They don’t sell Shakespeare at Wal-Mart. They don’t sell Beethoven either, although I could imagine Fur Elise or the 9th Symphony’s Ode to Joy appearing, almost by accident, in a seasonal collection sold at a discount in the Wal-Mart music department.
I’m not criticizing Wal-Mart for this, anymore than I would criticize a road-side convenience store for not selling health food, in the midst of their potato chips, pork rinds and industrial-sized boxes of Skittles. What our largest retailer carries is a reflection not of what they want to sell, but of what their customers want to buy. Selling Shakespeare or Beethoven would be big money losers for Wal-Mart.
So why does it matter that Wal-Mart, the store that sells just about anything we could need for our homes, can’t sell some of the most important examples of our cultural legacy? (Lest you think I’m only considering dead, white, western males as part of our cultural legacy, I don’t believe they carry anything by Lao-Tzu or Emily Dickinson either.)
Here’s why this matters: We live in a society where intellectual discourse has become too much hassle. Too few people are willing to explore subjects deeply, use “big” words, or familiarize themselves with the historical or cultural context of issues. Shakespeare? Beethoven? Plato? Thoreau? Ugh.That’s too much work. And it doesn’t stop here. Listen to any cable news show, or reality TV show, or talk radio show. The level of argument and polemic is usually not high enough to get a C+ in a first-year college course. In some sense, Wal-Mart is a bellwether of our national zeitgeist, and, when it comes to intellectually-charged thinking and conversation, the state of things is pretty depressing.
By way of example, just look at the health care debate. On one side people cry “Death Panels!” while on the other side people boycott Whole Foods because of a Wall Street Journal Op Ed piece on health care reform written by their CEO. The only fault of John Mackey of Whole Foods was not that he wrote the piece (which, although I didn’t agree with everything in it, seemed to me to be thoughtful, well-reasoned and well-written), but that he expected people to actually read what he wrote and think about it before reacting to it. The primary fault of the crafters of the proposed health care reform’s policies toward seniors was not that they created their policies, but that they expected the public to actually check, for themselves, what was written before reflexively agreeing with Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity’s comments on the policy. Lazy thinking is a bipartisan issue.
(I asked my cousin, economist Peter Yastrow, how many people he thought had actually read the health care reform bill. He answered, “Two.The guy who wrote it and his mom. His girlfriend said she read it, but she was lying.”)
I am tired of people being too lazy to think. We live in a golden age of knowledge, where our reserves of knowledge are expanding exponentially every few years. I get very encouraged when I read or listen to people like Ray Kurzweil on the subject of our expanding knowledge base, but then I get depressed when I think about how little most people care about this new knowledge.
I spend my work life interacting with business people, helping them improve the state of their companies. This is my unequivocal, air-tight, passionately-held belief, based on my own empirical evidence: The executives who are willing to think are the executives whose companies are most successful. This disinterest in thinking and intellectual exploration translates, directly, to sub-standard business results. Don’t agree? Please debate me on this one.
So, I’m not just making a social commentary. I’m offering my opinion on the connection between lazy thinking and business performance. It is a very strong connection.
I don’t really care if Wal-Mart sells Shakespeare. I’d just like to know that, once in a while, someone walks through the Wal-Mart book section and stops at “S” to see if their immediate craving to re-read a favorite passage in King Lear can be satisfied.