The Murder of Wisdom?

My late father called it the “boob tube.” He did so not because of the rise, in the 1970s, of so-called “jiggle TV.” He only watched sports and the news. 

As a teacher, he loathed the deleterious effects television viewing had upon the intellectual practices and acumen of the populace, especially students. He contended that sitting for hours every day and every night in front of the TV to be passively entertained prevented people from actively learning and experiencing life. Perhaps even more than a formal education, he argued, these active experiences provided the life lessons needed later in adulthood to help provide wisdom. In sum, he believed TV stunted not only the acquisition of knowledge but the accumulation of experiences and life lessons necessary for applying that knowledge wisely.

And he made his case long before the people he called “educated idiots” and social media murdered wisdom.

Today, while the self-anointed, insular, and irony-free credentialled elitists (a.k.a., “educated idiots”) bewail the “death of expertise,” they are really whining about the public’s increasing lack of deference to their presumed superiority and right to rule. But this decline of trust is not about the public’s disregard for facts and figures; it is about their beginning to notice the utter lack of wisdom exhibited by these progressive elitists and their “woke” institutions.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines wisdom as “the ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments.” As such, wisdom is rarely, if ever, found among those whose personal, professional, and progressive myopia renders their knowledge and experience insular. True believers in the coercively imposed civil religion of relativism, these credentialled leftists find no moral or cultural touchstone from which wisdom may spring—only the civilizational quicksand of progressive ideology. In sum, such a progressive elitist becomes a cynic who, in Oscar Wilde’s famous formulation, is someone “who knows the value of everything and the worth of nothing.”

As their rule and relevance are increasingly questioned, the credentialed class has gone to great lengths to defend itself. The Left’s triumvirate of disinformation—the administrative state, corporate media, and Big Tech—has the ability both to promote its bogus narrative of superiority and sagacity, and to censor and cancel dissenting voices.

Still, one cannot blame the entirety of wisdom’s demise upon progressive, credentialed elitists. Loathing the hubris of these elitists, however, must not obscure the role of their accomplices in the murder of wisdom: ourselves. It is we who fixate upon our phones and computers far longer and with far greater frequency than previous generations watched television.

In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “The medium is the message.” Succinctly, he had distinguished between the medium and content; and asserted the medium was more powerful, if often more subtle, in its effect upon human behavior. In the instance of social media, the credentialled elitists are destroying wisdom by using the medium to issue (false) content to contradict it; consequently, while they are, in fact, destroying wisdom within the realms of their respective disciplines and among the public, such destruction takes place within the greater damage caused by social media, itself.

In 2004, Mark Federman, Chief Strategist, McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, remarked how: 

Whenever we create a new innovation—be it an invention or a new idea—many of its properties are fairly obvious to us. We generally know what it will nominally do, or at least what it is intended to do, and what it might replace. We often know what its advantages and disadvantages might be. But it is also often the case that, after a long period of time and experience with the new innovation, we look backward and realize that there were some effects of which we were entirely unaware at the outset. We sometimes call these effects ‘unintended consequences,’ although ‘unanticipated consequences’ might be a more accurate description.

Here is an “unintended,” though not necessarily unanticipated, consequence of a revolutionary medium: social media murdered wisdom (or at least is doing its damnedest to do so). 

The evidence is all around us in our chaotic age. Holed up in our constricted realities, we diurnally and nocturnally, personally and vicariously, subject ourselves to a deluge of inanity, angst, and narcissism. Equivalent to the now risible claim that television would be the single most beneficial tool for human learning, we are not only told the same about the internet (wherein a top use is accessing porn) and its handmaiden social media, but we are also promised ever more insular experiences and vacuous factoids via the impending arrival of the soul smothering “Metaverse” and its sundry cyber-ilk. 

Before social media, at least you couldn’t put a television on the table when out dining with friends. Now you can watch the boob tube in the palm of your hand and argue with Twitter trolls you’ve never met while ignoring your dwindling number of actual friends at the table. Living in a post-modern time of “information,” not truth, “virtuality,” not reality, where going “viral” is deemed beneficial, we teeter on the precipice of the death of both knowledge and wisdom, one for which the poet T.S. Eliot long ago wrote the epitaph:

All our knowledge brings us near to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death, no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

Yet, wisdom, knowledge, and the good can be resurrected and redeemed. As Edmund Burke wrote in his First Letter on a Regicide Peace:

At the very moment when some of them seemed plunged in unfathomable abysses of disgrace and disaster, they have suddenly emerged. They have begun a new course and opened a new reckoning; and even in the depths of their calamity, and on the very ruins of their country, have laid the foundations of a towering and durable greatness. All this has happened without any apparent previous change in the general circumstances which had brought on their distress.

This is not a case of standing athwart history vainly screaming “stop!” It is a call for moderation to begin the restoration of what we’ve lost and sorely need. We can start by powering down our phones; by communing and conversing with our flesh and blood relations and friends; by reading a book, even if it is on Kindle (because in this journey of a thousand miles, baby steps are okay, people); and by turning on our intellects and hearts to the beauty of the reality that encompasses—and that is—us

Only then can we begin to glean and strive to attain the Book of Daniel’s eternal promise: “And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.”

About Thaddeus G. McCotter

The Hon. Thaddeus McCotter is the former chairman of the Republican House Policy Committee, current itinerant guitarist, American Greatness contributor, and Monday co-host of the "John Batchelor Show."

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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