The Attack on Critical Thinking

obey
Critical thinking?  Forget that.  Obey!  (Inspired by the movie, “They Live”)

W.J. Astore

When I was still teaching college, I’d tell my students that a major goal of their education was developing a bullshit meter.  This BS meter, I said, would help them to discriminate between fact and fiction, between informed views and misinformed ones, between respectable opinions and disreputable propaganda.  Become critical thinkers, I told them.  And that included being critical of my teaching, for every professor has biases and makes choices about what to include and what to exclude, what to stress and what to elide.

Critical thinking skills are what is being elided and excluded in much of education today.  This is obviously convenient to those in power, for they do not wish to be questioned.  In the name of economic competitiveness, of teaching job skills, of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), students are encouraged to focus on getting ahead, on making a high salary after graduation, the better to repay student loans and contribute back to the college as alumni.  On their web sites and marketing brochures, colleges often feature prominently how much their students can be expected to make in salary after graduation.  The almighty dollar sign: It’s the key metric of success.

A narrow utilitarianism, based on money, has come to define education.  Much like war, education is becoming just another racket (think here of Trump University!).  Eight years ago, when I was still teaching away in the classroom, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com.  I’ve decided to share it here today, because I don’t think much has changed since 2009. Indeed, education in America has only worsened as Donald Trump and Company have taken a hatchet to educational funding.  But stupid is as stupid does.  (Then again, Trump isn’t so stupid; as he himself enthused after the Nevada caucuses in 2016, “I love the poorly educated!”  Yes, hmm, yes.)

Education Ourselves to Oblivion (TomDispatch.com, May 2009)

Hardly a week goes by without dire headlines about the failure of the American education system. Our students don’t perform well in math and science. The high-school dropout rate is too high. Minority students are falling behind. Teachers are depicted as either overpaid drones protected by tenure or underpaid saints at the mercy of deskbound administrators and pushy parents.

Unfortunately, all such headlines collectively fail to address a fundamental question: What is education for? At so many of today’s so-called institutions of higher learning, students are offered a straightforward answer: For a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials. All the more so in today’s collapsing job market.

Based on a decidedly non-bohemian life — 20 years’ service in the military and 10 years teaching at the college level — I’m convinced that American education, even in the worst of times, even recognizing the desperate need of most college students to land jobs, is far too utilitarian, vocational, and narrow. It’s simply not enough to prepare students for a job: We need to prepare them for life, while challenging them to think beyond the confines of their often parochial and provincial upbringings. (As a child of the working class from a provincial background, I speak from experience.)

And here’s one compelling lesson all of us, students and teachers alike, need to relearn constantly: If you view education in purely instrumental terms as a way to a higher-paying job — if it’s merely a mechanism for mass customization within a marketplace of ephemeral consumer goods — you’ve effectively given a free pass to the prevailing machinery of power and those who run it.

Three Myths of Higher Ed

Three myths serve to restrict our education to the narrowly utilitarian and practical. The first, particularly pervasive among conservative-minded critics, is that our system of higher education is way too liberal, as well as thoroughly dominated by anti-free-market radicals and refugee Marxists from the 1960s who, like so many Ward Churchills, are indoctrinating our youth in how to hate America.

Nonsense.

Today’s college students are being indoctrinated in the idea that they need to earn “degrees that work” (the official motto of the technically-oriented college where I teach). They’re being taught to measure their self-worth by their post-college paycheck. They’re being urged to be lifelong learners, not because learning is transformative or even enjoyable, but because to “keep current” is to “stay competitive in the global marketplace.” (Never mind that keeping current is hardly a guarantee that your job won’t be outsourced to the lowest bidder.)

And here’s a second, more pervasive myth from the world of technology: technical skills are the key to success as well as life itself, and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide are doomed to lives of misery. From this it necessarily follows that computers are a panacea, that putting the right technology into the classroom and into the hands of students and faculty solves all problems. The keys to success, in other words, are interactive SMART boards, not smart teachers interacting with curious students. Instead, canned lessons are offered with PowerPoint efficiency, and students respond robotically, trying to copy everything on the slides, or clamoring for all presentations to be posted on the local server.

