Sunday, September 07, 2014

`Impatience of Study'

Wednesday evening I attended an orientation for the parents of ninth-grade students at my middle son’s boarding school in Ontario, north of Toronto. An assistant headmaster outlined the school’s mission, dispensing the familiar bromides about “building the complete man” by encouraging a well-rounded regimen of activities – academics, athletics, mandatory chapel attendance and community service. Nothing to argue with, really. The school, he said, wishes to mold “more than intellectuals; that is, readers of the Globe and Mail.” Up to this point I had been doing my best to simulate full consciousness, but I hadn’t heard anyone speak so reverently of newspapers in decades. I detected no irony applied with a putty knife. The assistant headmaster was sincere and that’s how his largely Canadian audience took him, nodding their agreement. For the uninitiated, The Globe and Mail is Canada’s largest-circulation national newspaper, and its second-largest daily after the Toronto Star. The United States has no precise counterpart. 

Equating newspaper readers with “intellectuals,” that slippery term, sounded quaint to my ears. For more than twenty years I worked as a newspaper reporter and never once thought of myself, my colleagues or our readers as in any way intellectually accomplished. The demographics of both groups was always broad and representative of the general population. “Intellectuals,” in my experience, wouldn’t be tolerated for long in the newsroom. Perhaps I’m missing some distinctly Canadian cultural signals here, but newspapers are nobody’s idea of intellectual sustenance, and probably never were. Newspapers are moribund, ghosts of the purpose they once served. I haven’t read one page one to the classified ads in years, only occasional stories or reviews online. In addition, as Theodore Dalrymple writes: “I don’t know a single young person who reads, let alone takes, a newspaper regularly.” And this:
“Apart from my liking for newspapers, both as a consumer and a producer, do they really deserve to survive? Will the world be a worse or more ill-informed place without them? As they have had to compete more and more with electronic means of providing information, they have become ever less repository of fact and ever more sounding boards of opinion. It is not the facts that they offer, but knowledge of what they think you ought to think about those facts.” 

Odd that the headmaster, when reaching after appropriate reading matter to signify aspiring “intellectuals,” didn’t select an older cliché – say, Aristotle or Shakespeare. The orientation was held in the school’s library, and on the shelf to my right I could see three copies of Moby-Dick and, surprisingly, one of Steven Millhauser’s first novel, Edwin Mullhouse (1972), along with much rubbish. In The Rambler #154, published on this date, Sept. 7, in 1751, Dr. Johnson writes: 

“The mental disease of the present generation is impatience of study, contempt of the great masters of ancient wisdom, and a disposition to rely wholly upon unassisted genius and natural sagacity.”                                        

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