“Opinion Is to Knowledge as Dessert Is to Vegetables”

by Robert Pondiscio
March 16th, 2012

As a society, writes Liel Leibovitz, we have “rejected the thick weave of common culture for the gossamer of individual opinions” both as readers and writers.  His essay in the online magazine Tablet offers a noisy defense of a common literary canon.  Unless we commit to being serious readers, Leibovitz argues, we might as well just stop reading at all.

“If you consider reading simply a pastime, stop reading. Watch movies: They are less demanding on your schedule, tend to have considerably more nudity, and are generally easier to bring up in conversation. Let the faculties of your mind previously dedicated to parsing text commit themselves instead to better, more needful uses, like mastering Angry Birds. Let reading go gently into the good night and take its place alongside archery and woodcarving in the pantheon of pastimes past, previously popular and currently the domain of the few and the carefully trained.

“But if you’re serious about reading—or, for that matter, about your education—see to it attentively. Revisit Homer and read your way through human history. Don’t stop until you hit Kafka. Or, better yet, don’t stop until you see the entire vista of our culture spread before you and feel yourself every bit a part of it.”

The devaluation of knowledge in schools and lack of a common canon has created a culture of “poor readers, middling writers, and unfortunate human beings,” argues Leibovitz, whose most recent book is The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ideals of Divine Election, co-written with Todd Gitlin.  He is particularly scornful of the current vogue for memoirs. If you’re Winston Churchill and you won World War II and the Nobel Prize for Literature, then by all means write your memoirs. “Heck, make that two,” Leibovitz quips. “But if one’s designs on posterity involve writing an inane and intermittently amusing account of traveling somewhere banal and meeting some, like, really crazy people, one ought to take a cue from Sir Winston and first live a life truly worth writing about.”

Leibovitz acknowledges that his own opinions “might send many readers into fits of modern indignation.” Why not read for pleasure and share your points of view with a waiting world?  “The blunt answer is that points of view do not matter in the least,” he concludes.  “Points of view are to knowledge what dessert is to vegetables: You earn one only by first consuming the other.”

Follow me on Twitter: @rpondiscio


  1. Not that it matters in the least, but I agree with Liebovitz.

    Comment by Anonymous — March 16, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

  2. As do I, but I wonder if he thinks we’re entitled to that opinion…

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 16, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

  3. Agree or disagree, his position is as didactic as Alfie Kohn’s who many were critizing in comments of previous posts. Not everyone is going to want to read Homer or Milton or frankly Joyce. Leibovitz is most likely right if you want to part of the a literai class, but frankly is not essential if you are going to be plumber unless you want to be an informed plumber. So there is a core range of knowledge that needs to be imparted by say 8th grade but as a society we may need to allow some to persue one option and many others to decide not to be educated at the is level. The problem I see as a society is that we are not willing to attribute different values on ranges of knowledge either moral or monetary and live with it. I feel great understanding what I mean when I see this is a “circle of hell.” But it does not not matter if my electrician or IT person does because frankly they are getting paid more than I am. As a society we need to be more comfortable with saying here is the opportunity cost.

    Comment by DC Parent — March 16, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

  4. I wonder if Leibovitz would apply his standard to all students (and adults for that matter) or just those who would call themselves “well educated” (I suspect the latter). That said, his point broadly applies to what children will now be expected to do under CCSS. While the standards do not specify any content, let alone a canon, the focus on close reading and supporting writing with evidence, not just opinion or personal response, is quite congruent with the broad thrust of CCSS.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 16, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

  5. This is exactly why credible education research (ie. the basis for Core Knowlege) goes in one ear and out the other with the education bureaucracy. They chalk it up to a “point of view” and can brush off whatever they don’t want to hear.

    Comment by C. M. — March 16, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

  6. Eat your knowledge! You better do it, kids, if you don’t want to grow up as an ignoramus doomed to remedial classes.

    Will Fitzhugh

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — March 17, 2012 @ 11:15 am

  7. Hear! Here!

    Comment by Fred Strine — March 17, 2012 @ 11:31 am

  8. The $64K question, Will, why do so many opt for the role of ignoramus, rather than try in school? Or do so many of our youngsters simply lack the wherewithal to make it academically? If it’s the former, what a sad, sad commentary on this ethos. If it’s the latter, wow! How can this be?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 18, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

  9. Movies are an important part of cultural literacy and St. Augustine wrote a very good memoir. as did Ben Franklin, Davy Crocket, and Frederick Douglas.

    I agree with C.S. Lewis, who said that education should be a portal to lead you into further knowledge, if you should so desire.