One “bonus” from this approach is that colleges can more easily measure (or “assess,” as they like to say) how many networked classrooms they have, how many on-line classes they teach, even how much money their professors bring in for their institutions. With these and similar metrics in hand, parents and students can be recruited or retained with authoritative-looking data: job placement rates, average starting salaries of graduates, even alumni satisfaction rates (usually best measured when the football team is winning).

A third pervasive myth — one that’s found its way from the military and business worlds into higher education — is: If it’s not quantifiable, it’s not important. With this mindset, the old-fashioned idea that education is about molding character, forming a moral and ethical identity, or even becoming a more self-aware person, heads down the drain. After all, how could you quantify such elusive traits as assessable goals, or showcase such non-measurements in the glossy marketing brochures, glowing press releases, and gushing DVDs that compete to entice prospective students and their anxiety-ridden parents to hand over ever larger sums of money to ensure a lucrative future?

Three Realities of Higher Ed

What do torture, a major recession, and two debilitating wars have to do with our educational system? My guess: plenty. These are the three most immediate realities of a system that fails to challenge, or even critique, authority in any meaningful way. They are bills that are now long overdue thanks, in part, to that system’s technocratic bias and pedagogical shortfalls — thanks, that is, to what we are taught to see and not see, regard and disregard, value and dismiss.

Over the last two decades, higher education, like the housing market, enjoyed its own growth bubble, characterized by rising enrollments, fancier high-tech facilities, and ballooning endowments. Americans invested heavily in these derivative products as part of an educational surge that may prove at least as expensive and one-dimensional as our military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As usual, the humanities were allowed to wither. Don’t know much about history? Go ahead and authorize waterboarding, even though the U.S. prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II. Don’t know much about geography? Go ahead and send our troops into mountainous Afghanistan, that “graveyard of empires,” and allow them to be swallowed up by the terrain as they fight a seemingly endless war.

Perhaps I’m biased because I teach history, but here’s a fact to consider: Unless a cadet at the Air Force Academy (where I once taught) decides to major in the subject, he or she is never required to take a U.S. history course. Cadets are, however, required to take a mind-boggling array of required courses in various engineering and scientific disciplines as well as calculus. Or civilians, chew on this: At the Pennsylvania College of Technology, where I currently teach, of the roughly 6,600 students currently enrolled, only 30 took a course this semester on U.S. history since the Civil War, and only three were programmatically required to do so.

We don’t have to worry about our college graduates forgetting the lessons of history — not when they never learned them to begin with.

Donning New Sunglasses

One attitude pervading higher education today is: students are customers who need to be kept happy by service-oriented professors and administrators. That’s a big reason why, at my college at least, the hottest topics debated by the Student Council are not government wars, torture, or bail-outs but a lack of parking and the quality of cafeteria food.

It’s a large claim to make, but as long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country’s direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by technocratic imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that precious goal of Socrates: To know thyself — and so your own limits and those of your country as well.

To know how to get by or get ahead is one thing, but to know yourself is to struggle to recognize your own limitations as well as illusions. Such knowledge is disorienting, even dangerous — kind of like those sunglasses donned by Roddy Piper in the slyly subversive “B” movie They Live (1988). In Piper’s case, they revealed a black-and-white nightmare, a world in which a rapacious alien elite pulls the levers of power while sheep-like humans graze passively, shackled by slogans to conform, consume, watch, marry, and reproduce.

Like those sunglasses, education should help us to see ourselves and our world in fresh, even disturbing, ways. If we were properly educated as a nation, the only torturing going on might be in our own hearts and minds — a struggle against accepting the world as it’s being packaged and sold to us by the pragmatists, the technocrats, and those who think education is nothing but a potential passport to material success.

23 thoughts on “The Attack on Critical Thinking

  1. As a badly educated man, I always loved George Bernard Shaw’s line: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach it”.
    Big exception in my life: I fancied myself an Art Director at 19yo in 1964. Took a night course in a fine art school, days a gopher in an ad agency. Professor was top notch AD. He gave us a project: take an ad, any, and redesign it. I took a New Yorker luggage ad. In front of 40+ other students, he apologized to me as projected it on the screen, because it was such a good lesson. “Bruce took a bad ad, and made it worse”. A few snickers, but I was well liked, he then tore it apart and we all rejoiced in the learning experience. He then redesigned it properly. WOW!
    I never made ‘AD’, but good management & logo designer. No regrets!
    Women on this site should follow Florence Knoll, of the furniture company. “Pain in the ass!” said her designers, some of whom I knew. “But when she FINALLY said “yes” for production, it was perfect, absolutely perfect! Beyond our wildest dreams!”
    Knoll’s classics are still selling well, 60 years later. The formula is like my embarrassing night: “But this doesn’t relate to that”.
    I’m a lucky man!

