A few years ago, I worked for an Ohio state government agency. My coworkers were, in the main, mostly college educated, certainly all of them high school graduates. Nice, reasonably bright white-collar public servants, all.
And then came the office Christmas party, and I realized the depth of cultural illiteracy0 that plagued the halls of state government.
I started chatting with two of my coworkers: one was second-in-command of the legal department, and the other was a manager on the technical staff. Both of these ladies were in their mid-40s. Our conversation turned to Internet/commerce privacy issues. I discovered that they didn't know that credit card companies can and will sell your personal information unless you write them telling them not to.
So I talked about identity theft, etc. and made an offhand reference to George Orwell.
I got blank looks from both of them.
"You know, George Orwell," I prompted. "He's the guy who wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four?1"
More blank looks. Turns out they'd never heard of Nineteen Eighty-Four. So I gave them the 10-second synopsis and the conversation moved on.
But I was -- and still am -- profoundly disturbed that two college-educated government workers (one a lawyer), both of whom affect state government policymaking, have never even heard of what is possibly the most important work of fiction about government abuses ever written. They never heard of Big Brother and the Thought Police.
I would not argue that every well-educated person should necessarily have read Nineteen Eighty-Four or any other individual work (although most people I've polled said they were assigned Nineteen Eighty-Four sometime in junior high or high school). But the concepts should ring a bell, for pity's sake. There are some works and some references that are so commonplace that I find it horrifying to discover that a supposedly well-educated person2 could have somehow missed them entirely.
There's truckloads of books I've not managed to read yet and will perhaps never read -- but I still know a little something about unread major works. For instance, I've never read Of Mice And Men,3 nor have I seen it on film. However, as I've gone through life, I've picked up
enough information about the book such that if someone makes a reference to Lennie I know what they're talking about.
How could these two have missed hearing the terms "Big Brother" and "Orwellian"? They were plenty old enough to have been aware of their surroundings during 1984 -- I remember lots of news and popular references to the book during that year. Were they living in a cave?
I think that the appalling part is that these people -- people in knowledge-intensive fields who make decisions that affect the public welfare -- have a profound lack of intellectual curiosity. They have not made the effort to find out what's behind cultural references that they don't get. If I think I'm missing something, I ask. I'm interested in the world around me. I like to know what's going on.
But apparently these well-fed, well-paid folks are quite happy to live their lives only knowing as much as their jobs and everyday lives require, completely deaf to the the daily boom of ideas and references flying over their heads at supersonic speeds.
0 "Cultural literacy" as a concept does smack of cultural snobbery, dunnit? But what else to call the concept of knowing stuff about the world you ought to know? Alas, this Orwellian episode still bugged me, and it seemed more appropriate to node it here in this previously-unfilled nodeshell than elsewhere.
1 No, I did not ask them if they'd heard of Eric Blair for fear that I'd have gotten a response of "Oh, was he that guy in that movie about those kids that got lost in the woods?"
2 On the other hand, sometimes I wonder about the quality of my coworkers' "educations". There was another guy in his late thirties who often bragged that he was working on a degree in computer science. I talked with him a bit, and had to hide my horror when I discovered he didn't know what FTP was.
3 Now I'm so ashamed at having admitted this in public that I'm going to the library very, very soon to get Of Mice And Men and read it forthwith. In the meantime, I'll be in the corner lashing myself with a wet noodle ....