So that you don’t become a know-nothing:

It would be nice to dismiss the stupid things that Americans believe as harmless, the price of having such a large, messy democracy. Plenty of hate-filled partisans swore that Abraham Lincoln was a Catholic and Franklin Roosevelt was a Jew. So what if one-in-five believe the sun revolves around the earth, or aren’t sure from which country the United States gained its independence?

But false belief in weapons of mass-destruction led the United States to a trillion-dollar war. And trust in rising home value as a truism as reliable as a sunrise was a major contributor to the catastrophic collapse of the economy. At its worst extreme, a culture of misinformation can produce something like Iran, which is run by a Holocaust denier.

It’s one thing to forget the past, with predictable consequences, as the favorite aphorism goes. But what about those who refuse to comprehend the present?

Political debate is conducted largely through words. So how else are you going to learn how to handle words–how to parse through an argument and discover whether it’s based on faulty reasoning–how to articulate your own opinions, responses, and rebuttals?

OK, to be fair, you can learn some of these things in other humanities fields, like philosophy or political science. But one of the definitions of literature is “literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general” (OED). Therefore philosophy and political science are literature, at least in the broad sense. Double-majoring in something practical, like political science or English, and learning how to read, speak, and listen, is a helpful complement to the theoretical knowledge you pick up during all those ivory-tower business classes–you know, the ones conducted in a lecture hall, with none of the pressures or politics of an actual workplace.

So you should double-major in a humanities field–unless, I suppose, you have an ingenious plan for doing business sans communication.

In one of the last essays Tony Judt wrote before he died, he explains why words are irreplaceable:

Cultural insecurity begets its linguistic doppelganger. The same is true of technical advance. In a world of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter (not to mention texting), pithy allusion substitutes for exposition. Where once the internet seemed an opportunity for unrestricted communication, the commercial bias of the medium – “I am what I buy” – brings impoverishment of its own. My children observe of their own generation that the communicative shorthand of their hardware has begun to seep into communication itself: “People talk like texts.”

This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatising language no less than we have privatised so much else. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Alice was right: the outcome is anarchy.

In Politics and the English Language, Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion …”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak”, we risk the rise of “nospeak”.

I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts – the view from inside is as rich as ever – but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate. The vocal muscle, for 60 years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.

No longer free to exercise it, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right – and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.

(P.S. I’m also pleased to hear someone else call out the kind of political “discourse” at the top of the page as the product of “know-nothings.” I’ve been calling these kinds of willfully ignorant people “know-nothings” since at least the 2008 election.)

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