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    1. One hallmark of all great military leaders –indeed, all leaders generally has been: they’d studied history. And, not coincidentally, the more deeply they’d studied it, the better leaders they were. An historical education works for a reason.

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      1. Thanks Alex Colvin, and I am getting quite an education on WJ Astore’s site! I’ve noted most of his followers are either military of higher education professionals. Obviously, I was involved in the “commercial arts” – if that’s a term…..(?)
        Yet, that’s what caused my response to Astore’s ‘The attack on critical thinking’, as I believe it works in all professions. Your statements about the importance history are certainly correct, though in the case of Ms. Knoll, and some of my bosses, there was nobody to study: they were trailblazers. Yet ‘critical thinking’ was a very important part of our design, and media placement. Of course we had budgetary & time frames to deal with also, but with ‘critical thinking’, or as we said “This doesn’t relate to that”, you get a ‘flow’ of coordination.

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  2. Bill,

    Loved this piece; think I missed it when it first came out. On the mark. Wish I had it when teaching at SUNY Cortland with 6,000 students over 31 years. Used to use Neil Postman’s notion of a “crap detector” to filter out the junk so they could engage in some real critical thought. Mark down this name: Gerald Coles. Long time friend who just finished a ms for Monthly Review Press on Education and the Global Economy that gets at the issues you raise here. Will be out in March. I was a reader of the ms. and it’s a great work and smashing critique of the things you rightfully despise.

    John Marciano

    >

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    1. Leonard Schlain’s “Alphabet versus the Goddess” which ends with the question of what happens when we use both hands to communicate.
      We are also moving into a world of telepathy. Smartphone assisted, but mind reading, nonetheless.

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    1. To me, the digital world seems ephemeral. There’s also a tendency to glide on the surface of things. The “analog” world of books and documents and objects is more tangible, more immediate, less shallow.

      But that’s me. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and became a historian in the ’80s and early ’90s, just before the Internet revolution.

      I think there’s a way to use both worlds, digital and analog; perhaps my point is that the digital world, somewhat like the Dark Side of the Force, is quicker, easier, more seductive, and that too many students start and stop with what’s easily available, i.e. the digital.

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  3. Back in my Baby Boomer Days in school rote memorization was a high achievement. Rote memorization made sense in subjects like learning multiplication tables. It was not until college that I was exposed to philosophy as a subject: Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Sarte, etc. Each of these people had a particular point of view on life. Free thinking (critical thinking) was crushed under the dogma of organized- hierarchy type religion.

    Those of you old enough may remember the intro to the science fiction TV Show Outer Limits:

    “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set.”
    ====================================================
    Science Fiction is now a reality, in our schools, and McMega-Media.

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  4. Bill: Loved your 2009 piece. One of the key aspects of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius was the chapter on Discernment of Spirits. Not to go into detail, I always liked Ignatius’s noting that when you’re headed in the wrong direction, the good spirit has to make a violent entrance to shake you up. The evil spirit, on the other hand, you greet happily. Trump gains his power by appealing to people’s worst instincts and characteristics–greed, ignorance, bigotry and the like. Only recently have any Republicans summoned up enough courage and indignation to call him out on this but most remain gutless wonders.

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      1. Oh, I don’t know that I’d exclude Donald Trump from the company of angels. Angels come in all kinds, and the worst ones always get the best parts in the play. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost about the hero angel, Satan, booted out of Heaven for leading a revolt against the Commanding Management (who hardly figures at all in the epic tale):

        Infernal world, and thou profoundest hell
        Receive thy new possessor: One who brings
        A mind not to be changed by place or time
        The mind is its own place, and in itself
        Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven
        .
        What matters where, if I be still the same,
        Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
        We shall be free; the almighty hath not built
        Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
        Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
        To reign is worth ambition though in hell;
        Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

        Or, considering President Obama’s Tuesday drone-murder kill-list meetings where he once boasted how he’d “gotten really good at killing people,” consider the brief exchange between two Union soldiers in the 1993 movie, Gettysburg, based on Michael Shaara’s book The Killer Angels:

        Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: [quoting Hamlet] “What a piece of work is man, in form and movement how express and admirable. In action how like an angel.”

