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Building an intellectual culture

Umi Perkins

In France, intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault were featured in glossy magazines, in which their love lives, along with their ideas, were scrutinized. In the US and Hawaii, most people would be hard-pressed to name even one intellectual. This disparity, in my view, underlies many of the educational woes in Hawaii and the US. We give lip service to education, but are we truly interested in it? We want education for our children as job training, and if this is our approach, it will remain that - training, not education. What is the role of education for civic participation to create thoughtful, engaged citizens? The question is one of philosophy - a field not offered in secondary schools and discouraged in universities, and one that requires serious reading of books. Even in the reading renaissance of Harry Potter, the word “philosopher” had to be removed from the original title for American audiences.

By modeling what it means to be an educated, engaged citizen, we show our children, students and communities what that looks like.

According to some statistics, ten percent of people are buying 90 percent of the books today. Much of this ten percent are in the generation above the baby boomers. In the youth, we are looking not at an illiterate generation, but a post-literate generation. The “culture of free” on the Internet has obscured the fact that quality information still costs money - the Wall Street Journal, for example, has always been a paid subscription online. Most of us are willing to settle for inferior, but free, sources of information, and have fooled ourselves into thinking that all information is available to all youth if only they will access it. Information - knowledge itself - has been devalued by its very abundance, and lost our attention. We as a culture need to pay more attention - and attention is the currency of the times - to those who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge, make them celebrities even. By doing so, we pay more attention to their ideas, rather than to their appearances.

Students spend six hours per day, and one hundred seventy or one hundred eighty days per year in class, out of 365. Most learning happens outside of the classroom, as Paul Goodman would say, incidentally. And what are they learning in the remainder of their time, which is the majority of their time? How to play sports, video games, and watch violent films and “reality” TV. Sociologist Orlando Patterson holds that Americans, particularly minorities, have their “Dionysian” and “Apollonian” tendencies out of balance, which is a philosophical, but useful, way of saying they’re too much athlete, not enough scholar. The answer to our educational problems is ourselves - by modeling what it means to be an educated, engaged citizen, we show our children, students and communities what that looks like. And the excitement generated will carry the youth through their educations, and incidentally, toward jobs and entrepreneurship.