David Brooks never fails to disappoint with his column in the New York Times. He is perhaps my favorite journalist/pop-social scientist (see my 3/28/03, 4/26/01, 8/17/03, 4/04/04 entries) but like Krugman (whom I also used to like), when the biweekly deadline hits him, he invariably sucks.
In this week’s column Brooks’ laments the lack of culture in today’s middle class, citing a deep analysis of Hemmingway in Time magazine from the 1950’s.
I have two responses. The first is the one I normally use when people lament the declining quality of education. Even if the average member of the middle class is less “cultured” than the average today, it doesn’t mean the average American is. The middle class is just much bigger today. Even though the average SAT score keeps going down, the difference is that today 80% of high school students aspire to college and thus take such exams whereas in the 50’s it was only the few elite. The same is true for the middle class readers of Time magazine.
The second is in line with the thesis of Steven Johnson’s recent Everything Bad is Good for You. Why is all pop culture bad. First you have huge selection bias, by comparing the best of yesterday with the average of today. Second, TV is so much more nuanced today (compare Leno to Ed Sullivan, Seinfeld to Leave it to beaver). Video games teach complex problem solving and creativity compared to the linear world of books. Far from being apathetic, people today are hyper self-aware, see my analysis of this nihilism, anti-nihilism synthesis in my epinions Mallrats movie review.