        Sergeant ‘Buster’ Kilrain: Well, if he’s an angel, all right then. But he damn well must be a killer angel.

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      2. I accidentally hit the “Enter” key on my aging keyboard before I could conclude my comment above about the “good angels” who — unlike the “bad angels” who kill for loot, women, land, or power — do intervene in the lives of others by violence, yes, but they only kill, maim, and destroy or the best of reasons, like “democracy” or “women’s rights.” The “good angels” — we call them “Liberal Interventionists” today — only destroy villages in order to save them, not like the “bad angels” who clear the local territory of its peasant farmers so that Shock-Doctrine/Disaster-Capitalist vultures can swoop in, buy up the ruined landscape for pennies on the dollar, have a strip mall built by imported “contractors” (i.e., dogs-of-war mercenaries and corporate camp followers) so that CEO bonuses and stockholder dividends can soar even higher, dare I say: “to the heavens”?

        No, one must clearly differentiate between the “good” killer angels and the “bad” ones. President Trump has not yet completed his first year in office and so far he has not started a new war or gotten more than a handful of enlisted men killed in a couple of Special Ops fuck-ups. We still do not know how many foreign peasants, poppy farmers, or barely armed goat heders his lesser killer angels — he calls them “my generals” and for some undemonstrated reason assumes that they know something about war — have killed or maimed, but even they have some way to go before they come anywhere near the equalling or surpassing the record of casual carnage that their own inept military predecessors have established. As a novice “bad” Killer Angel, President Trump has a long way to go before he can equal the death and destruction that his three immediate Killer Angel predecessors (“good” and “bad”) have inflicted upon the world.

        Yet, somehow, it seems rather difficult to differentiate between all these “good” and “bad” American killer angels. For some reason, they look, sound, “think,” and act just the same: badly.

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      3. We’ll see, Mike. The Trump administration has expanded bombing, drone strikes, nuclear saber rattling with North Korea, and of course “defense” spending. Trump is keen to look tough by threatening NK with total annihilation. He seems indeed to be, well, if not Satan, certainly an “angel” who leans toward divisiveness, destruction, and death.

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  5. The illustrative graphic at the head of this article makes a good point about the evil of ordering people around instead of encouraging them to think for themselves and thus contribute to the solution of the nation’s problems. Every time I hear someone start babbling about the “Commander in Chief” I want to puke. To defend myself from the insidious implications inherent in all this “commanding” bullshit, I always substitute “commander in brief” to remind myself of how quickly these self-styled “commanders” fade from the scene only to have some other indistinguishable cipher take their place.

    Critical thinking does seem to have gotten short shrift in American academia over recent decades, and illiteracy has risen to scandalous levels, but I can recall reading — in my own teacher training courses — that the public school system in the United States, from its inception, primarily had the goal of producing a docile and easily trainable work force that would not demand much in the way of wages nor would prove problematical to the business interests that really ran the country. So I cannot say for sure just how much the situation has really changed over time. I do recall that in the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy set America the goal of landing on the moon within a decade, and that the governement put a lot of money into updating the public school curriculum to include more math and science courses which, hopefully, would produce the needed increase in engineers for the space program.

    In the late 1990s to early 2000s, I returned to college for a secondary school teaching credential. I had bachelor’s degrees in Economics and Japanese and a master’s degree in religious studies (mostly Buddhism), but few California high schools offered employment in those subjects. So I took the professional teaching exams in English — which I had largely taught myself through reading and writing after high school and college — and passed them. Then I went to enroll for teacher training classes at California Polytechnic University, Pomona, the college closest to where I lived at the time. One day, as I approached the registraion office, I saw a sign on the nearest glass door that read: “Door broken. Use other door around the side of the building.” So, I went around the side of the building and entered through the other door, as instructed. The young lady at the registration desk, who didn’t seem to have much to do, saw me coming and said: “You must be here for the teacher credentialling program.” Surprised, I asked her how she could tell that, just from looking at me. She answered: “Because you came in through that door over there.” I replied: “So? I just did what the sign on the other door said to do.” She smiled and pointed to the broken door with the sign on it as engineering student after engineering student came up to the door, tried the handle unsuccessfully a few times, and then walked away shaking their heads. “Yes,” the young lady registrar said, “but you could read the sign.”

