Sunday, May 15, 2011

More Money than Brains, by Laura Penny

Laura Penny's new book, More Money Than Brains, (Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, ISBN 978-0-7710-7049-5, $19,99 pb) is both educative and entertaining. Penny, an English professor at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, is tired of the anti-intellectualism so pervasive in our society. She meets many students who are at university to gain credentials for an "awesome", highly paid career, but don't want to do the reading, writing and thinking required to achieve this goal. In a society in which the love of money dominates, is it any wonder that they value only those courses that seem to point directly to lucrative jobs?

While much concern is expressed about education, Penny knows that the public is not worrying that North American youth are "less well read" than students elsewhere in the world; rather, there is concern that North America is being outstripped in science and technology and will lose more highly paid jobs. The skill of reasoning, says Penny, has been replaced in our culture by lesser mental skills like wishing (encouraged by reality TV) and counting. "We encourage students to mistake low cunning for intellect and skill," she writes.

Penny finds ironic our respect for business, technology, and the free market system, given that, in the past thirty years, there have been three recessions and one global market meltdown. Treating money as an end in itself sanctions the kind of excesses that crashed the stock market and damaged the economy, she says.

There has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism in North American, Penny finds, but never stronger than nowadays, when it is widely believed that any person's opinion is just as worthy as anybody else's, never mind someone's proven expertise in a given field. Anti-intellectualism may have intensified because, in living our lives, we are increasingly dependent on experts in various fields, and our dependence frightens us. Politicians of the right, posing as "just plain folks" with "common sense" rather than knowledge and expertise, disparage those with specialized knowledge. The result is a "duh" in "democracy."

Penny is convinced that an education in the humanities discourages overweening pride and arrogance, and works against dogmatism and demagoguery. She agrees that the public school system needs to be improved, not by more testing, but by emphasizing the ability to read, write and think. Too often she meets students with only a "feral" ability in grammar and a total ignorance of history. Those who know nothing of the past are trapped in the "goldfish bowl" of their own "cultural moment" and have nothing with which to compare it. Too many elementary school teachers love children when they should also love their subjects; that is, have a broad and deep knowledge of the material they teach. Those who rely on the "answer key" in the back of the book are unable to encourage much thought and reasoning.

If Penny had her way, she would exclude schools of business from university campuses, and relocate them on the campuses of community colleges. In her view, those who want to learn skills and techniques and make a lot of money, whether in business or in a skilled trade, have more in common with each other than those in the liberal arts and humanities.

University budget cuts in the humanities are a capitulation to anti-intellectualism, she contends. Why should disciplines that have endured for thousands of years have to justify themselves? The most enduring things that our ancestors have left us, she concludes, are their books, their music and their ideas.

More Money than Brains is readable, funny and thought-provoking. I recommend it.

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