With his passing last week, it occurred to me that many would be completely unfamiliar with who Gore Vidal was, let alone the era in which he became renowned, and why. That unawareness, either due to incuriousness or obliviousness, seems a microcosm of who we are today, a society that, as it moved forward, became dumber.
We had a moment some 50 years ago when intellectualism and literacy were prized in American culture, when writers, artists and scientists were also genuine celebrities, fixtures on talk shows and in socialite columns, not only for what they wrote, painted or theorized, but because they were thinkers cultivated by a nation that aspired to intelligence.
You could know of Gore Vidal, Andy Warhol or Wernher von Braun without ever having read the New Yorker, visited a museum or studied aerospace engineering.
Today, people are famous just for being famous or, in various stages of devolvement, for being untalented, obnoxious, clueless, naked or sexually ravaged, with television shows wholly dedicated to promoting it, and social media guaranteeing its permanence. Go to YouTube. Type "Americans Are Stupid" in the search box, but if you laugh, be advised: Surveys repeatedly show that as many as 40 percent of Americans can't even name all three branches of government.
In a 2009 survey of 1,000 adults by the American Revolution Center, a nonpartisan educational group, 60 percent knew that reality TV's Jon and Kate Gosselin had eight kids but more than one-third didn't know in which century the American Revolution had occurred, and half believed that either the War of 1812 or the Civil War preceded it.
Ninety percent of that survey's participants said knowledge of the American Revolution and its principles is very important, yet 83 percent failed a basic test on knowledge of our founding with an average score of 44 percent.
The future isn't necessarily promising. In last year's National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of high school seniors had a proficient knowledge of American history.
Statistics and companion lamentations about our descent from higher rungs of erudition are nothing new. We're routinely treated to news of indifferent students without a kindling of curiosity annually performing poorly in math and geography.
However, in her 2008 treatise "The Age of American Unreason," scholar Susan Jacoby noted a disturbing cultural shift: the belittling of intelligence.
"During the past four decades," Jacoby writes, "America's endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic."
In other words, stupidity became fashionable, hostility to knowledge acceptable and challenging the ignorant deplorable.
This is far beyond the days of Truman Capote as celebrity; it's tragic irony for a nation founded by an exceptional and uncommon cadre of intellectuals intimately familiar with the Greeks and deeply influenced by European thinkers from an era so profound, we called it an age of Enlightenment.
Today, Enlightenment thinkers and the Greeks are more honored by invocation than by emulation.
But here is the fine point of it: Our political culture is a reflection of our general culture. If we don't know what our Constitution says about the separation of powers, if fully half of us mistakenly believe the TARP bailout of big banks was enacted by President Obama rather than President Bush, if faithful legions rise to defend the ignorance of a vice presidential candidate unable to name even a single significant Supreme Court decision or list any newspapers she reads to stay abreast of current events, it affects how we decide to govern ourselves.
Bad enough we forget the past; worse still is when we refuse to comprehend the present.
What matters most is not what we think but how we think. Getting worked up over Chick-fil-A is not going to help us govern the country any better.
Will we, as a nation, learn to dismiss tonsorial talking-point artists and relearn to revere the learned? Will we ever tire of empty sloganeering and yearn for reflective thought and honest, intelligent dialogue?
NASA engineers just succeeded in landing the largest and most sophisticated mobile laboratory ever launched to another planet, aptly named Curiosity, evoking a seemingly bygone era in which we not only believed there were ideas beyond the first ones that occurred to us, but we actively pursued them.
Presently, though, and frighteningly, baby boomers nurtured in that era may well become, as University of Texas historian Michael Winship puts it, "the first generation to teach the next generation less than we know," which "may turn out to be our final, fatal mistake."