    I got my teaching credential and managed to land one job for a semester teaching first and second year Japanese and freshman English at Thousand Oaks High School in Ventura County. Since I lived in San Bernadino County, I had to drive back and forth across the huge Los Angeles County every day: an hour-and-a-half in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Still, I enjoyed the job even though I never worked so hard in my life planning, delivering, and evaluating instruction for about eighty students in five different classes from two different subject departments: English and Foreign Languages. I think I learned more than my students did. I suspect that most teachers do. Good teachers, I have found, model good learning for their students and demonstrate, through their own example, not just what to learn but how to learn. A good basic education should equip the student to go on learning for the rest of his or her life, regardless of whether anyone else wants to teach them anything or not. Reflecting on my own experiences in the military and in civilian life, I tried to boil my philosophy of education down down to a simple slogan that I could pass along to my own two sons:

    “You will learn for your own purposes, or other people will train you for theirs.”

    Works for me.

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    1. “You will learn for your own purposes, or other people will train you for theirs.” Very well put, Mike. And that’s a big problem with “education” in the U.S. today: it’s often really about vocational training. Students (and parents) want to know, “What can I do with this degree?” Meaning, what job can I get, how much money can I make.

      My first college, WPI, still had the idealism of the 1970s: the goal was “to learn how to learn.” Even as I majored in mechanical engineering, I was minoring in history as well. And eventually I got my graduate degrees in the history of science and technology. I went to very good universities that emphasized research, discovery, thinking.

      Learning how to learn is crucial, because true learning promotes critical thinking. I’d also say that true learning promotes humility, a quality that is scarce among Washington “elites,” most of whom have been trained in professions like the law.

      Then you have Trump, the real estate mogul, whose primary skill is selling himself. “The Art of the Deal” should surely be titled “The Craft of the Con.” And, give the devil his due, he’s crafty for sure.

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      1. “The Art of the Deal” should surely be titled “The Craft of the Con.”

        A good paraphrase, Bill, but as I suspected from the awful, disjointed way that Trump speaks (tediously repeating and endlessly contradicting himself) he had little to do with actually writing the book you mention. From Wikipedia:

        Trump: The Art of the Deal is a 1987 book credited to businessman Donald Trump and journalist Tony Schwartz. Part memoir and part business-advice book, it was the first book published by Trump, and helped to make him a “household name”. It reached number 1 on The New York Times Best Seller list, stayed there for 13 weeks, and altogether held a position on the list for 48 weeks.

        The book received additional attention during Trump’s 2016 campaign for the presidency of the United States. He cited it as one of his proudest accomplishments and his second-favorite book after the Bible. Schwartz expressed regrets about his involvement in the book, and both he and the book’s publisher, Howard Kaminsky, asserted that Trump had played no role in the actual writing of the book. Trump has given conflicting accounts on the question of authorship.”

        I don’t want to get off on a tangent regarding Donald Trump right now. I’ll save that for some other time. Someone might even want to do a comparative sociological analysis of the different political strategies employed by Deputy Dubya Bush and Donald Trump: two very different sorts of rich men who successfully collected the votes of relatively impoverished, formerly middle class Americans. Any takers? I’ll happily supply a short but comprehensive bibliography of relevant sources.

        Let me wrap this up by pointing out that anyone who thinks and writes by counting alphabetical letters and punctuation symbols up to a limit of 144 characters — and who then deletes what he has “written” a day or two later when anyone points out his lies and outrageous provocations — hardly deserves the title of “author.” Carnival barker, certainly, but not “author.”