    Comment by Harold — March 19, 2012 @ 1:03 am

  10. Then, there’s the take from Mr. “multiple intelligence” himself in this morning’s New York Times. But another enigma wrapped in a puzzle.


    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 19, 2012 @ 7:00 am

  11. “Not everyone is going to want to read Homer or Milton or frankly Joyce. Leibovitz is most likely right if you want to part of the a literai class, but frankly is not essential if you are going to be plumber unless you want to be an informed plumber.”

    Why is it always plumbers? My husband the plumber can recite reams of poetry he memorized as a boy and has a better grasp of history than I (a history) major) do.

    Don’t we want all of our people – teachers, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, factory workers, businesspeople – to be “informed”? Isn’t an informed citizenry the basic requirement of a successful democracy?

    Comment by Anonymous — March 19, 2012 @ 9:46 am

  12. Gotta agree with #11 (Anonymous) — canon-worthy literature is not just about being informed but about living a robust life in the mind, and that’s something I would wish for any person in any profession. “Richer imaginations,” as Gardner’s note (cited by Paul Hoss) suggests.

    Re Mr. Hoss’s #8: I’m sure you have seen at least as much as I have those students who perceive paths of (a) trying leading to success, (b) trying and failing, and (c) not trying at all, and choosing (c) because — with their peculiar logic at work, I assume — “I may have failed, but I never bothered to try.” Somehow their self-esteem is salvaged by that fallacious logic, or at least they expect it to be so, but that must be Potemkin Village self-esteem in the first place.

    The question, then, is: how do we engender persistence, fortitude, belief in the nobility and dignity and (even moreso) ultimate value of trying and persisting, even if success is not immediate? The instant-gratification culture must be defeated somehow, because this takes work. If I as a teacher of English don’t give my kids Works of Merit for fear that they won’t read or won’t like them, I’ve become part of the problem. The moral choice seems to be to fight for merit, even if it takes more skill, persistence, patience, creativity, and energy.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — March 19, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

  13. @Carl,

    “The question, then, is: how do we engender persistence, fortitude, belief in the nobility and dignity and (even moreso) ultimate value of trying and persisting, even if success is not immediate?”

    Somehow/Some way I believe parents must be involved. The lack of parenting or mal-parenting is perhaps one of the greatest problems in our schools today. How can a teacher hope to educate any child when the parent continually insists, “That teacher don’t know nothin.”

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 19, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

  14. @Paul, I couldn’t agree with you more, but I also think that many teachers use the truth you cite as a reason not to try (see earlier comment about “not trying at all”, ironically enough — now, sadly, it means the teacher not trying). I have read your comments long enough to know that you are not among those non-triers…but here’s my question for the “reformers” out there: how do we make sure that our teacher-candidates themselves have this kind of commitment and persistence? I’m not talking IQ and I’m not talking Don Quixote, but there is a little bit of knowing what counts (and innovating to make it work) as well as believing DQ-deeply in the quest. Perhaps there’s some psychological profiling that can go on.

    Of course, this is also why good mentors are worth their weight in gold…and bad ones are well, whatever the opposite of that is!

    Comment by Carl Rosin — March 19, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

  15. This author seems to think that enjoying reading is less important than gathering knowledge. If that is true then none of my kids will ever read again!

    Comment by Jami — March 19, 2012 @ 8:52 pm

  16. I can agree this is about being an informed citizen, but then we might still want to question Leibovitz’s priorities. Frankly I think we way under-teach science in favor of language arts. We certainly are not connecting historical continuity U.S. or otherwise. Maybe we spend less time on Milton and more on the age of exploration or how and why we know living things change. The how do we get there from here problem is we can’t agree what should be taught in kindergarten let alone 5th grade, sixth grade, 11th grade or any other grade here in DC let alone in Texas or San Francisco or anywhere else. Our education system is the canary of our social disunion and mistrust.

    Comment by DC Parent — March 19, 2012 @ 8:53 pm

  17. Spend less time on MIlton? It is to laugh.

    Comment by Harold — March 19, 2012 @ 11:11 pm

  18. Interesting post, albeit misleading at parts. His opinion on “opinions should come only after you have acquired knowledge” is not right. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, it may be either right or wrong. However, opinions still give the feeling of democracy and the freedom of speech to individuals.

    Comment by Classof1 — March 20, 2012 @ 2:30 am

  19. Thank you. Many has been the time that I replied to a pollster, “I’m not qualified to have an opinion on that.” That option is never one of the choices.

    Comment by balsam — March 20, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.