PRAGER UNIVERSITY: RAY BRADBURY’S NIGHTMARE

One of my  favorite sayings comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.  Reflecting on his 1831 visit to the United States, the Frenchman observed, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”   Tocqueville’s adage doesn’t always holds true, but it often does, which is why I regularly share it with my students.  Across the generations, Tocqueville reminds us to be wary of our fondness for simplistic answers to complicated questions.

Tocqueville’s words came to me repeatedly over the weekend, as Colonel Ty Seidule’s five-minute explanation of the causes of the Civil War went viral, attracting more than four million views in a matter of days.  (It’s now topped six million.)  In my last post I explained how Colonel Seidule effectively replaced one myth about the Civil War with another one, and there’s no good reason to cover that ground a second time.  But I do want to share a thought abut the venue in which it first appeared: the absurdly misnamed “Prager University.”

“Prager University” is the brainchild of conservative radio personality Dennis Prager.  It is not an accredited educational institution, and no one connected to it claims otherwise.  It offers “free courses for free minds”–professionally produced five-minute videos on a range of topics in economics, political science, philosophy, history, and religion.  I have nothing personal against Dennis Prager, and as a political conservative myself, I suspect that we could probably find several things to agree about.  But I’m offended by anti-intellectualism parading as a commitment to knowledge and wisdom, and that’s what I see in this online travesty.

I hesitate in sharing these strong words, because I’m aware that a number of serious scholars and public intellectuals have lent their names to Prager’s undertaking.  Perhaps they thought they were doing the public a service.  Perhaps they hoped to stimulate informed discussion and raise the level of public debate about important questions.  If so, then they were well intentioned but misguided.

When a ruler of Egypt supposedly asked the Greek mathematician Euclid whether there was an easier way to learn mathematics, Euclid is said to have replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.”  He meant that there were no short cuts.  No Cliff’s Notes. It would take time, concentrated effort, and perseverance.  As 19th-century philosopher Charles Peirce put it, “really valuable ideas can only be had at the price of close attention.”

“Wrong!” says Dennis Prager.  When you visit “Prager University” online, you’re immediately reassured that “there are no fees, no tuition, books, homework assignments, or grueling midterms here – just clear, life-changing insights and ideas from world-renowned thinkers.”  Who could turn that down?  It’s not just that the student at P.U. can receive “life-changing insights” without forking over a pile of cash.  He can also get them without wasting valuable time reading, studying, or thinking deeply.

There are “no long, boring, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open lectures” at P.U., the web site proclaims.  “All our courses are five minutes long,” the spiel continues. “That’s right, five minutes.”  And how is such brevity possible, you ask?  It’s possible because “our faculty get right to the point.”  You’ll find “no fluff” at P.U.  And if five minutes still strains your attention span?  Not to worry.  Each life-changing insight “is supported by cutting edge, visually-compelling, entertaining images and animation.”  Since you’re likely to get tired of looking at world-renowned intellectuals, in other words (and let’s face it–most of them aren’t that photogenic), P. U. will regularly interject cartoon figures to help you concentrate.

P.U.'s cutting-edge animation helps you concentrate for the entire five minutes

P.U.’s cutting-edge animation helps you concentrate for the entire five minutes.

“Just as a shot of espresso boosts your energy,” P.U. promises,

“a shot of Prager University boosts your brain. Because not only will you have more knowledge, you will have more clarity. You’ll get one other thing, a true-value added component of a Prager University education – wisdom.”

In sum, “Prager University clarifies big ideas.  Five minutes at a time.”

If this were only a parody.

I’m sorry, Dennis, but I’ve got to go with Euclid on this one.  Like the path to geometry, there is no royal road to wisdom, much less a five-minute video, no matter how compelling its animation.  P.U. doesn’t clarify big ideas.  It trivializes them.  Rather than teach its students how to think, it tells them what to think.

The idea of a five-minute video isn’t inescapably awful.  If each video were paired with another that offered a competing answer to the same question, together they might stimulate rather than indoctrinate.  If the “world renowned thinkers” were encouraged to treat competing interpretations seriously, or invited to suggest books or articles that develop the topic further, these videos could (best-case scenario here) be a springboard to further investigation and reflection.

But that would suggest that some questions are complicated and don’t admit of simple answers, and that flies in the face of P.U.’s whole philosophy.  Want to know whether the U. S. should have dropped atomic bombs on Japan?  P.U. will cut the fluff and give you the “clear and unambiguous” judgment of history in five minutes.  Interested in the truth about Vietnam?  Five minutes should be plenty.  Want the straight scoop about the Constitution? the Ten Commandments? capitalism? feminism? racism?  global warming? abortion?  Five minutes a pop or your money back.

In addition to Alexis de Tocqueville, I’ve also kept coming back to Ray Bradbury these past few days.  In his marvelous dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradford eerily anticipated the denigration of the life of the mind that Prager University embodies.  Writing in 1953, Bradbury described a twenty-first century world in which the primary task of firemen was not to put out fires but to burn books.  Intellectual had become a swear word.  Entertainment was life’s primary pursuit.  Happiness was life’s ultimate goal.  Complicated ideas got in the way.

