Reason #2 to Read the Classics

Longer Attention Spans

Reading Reason

On Monday, September 12, 2011, eight presidential candidates met in Tampa, Florida for the fifth Republican debate of the 2012 election season. The entire debate was about as long as a movie-of-the-week, and each candidate was given one minute to answer questions from the host, with a chance for a 30-second follow-up response. Barely enough time to come up with a good soundbite.

Long ago, we didn’t select our national leaders based on a half-dozen one-minute quips. In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, each of the two candidates spoke for ninety minutes: 60 minutes for the first candidate, 90 minutes for the second (!), and a 30-minute response for the first speaker. And no Wolf Blitzer. Amazing!

This inclination toward packaging important information in ever-smaller packages is a natural side effect of our fast-paced, microwavable, happy-ending society, a change that parallels the public’s move from long-form books filled with complex ideas to half-hour sitcoms with limited intellectual content.

Grappling with complex ideas takes time. Trying to understand the philosophical foundations of our system of government by taking a pre-debate stroll through Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or attempting to make sense of terrorism by actually reading The Qur’an, should be a common activity for those who care about the future. Instead, we anticipate the upcoming season of Dancing with the Stars. The Twitterfication of human dialog is entertaining, but it has a devastating impact on society.

The selection of a presidential candidate is one such example. Most people never read the party platforms of the Democratic or Republican organizations, and therefore have little understanding of the long-range goals of each group. But since they haven’t taken the time to understand the short- and long-term impacts of their own political positions, looking through those platforms wouldn’t have any meaning for them anyway. And so polls repeatedly announce wide swings in undecided voters in the weeks running up to an election, and for so many, the time spent in the voting booth is an exercise in trying to recall which candidate had the most forceful TV commercial. To leave our biannual selection of leaders in the hands of a few talented ad executives is dangerous and idiotic.

The rise of the soundbite class has had many detrimental effects on American culture. But there is something you can do about it. Pick up a classic book, something that has changed the course of history, and read through its pages. The temptation will be to skim through the content, especially the more difficult passages. Instead, force yourself to deal with each complex passage as it arrives. Highlight. Take notes. Summarize. Outline. And then vote.

[Image Credits: Wikipedia]


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