        I really want to get back to paraphrase as a technique of learning and teaching critical thinking. …

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  6. That Trump didn’t even write the book upon which his image was con-structed is the perfect illustration of the craft of the con. It’s rather remarkable how successful he’s been at con-structing a certain image of himself, whether as a bigly businessman or as an outspoken leader who tells it like it is. Give the devil his due …

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  7. I especially want to commend Monotonous Languor for contributing the introduction to the “old” Outer Limits science-fiction/fanatsy television series. The text summary reminded me of Rod Sterling’s introductions to his Twilight Zone series (1959-64) which preceded: first, The Outer Limits (1963-65), and then, the original Star Trek (1966-69). The intro to The Outer Limits, however, differed from the introductions to the other two series in that it featured instructions — more like commands, actually — issued directly to the audience, ordering them to remain passive, and admonishing them to leave everything up to their (relatively new at that time) video technological device. Long before the advent of motion pictures or television, Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously called this sort of voluntary intellectual passivity “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

    Something about that “passive” television audience business reminded me of the quite different approach taken by the Prologue to Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, who had to ask his Elizabethan audience to supply all the imagination themselves, otherwise the obviously artificial theatrical presentation wouldn’t work.

    Thoughts beget other thoughts and soon I began to think about the relationship between critical thinking and artistic creativity. Imagining myself a student in my own English class, I wondered what sort of writing assignment I could give myself in order to explore, artistically yet critically, the extent to which our present society and its “democracy” have found themselves rendered politically impotent by the technology of film and television. In this regard, I thought specifically of something former U. S. Vice President Al Gore wrote in his book The Assault on Reason (2007):

    “Individuals receive, but they cannot send. They absorb, but they cannot share. They hear but they cannot speak. They see constant motion, but they do not move themselves. The ‘well-informed citizenry’ is in danger of becoming the ‘well-amused audience.’”

    Well-amused into ignorance. What a concept. So, I thought: OK. How about Entertainingly Insulted into gullibility? The Assignment: In an ironic twist on the technique of the Outer Limits television introduction, rewrite the Prologue’s opening soliloquy in Henry V from the point of view of a cynical media-consultant working for President Donald Trump or defeated presidential candidate You-Know-Her. He “loves poorly educated people.” She considers them “deplorables.” It matters not which consultant or which candidate, since any of them would work for, or hire, the others if opportunistically advantageous for even an instant.

    As a practical poetic matter, the Prologue’s soliloquy runs to 34 lines of blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter (meaning ten or eleven syllables in five accents per line). For convenience sake, I have numbered the lines and taken up only the opening eight and closing nine (a total of seventeen) lines of verse, since these sections of the prologue seemed relatively easy to match up with a re-written alternative. The remaining seventeen lines I have yet to complete.

    So first let us compare the original Shakespeare:

    Prologue to Henry V

    1. O, for a muse of fire that would ascend
    2. The brightest heaven of invention!
    3. A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
    4. And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
    5. Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
    6. Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
    7. Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
    8. Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,

    and the re-written equivalent:

    A Pusillanimous Prologue Parody

    1. Wanted: a hack for hire who would descend
    2. The darkest depths of Disbelief’s suspension.
    3. “K” Street for a stage, dunces to act,
    4. And morons to consume the threadbare theme.
    5. Then should the Precious Peacock, him or her,
    6. Put on the bomber jacket while the troops,
    7. Like gladiators chained, prepare to fight
    8. And for the mob’s enjoyment die. But wait!”

    Then more of the original Shakespeare:

    Prologue to Henry V

    26. Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
    27. Printing their proud hoofs in the receiving earth,
    28. For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
    29. Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times,
    30. Turning the accomplishment of many years
    31. Into an hourglass; for the which supply,
    32. Admit me chorus to this history,
    33. Who, prologue-like, your humble patience pray
    34. Gently to hear, kindly to judge our play.

    and the re-written equivalent:

    A Pusillanimous Prologue Parody

    26. Blink, when we show you dragons belching flames
    27. And feel vicarious, cathartic dread.
    28. Your thoughts, bypassed, have nothing they need do
    29. At Warp Speed, through black holes, you’ll conquer time.
    30. Whole galaxies will fly apart, then merge
    31. Into an episode on Friday night
    32. Of Final Destination: Season Six.
    33. When nothing matters anyway, why not?
    34. So sit and stare, and we’ll supply, the rot.”

    Honest, Mr Murry, Mr Murry would have handed in the whole assignment but one or both of his wife’s two cats ate the middle half of it.

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    1. That’s great, Mike. But students today don’t talk of pets eating their homework. It’s almost always a computer glitch, e.g. my hard drive crashed, my new software is incompatible with my old, my printer ran out of ink … blaming technology is very convenient!

