Laura Penny’s comic diatribe

Laura Penny. More Money than Brains: Why School Sucks, College Is Crap & Idiots Think They’re Right (2010).

Undoubtedly I like this partly because it speaks to my own prejudices; but it does so with flair, wit, & a sharp ability to shift tonal gears continually (sometimes within the same sentence) from ‘high’ to ‘low’ (demotic). Penny covers a lot of territory here, starting with the populist dismissal of education among the ‘ordinary guys’ population, which, oddly enough, reach this conclusion under the tutelage of the very elites they are taught to look down upon as overeducated nerds. The book is one long education in the very specific contradictions at the heart of this anti-intellectualism. For example, money is worth more than brains, & the brains apparently don’t know how to make it; those who do, however, hire brains to think up what will make money. And some brains are worthwhile, provided they skip the useless arts & humanities stuff & put their brains to work making money (eg. Bill Gates, etc). ‘The mental work we have been exhorted to pursue is valuable because it is lucrative, not because it is smart’ (6). But: ‘The irony is that our overwhelming emphasis on money, our conviction that markets are the smartest system of all, has resulted in three recessions and one global market meltdown in the past thirty years’ (6-7). So Penny takes on all kinds of anti-intellectualism here, beginning with ‘a short list of some of the most frequent allegations against the brainy’ (12). These include ‘Nerds are arrogant and think they are better than you,’ Nerds are social engineers who want to tell everyone what to do,’ Nerds have never run anything real and they live in a candy-coloured dream world,’ not to mention that nerds live in the past, a dream-world, or that they are too negative.

She covers all that in the first chapter, then, in a highly roundabout discursive manner that allows for lots of bitter laughter, she takes up the loss of Enlightenment ideals, the destruction of education (again, especially such ‘useless’ academic pursuits as arts, literature, history, philosophy, etc) at all levels (the book is aimed at both Canada & the US). Then, having covered all the bases, in the final chapter, ‘If You’re So Smart, Why Ain’t You Rich?,’ she repeats those allegations, this time demonstrating how they work against the moneyed few who got us into this mess (on the questions of being hung up on the past or too negative, however, she points out that, alas, it’s because they aren’t that way that we are in the mess, economically, that we are in (politically, too, as we look out on the wasteland that is contemporary politics in the US, & in Canada too, sadly)).

Along the way, Penny covers a lot of ground, including the Internet ‘revolution,’ which some she quotes see as saving literacy (she quotes ‘professor Andrea Lunsford, whose study of Stanford students’ writing habits found that they were doing more and more “life-writing” outside the classroom. “I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” she said’ (191). Penny is not so sure:

It is indeed true that young people are typing more than their forebears. But that has not led to any marked improvements in the student essays and emails I’ve seen over the past decade. I haven’t done a formal study, but the thousands of pages I’ve corrected strongly suggest the following: Students who read books, for class and for fun, write fairly well in class and online. Students who balk at reading books send me mangled, misspelled emails and hand in essays that drain my marking pens. (191)

To which I can only say, amen! I wish I could believe her snappy conclusion (well, I do, part of it at least, but am not so hopeful that her clarion call will reach anyone with power). Yes, so far at least, ‘Our ancestors’ most enduring and valuable legacy lives in their books, their ideas, their art, their music. Stains on paper, puffs of sonorous air, and unruly brainchildren may not seem as real as your bank balance or the latest GDP figures, but they are’ (235). Which is to say, & believe, that ‘Wealth, like life, is brief. The liberal arts are long. . . . The humanities are despised because they are dangerous. They arm us with the intellectual weapons we need to fight the forces of ignorance and idiocracy, and to free ourselves from freedumb’ (235). Well, we can hope so, anyway. And read this for a comprehensive & darkly funny overview of the enemy.

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