AMERICAN NOTES | by Fred Russell


Bill O’Reilly has discovered that Americans are ignorant “about their own country.” He told us so not too long ago, quoting Newsweek for the numbers, though he could just as easily have quoted some of Jay Leno’s man-in-the-street interviews (it turns out that 29% of Americans don’t know who the vice president is and 40% don’t know that Germany and Japan were the enemies in World War II). And Bill knows who to blame too: First, the public school system, which is “no longer teaching history, geography and civics in an effective way.” Next, the Internet, which allows people to detach themselves from reality. Television too, but that doesn’t apply to Fox viewers, who obviously take an interest in current events. There you have it, in a nutshell.

   Well, Bill, you are absolutely right. The public school system, first and foremost, is responsible for the ignorance of Americans, but neither you nor your critics understand why. You think they are not teaching the right subjects. I believe you also think that not being able to fire incompetent teachers because of their loathsome unions is also part of the problem. Some people think money or smaller classes will do the trick. Some people think it’s the fault of the kids.

   The first thing that should be noted is that it isn’t just history, geography and civics that Americans are ignorant about. It’s everything. And they always have been. That means science, mathematics, literature, art, music, foreign languages, their own language, basic grammar, simple arithmetic, you name it. And the schools are definitely to blame, but not in the way that Bill O’Reilly thinks.

   The simple fact of the matter is that children do not learn what the public school system wishes them to learn because school bores them. and it is not their fault either. A four- or five-year-old child wants to know everything. He will drive people crazy with his endless questions. After a year or two in the school system he doesn’t want to know anything and will tell anyone within hearing distance that he “hates” reading, composition, arithmetic, science, social studies, whatever  hates school in fact. Within this year or two the public school system has in effect managed to destroy the natural curiosity of the child. The child is no longer eager to learn. Being taught in a school is actually the kiss of death for any subject taught there, guaranteeing that the child will develop a lifelong aversion to it. Are the teachers bad? Not at all. What is the problem then?

   The problem is very simply the way these subjects are taught  frontally, or, more precisely, confrontationally, in rigidly structured frameworks where teachers hammer away at the captive child until his head is ready to explode. (Canetti expressed this very well in Crowds and Power:  “Those most beset by commands are children. It is a miracle that they do not collapse under the burden of commands laid upon them by their parents and teachers. That they in turn, and in an equally cruel form, should give identical commands to their children is as natural as mastication or speech.”) Why subjects are taught in this inappropriate way, completely unattuned to the capacity and temperament of the child, is not very hard to discover; it is to be sought in fact in Bill O’Reilly’s own Church, for until not so long ago, historically speaking, nearly all teachers in the West were churchmen. The view of the Church that as a consequence of Original Sin all men are born evil and must therefore be coerced into doing what is good produced schools that made study a burden and created in the child an aversion to the learning process that persists to this day in these same rigid frameworks. The challenge of an educational system is to make the learning process interesting to the child, not to make the child sit still. This it has not thought to do and does not even know how to do. 

   The only way to teach schoolchildren is to feed their natural curiosity. This requires innovative teaching methods so far removed from today’s classroom atmosphere that they would be unrecognizable to today’s pedagogues. Some will argue that modern educational systems do their job by supplying society with its elites, but this is of course an illusion. All that is proven by the emergence of elites is that the public schools cannot destroy them, for elites take care of themselves, possessing the talent and ambition to survive the system. As for the nonelite population  say, 80% of students  they are of course shortchanged and consequently turn out to be ignoramuses, just as Bill O’Reilly has discovered. There is after all no reason why the man in the street should not read poetry, listen to symphonies, visit museums, or take an interest in science and history. American education makes sure he won’t, through no fault of his own, for he certainly has the capacity to learn (as anyone knows who has ever listened to middle-aged poolroom bums talking about the history of baseball, for example). It is not enough to teach the right subjects to children. They must be taught imaginatively.