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  8. There’s nothing wrong with the essay, I agree with it, but the idea at the heart of it is dead in this culture with no sign of being revived. Our culture is a refutation of the whole idea of broadening one’s mind with Trump the poster boy. America stands for the apotheosis of wealth and the application of the power that comes with it. The 1% do not show any intellectual interests or abilities (even that faux intellectual Hugh Hefner is gone) politics at the national level is all about who has the dough (e.g. Sheldon Adelson). There are no public intellectuals that are known to all as people such as John Dewey and Mark Twain once were. The only person I can think of as a known intellectual is Bill Moyers who is hardly a nationally recognized figure. Deep thinking today is exemplified by the TED talks, easily digestible, stage managed to the nth degree “thought pieces” that skim the surface of any subject you can think of with nothing to tie anything together. There once were great religious thinkers (who influenced Martin Luther King Jr., an intellectual himself) but can anyone name one today amid the flood of televangelists?

    Do you know any public figure with a significant vocabulary?

    Wealth is success, period. The wunderkind, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were, is now exemplified by Mark Zuckerberg, all known for coming up with great ideas and cashing in on them. None thank formal education for anything. The dropout billionaire is a role model. Professional sports rules our video world, its stars appearing robotic when asked to speak, all having a very narrow range of things to say. Ali was an astounding anomaly. TV and movies, whatever the story line, routinely have sex and wealth and only a little less frequently, violence. There must be at least one character fabulously wealthy so that viewers can get a full view of all the goodies money can buy.

    And what of the elderly, once honored as deeply informed sources of knowledge, a community resource that was an absolute necessity in tribal times? ROFLOL! The old are seen hobbling and shuffling around for ever longer lives but, really now, who would stop one of them to ask a question on an important topic or even just to hear about how things were long ago?

    There are still great intellects who write to the joy of you and me and the pleasure of using the intellect everyone who reads this site knows very well, but it’s up to the individual to seek it out with no cultural support for his/her effort and a decreasing chance of support from the immediate family. Entertainment is everywhere, gadgets for diversion everywhere. Stimulation starts with the alarm clock and ends as one dozes off in front of a late-night show. There is no need to read anything more than a paragraph long. Twitter rules! The intellectual world is separated from the world of stuff by an apparently insurmountable wall labeled BOREDOM that few will dare to discover is no obstacle if one makes a serious attempt to scale it. That’s the tragedy – the intellect is there to be used, we all have it, but it is eagerly rejected for the sensational. The special power of the human mind lies dormant.

    Bill, it’s over and not coming back, but I hear you brother!

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    1. Well put! I agree. As a culture, we don’t value critical thinking, so we don’t nurture it. Indeed, our cultural “elites” discourage it because it gets in the way of their lives and livelihood. As in the movie, “They Live,” we are sent messages to consume and to obey, with the almighty dollar being our god.

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    2. A fine comment, Mr Brown. Thank you for taking the time to compose and share it with us. I especially appreciate your mention of public intellectuals like John Dewey:

      When we look in the wrong place we naturally do not find what we are looking for. … Existence of a multitude of contradictory theories of the state, which is so baffling from the standpoint of the theories themselves, is readily explicable the moment we see that all the theories, in spite of their divergence from one another, spring from a root of shared error: the taking of causal agency instead of consequences as the heart of the problem.”

      Progress is not steady and continuous. Retrogression is as periodic as advance.”

      — John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (1927)

      “And so it comes and goes and comes and goes and …” (to paraphrase the late great novelist Kurt Vonnegut)

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  9. Great comment Clif Brown, but hidden inside is your simple statement: “Wealth is success, period.” My eyes must have been wide open shut!
    Today, it’s also crept into the arts: your book doesn’t have to be that great, as long as it sells. This mediocrity has destroyed modern architecture*, songwriting, many artists. Andy Warhol, like him or not, was probably the West’s last great artist; he brought a commercialism to ‘fine’ art, that nobody’s been able to advance today. Yet he captured a time, a spirit, contemporary artists can only duplicate and copy. Strangely, he’s more alive now than in his time frame! The Obama poster was vintage Warhol!
    * The great father of modernism, Mies van der Rohe, said: “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good.” Sadly, he was easy to imitate on the cheap, but the connoisseurs stuck by him: “Those are the boxes his buildings came in”.

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