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.
“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.