Now that my cable provider has gotten ahold of a batch of old Samuel Goldwyn movies, no doubt at a bargain price, I have had the opportunity in recent weeks to see some real classics, like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Little Foxes (1941), for example. But classic or not, these films are worth watching as anthropological treasure troves, telling us more about America than a thousand books, for what they reveal are the unspoken assumptions of American life. However, there is another side to them as well, an ironic side. The characters in these films have no idea what is just around the corner. Their innocence  the innocence of people living in the 1940s about what was coming in the 1950s, the innocence of people living in the 1950s about what was coming in the 1960s  casts America’s social history into very broad relief. One such film is Our Very Own (1950). The story is simple: Gail Macaulay (Ann Blyth) learns just before her eighteenth birthday that she was adopted and sets out to find her biological mother, discovering in the end that what really counts is her adoptive family, which has always been there for her. The genre is neo-sentimental, with a suitable sound track. The dialogue is wooden. It is Dickens transposed to an American milieu, but without the Dickensian humor, or grotesqueness.

   The Macaulays have everything you could want: three daughters, a dog, a cheerful black maid, and a new television set. We are on the threshold of the 1950s. This is a world where children ask to be excused from the dinner table and are sent to their rooms when they misbehave. Momentous things are about to happen: rock ‘n’ roll, fast food, the pill, suburbia, the beatniks, Communism, integration, and most of all  television. In fact, in the opening scene, the new television set is just being installed, and Natalie Wood as the precocious kid sister is pestering the TV men. It matters very little what the film had to say about adoption, which is not very profound. What matters is what it couldn’t say about the shape of things to come.

   Television, as we all know, was one of the factors that contributed to the breakdown of family life in America. The Macaulays are not shown actually watching TV but we know that they are going to be watching an awful lot of it in the coming decade, each in his or her private cocoon. Henceforth, too, they will be getting most of their information about the world from their television set. This information will be served up to them by reporters and analysts who lack the talent, knowledge and understanding to be historians, scholars, political scientists or even novelists. Such being the standards of journalism, most will not even speak the languages of the countries they report from and comment on, so you can say that it will be a case of the blind leading the blind. And while news broadcasts will themselves become a form of entertainment, with plenty of red meat for the voyeurs and the bloodthirsty, shamelessly exploiting the grief and misery of real people to get their most “powerful” moments, others will be in charge of entertainment proper at the TV networks, bringing viewers game shows, variety shows, sitcoms, dramas (Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Maverick, I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Ozzie and Harriet, Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny, Lassie, Leave It To Beaver, What’s My Line?). Television of course can’t be blamed for everything. Personal computers, cell phones and social networking were quite some distance away, but the idea of wiring consumers into a communications system that made a lot of money for a lot of people was now in place. It should be understood that if there was no money in all of this, none of it would exist. Creating better products for better living is not an end in itself, as Marx pointed out. It is an intermediate stage, “a necessary evil of money making.” If money grew on trees, there would be no industry and certainly no sitcoms.

   The genius of modern communications has been to take human needs  the need for information, the need to be entertained, the need to be heard  and to commercialize them around the lowest common denominator. I call this genius because whereas we would think that the natural tendency of an organized society would be to elevate this common denominator, as the educational system indeed attempts to do, however unsuccessfully, the media operate to drag it down even further, habitually playing to our worst impulses and thereby capturing our attention in spite of ourselves. 

   Does this mean that the Macaulays lived in a better America? Not really. Greed was always part of American life, as were conformity, bigotry and hypocrisy. The Sixties would at least tone down sexual repression and racial discrimination but it would not liberate Americans from the American Dream. This was the dream of the Macaulays in 1949 and this would be the dream of Gail Macaulay’s children in 1969. Television would bring the dream into even sharper focus, assuring them that anyone could be rich and famous. Television would also show old movies of course, making Gail Macaulay’s children wonder, maybe, how they had become what they were.



All games are child’s play. This includes the games played by adults, though not all adults who play games are childish. There is, after all, a lot of money to be made playing games, so you can’t really blame anyone who has the knack for it for devoting the best years of his life to frivolous pursuits like hitting a ball with a stick or jumping up and down. The essential stupidity of adult games, of sports as a profession, of what grown men and women are actually engaged in doing with a golf club or a tennis racket or a baseball bat or a hockey stick, has less to do with the athletes themselves than with the society that glorifies them, that watches, not just sports but everything else – in a word, the viewing audience. 

