Over dinner a few weeks ago, the novelist Lawrence Naumoff told a troubling story. He asked students in his introduction to creative writing course at UNC-Chapel Hill if they had read Jack Kerouac. Nobody raised a hand. Then he asked if anyone had ever heard of Jack Kerouac. More blank expressions.
Naumoff began describing the legend of the literary wild man. One student offered that he had a teacher who was just as crazy. Naumoff asked the professor's name. The student said he didn't know. Naumoff then asked this oblivious scholar, "Do you know my name?"
After a long pause, the young man replied, "No."
"I guess I've always known that many students are just taking my course to get a requirement out of the way," Naumoff said. "But it was disheartening to see that some couldn't even go to the trouble of finding out the name of the person teaching the course."
The floodgates were opened and the other UNC professors at the dinner began sharing their own dispiriting stories about the troubling state of curiosity on campus. Their experiences echoed the complaints voiced by many of my book reviewers who teach at some of the nation's best schools.
All of them have noted that such ignorance isn't new -- students have always possessed far less knowledge than they should, or think they have. But in the past, ignorance tended to be a source of shame and motivation. Students were far more likely to be troubled by not-knowing, far more eager to fill such gaps by learning. As one of my reviewers, Stanley Trachtenberg, once said, "It's not that they don't know, it's that they don't care about what they don't know."
Exactly. It's not the ignorance but the pride in the ignorance that is so depressing to those of us who still value old-fashioned knickknacks like facts and knowledge.
Incurious George's actions, however, are a strange mixture of the truly ignorant and the willfully deceitful. The lack of normal curiosity, combined with a calculated disregard for the truth, suggests the foundation of a criminal mind. In the old days we would have recognized such ignorant/deceitful behavior as a sign of severe intellectual underdevelopment and described it as juvenile deliquency.
Except in Dubya's case, thanks to being the most powerful person on earth, his incuriosity may kill a lot more than the cat.