Early in the novel, Bradbury speaks through a Fire Department captain to pinpoint the genesis of the gradual denigration of learning.  It began with the rise of mass culture, Captain Beatty relates to fireman Guy Montag, who has become curious about books.  As late as the Civil War, Beatty says, “books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere.  They could afford to be different.”  But then the population began to grow rapidly, and with it came the birth of mass culture.  “Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?”

Gradually everything became “boiled down,” Beatty explains.

“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume.  . . . Many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet . . . was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.  Do you see?  Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”

Ray Bradbury died shortly after Dennis Prager founded his “university,” and I won’t presume to say what he would have thought of it.  I don’t mind telling you what I think, however.  Following Captain Beatty, I’d say there’s more nursery than university in P.U.

10 responses to “PRAGER UNIVERSITY: RAY BRADBURY’S NIGHTMARE

  1. Remember Father Guido Sarducci’s five minute university? He said it “teaches you what you will remember five years from graduation.” People who didn’t see the Saturday Night Live performance (about 1980) can easily find clips on youtube. A full transcript of the short comedy routine is online at http://www.templaruniversity.com/guido.html
    Still funny after all these years — and not without a nugget of truth.
    Maybe Pager University would look better to its critics if they thought of it in terms of Father Guido’s University.

  2. With a name like PU, you know something stinks. And, interestingly enough, not all the “smelly little orthodoxies” (hat tip: Mr. Orwell) that Mr. Prager shills for come from the political right. Prager U unwittingly shares a tragic and dangerous conceit with a certain left-liberal (or, sigh, progressive) tradition of educational thinking typified by Mr. Dewey and the pragmatists: educators please get to the point! Knowledge must be useful. No more effete intellectual pretensions that characterize European academies. In America, intellectual work matters insofar as it is a means to a definitive (preordained) end. As Prager puts it, no more “fluff.” The refreshments of serendipity are lost on these small minds. This way of looking at education is doubly distasteful coming from the right, since it is shorn of any hint of liberal humanism. As a self-styled conservative, Prager is indulging the worst instincts of the faddish minds in America, the lifestyle left: Don’t bother eating your vegetables and hitting the gym, I have a 5 minute pill that will take care of you. There are no short cuts to clarity, wisdom, or understanding. Shame on Prager for suggesting otherwise. What a great blog post, though. Thanks again for being a beacon of intellectual honesty and probity. Every time I check in on this site I come away feeling mentally and morally energized!

  3. I found one factual error that I believe should be corrected. The author of this article claims,

    ” …or invited to suggest books or articles that develop the topic further, these videos could (best-case scenario here) be a springboard to further investigation and reflection.”

    Prager University videos have a button below the video that links to “related books” while not semantically the “suggested books” of whose absence the author laments, they are certainly a “springboard to further investigation and reflection.”

    I do agree that many important issues should be carefully dissected and discussed. However the belief that many people will engage in that dissection and discussion with any frequency is utopian. Prager University effectively communicates important facts, and an oft neglected point of view. Something is usually better than nothing. The videos certainly inspire at least some to investigate further and even if some don’t, at least they learned something.

    • Dear David: I appreciate the correction, and you are right to call this to my attention. What P.U. identifies as “related books” is just a list of books by the “instructor,” not a bibliography that would allow readers to explore different interpretations, which is what I really had in mind. In the case of P.U., I can’t agree with your endorsement that something is better than nothing. Replacing one myth with another is not an improvement, unless you prefer the second myth to a more complicated truth. Training people to view the world simplistically is not better than nothing, unless you think they are incapable of thinking for themselves. Perhaps I am utopian.

  4. One is reminded of the H. L. Mencken quote, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. Substitute the word “issue” for the word “problem”.

  5. Thank you, Dr. McKenzie. Very good observations. I’ve watched a couple of the Prager videos, but I never was one for Cliff Notes. I’d much rather get the fuller picture of things.

  6. I completely agree with your assessment of Prager University and the 5-minute definitive edition. However, I’ve recently been struggling with putting together a similar length presentation aka my job talk elevator speech. How much complexity/nuance is too much for folks? Similarly, you could write most of your posts in academic journal or book formats and have much more substantive and complete arguments. My guess is that you don’t expect your average audience member to be able to read those with much success.
    Perhaps there is something to Bradbury’s argument about mass culture; I can see instances where opening previously exclusive clubs up to the masses may lower the bar of critical thought, but at the same time, the masses are potentially lifted at least some ways, towards being more well-rounded citizens. My concern (and this goes 100% for me) is that in our battle against anti-intellectualism, we may swing too far towards elitism.

    • Luke: You raise an important question, and I cannot now give it the full reply that it deserves. For now, let me say that you are exactly right in framing the matter with regard to both anti-intellectualism and intellectual elitism. There are ditches on both sides of the road, and jumping into one in order to avoid the other isn’t the solution. Any teacher who wants to reach a broad audience will find it necessary to simplify. The danger comes when the simplified observation shades into a simplistic one. Figuring out when the former becomes the latter is the challenge.

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