Long before I knew the name Descartes, my grandmother rocked me to sleep with one better: "I am, therefore we are." That would have been my sign for the Stewart-Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity: Sum Ergo Sumus. Would have been, because during my long trip from Boston to Washington, I got tangled in meditations about whether Latin philosophical enfrillments would appear amusing or pretentious, witty or elitist. Would Sum Ergo Sumus be broadcast in Wasilla, where Levi Johnston is apparently running for mayor?
On the one hand, I was blessed with a feisty, funny, clever grandmother who would have seen humor in my co-optation of her lullaby—she might even have been proud. Back when the United States led the world in academic achievement, I went to a great public school where I was privileged to study Latin for six years, plus another two years in college. I was lucky enough to attend law school. Res ipsa loquitur.
Sadly, American education has suffered a miserable decline since those days. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, we are fifteenth in reading literacy, twenty-first in science literacy and twenty-fifth in math literacy. This slide was largely accomplished by a calculated disinvestment in public education that began with the anti-tax movement of the late 1970s. California, where that movement began with a series of ballot initiatives, had one of the best school systems in the world. It now ranks almost dead last here, just above Mississippi.
There’s a curious tension in politics between the popular hunger for better schooling and widespread resentment of those who actually find it. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin have built a movement around the felt dispossession of those who don’t read newspapers, whose spelling is nonstandard and who cite Shakespeare to "refudiate" book-learning. Beck, who sniffs that public schools should be abolished altogether, exploits this ambivalence brilliantly by establishing his online Beck University, whose basic courses are Faith 101, 102 and 103; Hope 101, 102 and 103; and Charity 101, 102 and 103. Yet Beck U. also has a coat of arms with a numbingly lofty motto: Tyrannis Seditio, Obsequium Deo.
On the morning of the Rally to Restore Sanity, I ended up grabbing a taxi and told the driver I wanted to go to the Mall, please. He took me to the nearest shopping mall, where I procured a venti mocha latte from the drive-through Starbucks, while gently setting him straight. Oh yes, this was a march for latte-loving yuppie nerds like me. While Stewart and Colbert expressly appealed to "the busy majority" of reasonable, middle-of-the-road, somewhat-stressed-but-not-given-to-hysterics people, the signs among the masses were deeply inflected by class consciousness and the national educational divide. Some were relatively subtle: Which Way to Whole Foods? and Anyone for Scrabble Later? Others more overtly referenced Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor: Every Word on This Sign Is Spelled Correctly; I &heart; Evidence-Based Policies; and my favorite: If You Don’t Believe in Government Perhaps You Shouldn’t Run for It.
This was a crowd that listens to NPR (Kiss Me, Nina Totenberg!). It was racially and ethnically diverse ( Fox Told Me I Am a Terrorist). Their humor was sophisticated ( I Clutch My Purse When I See Juan Williams Coming). It was a throng of New York Times readers who eat bagels and peruse the Book Review. They marched with Kindles in hand, and their Patagonia backpacks contained novels by Anna Quindlen and essay collections like David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil and Other First World Problems.
If this sounds like a litany of class markers, we need to remember that class and education are not necessary correlates. This was a population of very diverse Americans who equate political sanity with studiousness and curiosity. It was a gathering of people fluent in subtlety and satire, tolerance and tact; who saw similarity in differences and differences among the similar; who appreciated metaphors, analogical thinking and the discipline of data. This is the opposite of fundamentalism. And it ought to be the very essence of American identity, for we can have no broad civic culture without it. Unfortunately these critical capacities are also the hallmarks of a good liberal arts education, which is increasingly unavailable to any but the very well-off. (The State University of New York, Albany, just announced that it may eliminate its Latin, French, Italian, Russian and theater degree programs.)
Why bother with the nuances of analytical thought? Consider this—recently State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted: "Happy birthday President #Ahmadinejad. Celebrate by sending Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer home" and "Your 54th year was full of lost opportunities. Hope in your 55th year you will open #Iran to a different relationship with the world." Sarah Palin tweeted back: "Happy B’day Ahmadinejad wish sent by US Govt. Mind boggling foreign policy: kowtow & coddle enemies; snub allies. Obama Doctrine is nonsense." This is not merely a lack of irony; it is a form of illiteracy, the kind of flat, childish reading that grasps the basic meaning of each word but not what they mean together.
We of the Kindle-toting tribe must take no solace in snobbery or superiority at moments like that. Rather, we must join in the recognition that this national crisis of flat readership hobbles everyone. To us all—Tea Partyers and Obamanistas alike—I commend the words of Servius Sulpicius, in a letter to Cicero in 45 BC: Denique noli te oblivisci Ciceronem esse et eum qui aliis consueris praecipere et dare consilium, neque imitari malos medicos, qui in alienis morbis profitentur tenere se medicinae scientiam, ipsi se curare non possunt. (Or, "Wise up, buddy, and practice what you preach.")