back’ the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so.”
Thomas Merton, the Christian mystic, observes the same thing, saying that this results in an unthinking man: “He does not talk, he produces conventional sounds when stimulated by the appropriate noises. He does not think, he secretes clichés.”
In agreement with Adler, I sense that our public is sometimes “inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.” I hold that the public does not need to be completely informed in order to see the truth of certain things; it needs much more a capacity for discernment. This should be a great relief for two reasons: first, the only scenario in which mere “data” can be trusted is one in which have all the data, and that is impossible; second, too much information often just gets in the way. For example, the field of economics is now so flooded with intricate theories that the most obvious absurdities become invisible behind a barrage of misleading terminology and abstract “expertise.”
Thomas Jefferson was right when he said that the plowman was often better equipped for lofty moral decisions than the professor. He said that the professor would be very informed, but that his wealth of knowledge was just as likely to fog his vision as it was to clarify it. Jefferson knew that we could think for ourselves. Listen to facts; absorb knowledge. But the road to truth lies in understanding, which lies in wisdom, which lies beyond merely “being informed.”