   Not even the Ancient Romans or Byzantines in their most degenerate phases attached themselves so enthusiastically to the heroes of the arena. We all understand pretty well what is behind all this, for nothing is more boring, even for the diehard sports fan, than watching a game where you aren’t rooting for one side or the other. We do not watch a game for its own sake but for the sake of living vicariously through a surrogate self. We require this in societies such as ours in the absence of personal distinction, which is the fate of the vast majority of mankind. It is a sad commentary on our society that the heroes we choose to idolize are not scientists, artists, doctors, teachers or simply decent human beings, but ballplayers, and of course movie stars.

   From time to time, ballplayers and movie stars get together for some gala event, and then you have a curious situation where you can’t really say who is going to be starstruck over whom. The ballplayers, after all, are actually doing something and doing it very well while the actors are only pretending to be what they are not and have no real skills. On the other hand, the celebrity of the actor is greater than the celebrity of the ballplayer, his offscreen life is more interesting to the viewing audience, and what is more he usually has a lively personality whereas the athlete usually does not, is in fact pretty dull, talking in platitudes or mumbling something about going out there and having fun. In all of pro basketball, I can think of very few players you would have wanted to listen to for more than 30 seconds: Shaquille O’Neal certainly, Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson for his edge, Michael Jordan for his presence. As for baseball, I have never heard any player say anything that would interest a 10-year-old child. And in boxing there is only the incomparable Ali.

   It is a basic feature of modern societies that people are rewarded for the economic value of their work rather than for its social value. This is natural and desirable from the entrepreneur’s point of view. Work that produces money is worth more on the market than work that doesn’t, and therefore executives in the dog food industry make a lot more money than teachers and nurses and baseball players make a lot more money than cleaning women, though the work of the latter has considerably more social value than the work of the former, since without cleanliness we would get disease while without entertainment we would only get boredom. In this respect, medieval man was far more sensible than modern man, rewarding jesters and jongleurs modestly and holding them in fairly low esteem in contrast to our own times where clowns become idols and sometimes even get their own talk shows. 

   It may be said that, if not for social or intellectual achievement, surely we might have chosen to idolize manly heroes of a more worthy kind instead of frivolous ones: military men, law enforcers, fire fighters, for example; and many of us do in fact admire them greatly, especially when they are portrayed on the screen by Hollywood stars. In real life, however, their careers interest us less, for the simple reason that their lives have not been sufficiently commercialized to keep them in front of us wherever we turn: no live broadcasts, no instant replays, no postgame interviews. no endorsements, no bubble gum cards. Also, their contests are less dramatic, less sharply focused. On the ballfield you get a winner in just a few hours, each and every day, so the rush is bigger and better when it comes. Soldiers and fire fighters can’t compete with baseball players when it comes to giving the viewing audience the fix that it needs. 

   The really diehard fan, it has to be said, the fan that professional sports organizations are always thanking, the fan who inspires the players, the fan for whom they are playing, is a pathetic figure. He lives and dies with his team. His destiny is bound up with it. He has invested everything he has in it. Days before big games his stomach is already in knots. You can’t talk to him. He won’t even take out the garbage. And after a loss he is inconsolable. It takes him days to recover. Not everyone is this sick of course. There is a kind of recovery index that will tell you just how sick one is, running from seconds for healthy individuals to days for terminal cases. The fan is an inseparable part of sports culture. Now that we have talkbacks you will find him in front of a computer cursing everyone in sight from morning till night. Without such fans, where would professional sports be?

   The status of ballplayers, like the status of movie stars, is indicative of a very sick society, a society whose members look around desperately for some source of satisfaction, something to lift them up, something outside themselves to which they can attach themselves when it becomes clear that they aren’t going to get any satisfaction from within themselves. They are not to blame. This is the ethos. The American Dream is a hollow dream, of wealth and fame. It leaves very little room for other dreams, it seduces and captivates and dooms an entire society to chasing after distant stars.

Fred Russell is the pen name of an American-born writer living in Israel. His novels Rafi’s World (Fomite Press), dealing with Israel’s emerging criminal class, and The Links in the Chain (CCLaP), a thriller set in New York against an Arab-Israel background, were both published in 2014. His stories and essays have appeared in Third Coast, Polluto, Fiction on the Web,Wilderness House Literary Review, Ontologica, Unlikely Stories: Episode 4The Satirist, CounterPunch, GadflyCultural Weekly, Ragazine, etc.


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