I’ve got a beef with a few the world’s thought leaders. This year’s annual Technology Issue of The Atlantic Monthly just came out, along with its list of “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel.” The airplane glided in at #15, while penicillin took its shot at #28. Personal computers made a hard drive for #16. Nothing startling there. But I was surprised and, frankly, indignant to see that motion pictures had been overlooked!
Within 25 years of Edison’s first commercial exhibition in 1894, just about everyone on earth had seen a movie.
“Obviously, without continuous and rather pedantic explanations from me, my students can grasp only the surface meaning of McKibben’s essay.… Take all the (un-footnoted) references to Gandhi, Hemingway, Miguel de Cervantes, Orwell, Thoreau, and the Bible out of McKibben’s essay, remove all the idiomatic expressions and cut the literary allusions, and you end up with a deflated text that looks as if it had been gone over by a censor’s pen in some weird dystopia. Little do we know that a large proportion of our young students are already inhabiting such a world.”
“But that does not mean that this kind of cultural literacy has ceased to be relevant. Indeed, I believe it is still alive and well, but that it is now cultivated only in a narrow circle of the privileged classes. The reason I don’t see much evidence of this shared knowledge in my own classroom is that I do not, as a rule, encounter the products of the country’s elite preparatory school systems. What I’m saying, then, is that the issue of cultural literacy is socio-economically coded.”
While Michael Pollan's books have had a huge influence on our attitude toward the Big Business of food, it took the documentary film Super Size Me to nudge fast food chains to offer healthier menu choices.
When it comes to social mobility, even in the upper echelons of society your ability to quote Thoreau may or may not win you any points. But if you don't know the origin of the phrase "May the Force be with you," you're screwed.