Functional illiteracy, feeding weak analytic skills, explains current failures, disasters and humiliations
It’s been a dreadful month for mis-educated, semi-literate billionaires, from Elon Musk to Sam Bankman-Fried to Trump. Public mortification reigns, revealing stark limits when too narrow skill-set (manipulating money or self-promotion) bomb when facing far more complex enterprises of their own making. What they don’t know from stunted education, if not marginal intellect, trumps what got them to the top. In short, in time corrosive inadequacy will out.
What’s equally apparent are the dismal outcomes from years of rightwing debunking of intellectual development and educational diversity. Defunding and attacking education and open libraries across the board speak to the calculation that keeping voters ignorant serves backward interests. Neither is a new theme in American culture, when savvy breakthroughs had to overcome severe bigotry against learning and books.
An early John Steinbeck short story (from The Long Valley) expresses this Yankee bias favoring blunt action over reading, “The way to learn is to do,” Dick said sententiously, “You never really learn nothing from books.” Thus emerges the know-nothing, rightwing paranoid personality, eager to scapegoat race, gender, ethnicity and diversity. Paranoia feeds delusional conspiracies, then stunt politics, defining a sustained assault against reason on par with a fatal pandemic.
By overpaying for Twitter, then shredding its worth, Musk has already lost more billions than Trump’s total connivance. Musk may even compete with Sam Bankman-Fried ($16 billion lost) when the century’s greatest Ponzi finance scam exploded. That exceeds Trump’s phony net worth on his best day – plus billions lost since turning into a demagogic hustler. Bankman-Fried and Trump won’t spend crooked winnings, facing great legal charges, convictions and penalties. Though Musk is richer and smarter, busted billionaires exemplify looming calamities when blinkered egotists with tunnel vision dismiss what they don’t know and, always being right, won’t learn.
What geniuses and intellectuals teach is that in-depth reading (thinking, even caring) are obligatory to becoming rational, civilized, compassionate and humane. No “humanities” or college departments thrive without the full commitment to reading, the best roadmap towards competence and wisdom. Not reading widely across a lifetime, instead digesting only intellectually-dismal fringe tracts, exacts a huge toll on even fat cats’ liberty, reputation and public standing (all top entries on any narcissist must-have list).
Functional illiteracy (doubled down with fixation) feeds the regressive, authoritarian/super-conspiracy types who know so little about thinking (logic, analysis, perspective) that the world is a bewildering morass, an inexplicable swamp. That’s when simplistic “answers” become irresistible commandments, inciting lawless repression, violation of rights, violence and insurrection. “You can’t fix stupid,” making mental blindness the most infamous crime, like defying miracle vaccines but not excess eating, smoking, drugs, or drinking. Like lying about fatal pandemics, that way lies disease, misery, and premature death.
Tunnel vision reinforced
Being older (and even more spoiled) than the others, Trump stupidity is fixed in stone. Back in prehistory, 2018, we learned that the president-elect did not read, certainly not books, allergic to the written word. By far our greatest Illiterate-in-chief admitted to Axios, “I like bullets or I like as little as possible. I don’t need, you know, 200-page reports on something that can be handled on a page. That I can tell you.” Thus top intelligence reports shrunk to a single page, full of graphics and maps; the pandering got so bad Trump’s name was visibly inserted in the text to offset his fly-like attention span.
“As little as possible” shrinks knowledge to distorted soundbites: “He didn’t process information in any conventional sense,” Fire and Fury author Michael Wolff writes. “He didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semi-literate.” Ditto, economic adviser Gary Cohn confirmed: “It’s worse than you can imagine … Trump won’t read anything—not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers, nothing. He [escaped] meetings with world leaders [when] bored.”
How did we survive this four-year monumental fall-off? A president wholly ignorant of his own country’s history — obscure, minor stuff like voting, women’s and minority rights — or key legal constructs, even what the Constitution strictly outlaws, like inciting a criminal insurrection. What flaw better explains the core Trump message (and appeal): knowledge and learning are suspect so “our side better not know things like history, glorying in our faith-alone gut instinct, then make sure our children aren’t ruined by too much learnin’.”
What better separates the reactionary Trump and his base from hated liberals with more education, smarts, and, worst of all, the ability to learn, even change. Imagine reading and thinking, then altering one’s mind, even (horrors) apologizing for blunders. If you know nothing, you will believe anything – and you will be suckered to do anything – with jail time the big lottery prize.
A junior Trump, with billions more at stake when wrecking his own crypto exchange FTX, Bankman-Fried echoes the same buffoonery, “I would never read a book,” he once told an interviewer. “I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that.” What a model for a high-tech, science world! What ignorance of higher education! The richer (and smarter) Musk hasn’t exhibited this allergy to book learning, but his dismal education surfaces with highly capricious (unforced) blunders that undermine his image for competence, if not the best interests of employees and his own business equity. Musk proves that understanding leading-edge engineering and marketing is a world apart from knowing history, philosophy, and good public relations – aside from basic concepts like irony, parody and satire.
The ivory tower isn’t everything
Though well-versed in higher education and university teaching, augmented by a consumer electronics business career, then outreach consultant, I don’t elevate book learning (or intellectual mastery) above other valuable life experiences. Ideas, paradigms and the “life of the mind” command complexity and variables not accessible otherwise, often beyond empiricism. But many life experiences are equally important, developing equilibrium when life delivers hardships, whether health, personal, career or socio-political.
There are many paths to valuable learning – fashioning our insides, brains and hearts. Yet book learning (schooling, informed exchanges, philosophy, music, art, history, etc.) is irreplaceable, more so the longer we live. Personal experience is handcuffed by a single life span, however vibrant or varied. Thus cave dwellers or illiterate early farmers had only to imitate forebears or routine (if the weather held). Surely, families matter but today they are at best microcosms and reality is the concatenation of macrocosms.
After family and hometown life, only books (or sophisticated oral communication, teaching or studying) transfer what one generation teaches the next, resulting in what we call culture, on which all modern human inventions and comforts depend. Only writing (and art) conquer the ravages of time, outlasting any single life, sustaining what we still call civilization. Learning from doing (or passively absorbing religion or values) must be offset by learning to think for ourselves, transcending the limits of adolescence, then testing our wings, even accomplishing more than envisioned.
Higher values come from books or culture, rituals or mentors. Wisdom doesn’t grow on trees, nor from seeds, nor cruise past on river logs. There is an intangible worth to confirming a true statement and trusted larger truths (helped by judgment and skepticism). Along with other key Biblical commandments, “Thou shall not bear false witness” endorses telling the truth in public spheres. The demonic snake in the Garden of Eden, along with Cain’s false report after murdering his brother, dramatize the bad stuff that erupts from lying, deception and the refusal to admit mistakes.
No sustained success, in life, business, or relationships, survives chronic mendacity and refusal to see, let alone admit error. “Never wrong” billionaires are the worst – and so the worst educated, least savvy end up “paying” catastrophic prices for defying knowledge, if not reading and thinking. So do we all when reason is made the enemy and its transmission via education given short shrift by those who don’t “know any better.” Knowing better as a community is all that counts in the end.