03/07/2011 12:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

America The Literal: Spectacle and Higher Education

The death of literacy and the victory of spectacle occurred a few feet from my house last week, while I was still reeling from Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion -- The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. It happened at Northwestern University -- a not-for-profit, privately held institution that occupies the most valuable lakefront and prime real estate in the City of Evanston, IL, charges more than $40,000 a year in tuition, has a $5.9 billion endowment and pays no property taxes.

The spectacle in question was a live sex demonstration by two exhibitionists who, "disappointed" by a video presentation of female orgasm which they deemed "unrealistic," decided to show the room of a hundred SAT and ACT score-busting collegians what female orgasm is really like. Enter a willing female, a male partner with a power tool fetish and a "reciprocating" saw attached to a sex toy. Also in the room was a popular professor of human sexuality, so witless it seems, he'd sign his own death certificate if you put it in front of him. "My decision to say 'yes' reflected my inability to come up with a legitimate reason why students should not be able to watch such a demonstration," said the professor, who later issued an apology by maintaining that he sees "absolutely no harm in what happened."

If we set a really low bar for ourselves, say 2 inches from the ground, I suppose we would be able to see in this exercise, American ingenuity, at its finest, brought to bear on a grave problem -- the lack of realism in a video about female orgasm. But if we have greater expectations, we can see in it dumbed down higher education -- the rejection of the development of abstract and critical thinking skills, higher order thinking skills, the most complex cognitive thinking skills, in favor of grade school level "show and tell" and the ultra-coarseness of reality shows.

The 18 and 19-year-olds I know are bright, curious, and well prepared to take advantage of academic rigor. They aren't sure what their future holds, but they feel brave somehow for having placed their faith in higher education. Yet, if you ask them what they think of college, many will tell you it's a racket -- a system designed to teach them close to nothing about what they need to make their way in the world, and to keep them as indentured laborers well into middleage through student loans. Still they believe in the capacity of higher education to change their lives. "If I hadn't gone to college, I'd have been viewed as a statistical waste of space," said one debt-ridden graduate featured in the Huffington Post series, "Majoring in Debt."

In Five Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University, suggests that the new era of hyper globalization, massive information, dominance of science and technology, and the clash of civilizations will demand cognitive abilities and capacities that up to now have been mere options. Gardner says that without these "minds," individuals will be at the mercy of forces they can't understand. He cites the disciplinary mind which masters major thought including science, mathematics and history; the synthesizing mind which integrates ideas from various discrete disciplines and spheres to create a coherent new whole that can be communicated to others; the respectful mind which is aware of and appreciates the differences among human beings; and the ethical and creating minds.

Educating our young people well, so that they have the potential to become virtuosos in the cognitive orchestration of knowledge, serves all our interests. Valorizing cheap thinking, spectacle, and moral nihilism may be oh so hip and cool, but it creates cheap-thinking, morally nihilistic, literal minded Americans.