What can Ross Geller and Rooster Cogburn teach us?

How You Can Save Western Civilization by Reading True Grit

What Friends can teach us.

In April, we’re asking everyone to read Charles Portis’ True Grit as part of D Academy’s literacy nonprofit Big D Reads. D Academy fellows raised enough money to purchase 17,000 copies of the book and will be handing them out at more than 60 events during the month of April.

The fellows have spent the last few months talking about “grit.” One alumnus of the group, David Hopkins, recently shared his own thoughts on the word’s meaning:

I want to discuss a popular TV show my wife and I have been binge-watching on Netflix. It’s the story of a family man, a man of science, a genius who fell in with the wrong crowd. He slowly descends into madness and desperation, lead by his own egotism. With one mishap after another, he becomes a monster. I’m talking, of course, about Friends and its tragic hero, Ross Geller.

You may see it as a comedy, but I cannot laugh with you. To me, Friends signals a harsh embrace of anti-intellectualism in America, where a gifted and intelligent man is persecuted by his idiot compatriots. And even if you see it from my point of view, it doesn’t matter. The constant barrage of laughter from the live studio audience will remind us that our own reactions are unnecessary, redundant.

Even the theme song is filled with foreboding, telling us that life is inherently deceptive, career pursuits are laughable, poverty is right around the corner, and oh yeah, your love life’s D.O.A. But you will always have the company of idiots. They will be there for you.

Don’t I feel better?

Maybe I should unpack this, for the uninitiated. If you remember the 1990s and early 2000s, and you lived near a television set, then you remember Friends. Friends was the Thursday night primetime, “must-see-TV” event that featured the most likeable ensemble ever assembled by a casting agent: all young, all middle class, all white, all straight, all attractive (but approachable), all morally and politically bland, and all equipped with easily digestible personas. Joey is the goofball. Chandler is the sarcastic one. Monica is obsessive-compulsive. Phoebe is the hippy. Rachel, hell, I don’t know, Rachel likes to shop. Then there was Ross. Ross was the intellectual and the romantic.

Eventually, the Friends audience — roughly 52.5 million people — turned on Ross. But the characters of the show were pitted against him from the beginning (consider episode 1, when Joey says of Ross: “This guy says hello, I wanna kill myself.”) In fact, any time Ross would say anything about his interests, his studies, his ideas, whenever he was mid-sentence, one of his “friends” was sure to groan and say how boring Ross was, how stupid it is to be smart, and that nobody cares. Cue the laughter of the live studio audience. This gag went on, pretty much every episode, for 10 seasons. Can you blame Ross for going crazy?

And like a Greek tragedy, our hero is caught in a prophecy that cannot be avoided. The show’s producers, akin to the immutable voice of the gods, declared that Ross must end up with Rachel, the one who shops. Honestly, I think he could’ve done better.

Why such sympathy for Ross?

The show ended in 2004. The same year that Facebook began, the year that George W. Bush was re-elected to a second term, the year that reality television became a dominant force in pop culture, with American Idol starting an eight-year reign of terror as the No. 1 show in the U.S., the same year that Paris Hilton started her own “lifestyle brand” and released an autobiography. And Joey Tribbiani got a spin-off TV show. The year 2004 was when we completely gave up and embraced stupidity as a value. Just ask Green Day; their album American Idiot was released in 2004, and it won the Grammy for Best Rock Album. You can’t get more timely. The rejection of Ross marked the moment when much of America groaned, mid-sentence, at the voice of reason.

Yes, my theory is that Friends may have triggered the downfall of western civilization. You might think I’m crazy. But to quote Ross: “Oh, am I? Am I? Am I out of my mind? Am I losing my senses?” Did you know the song that originally accompanied the Friends pilot episode was R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know (And I Feel Fine).” A blissful song with an apocalyptic message that goes largely ignored.

I was a teacher in 2004. I coached our school’s chess club. I saw how my students were picked on, bullied. I tried my best to defend them, but I couldn’t be everywhere. My students were smart, huge nerds, and they were in hostile, unfriendly territory. Other students would be waiting outside my room to ambush the chess club members who met in my room every day at lunch. During my tenure as a teacher, I gained the reputation of being a slayer of bullies and defender of nerds. I promise you: bullies can be mean, but they knew Mr. Hopkins was much worse.

Maybe intellectuals have always been persecuted and shoved in lockers, but something in my gut tells me we’re at a low point — where social media interaction has replaced genuine debate and political discourse, where politicians are judged by whether we’d want to have a beer with them, where scientific consensus is rejected, where scientific research is underfunded, where journalism is drowning in celebrity gossip.

I see Kim Kardashian’s butt at the top of CNN.com, and I am scared.

Maybe it’s all harmless fun. Like the good-spirited laughter of a live studio audience? Maybe. But I am sincerely worried we have not done enough to cultivate intellectual curiosity within our culture.

Fortunately, there’s a resistance forming. People with grit, who aren’t afraid to begin a sentence with “Did you know…” These are the Rosses of the world. I saw them in my chess club. And I see them in Dallas, hiding at the Dallas Museum of Art, crouching at Wild Detectives and Half-Price Books, exchanging sideways glances at the public libraries and coffee houses, and sneaking around at the Perot Museum, at our schools, community colleges, and universities.

There was no hope for Ross. He went insane, and yeah, he did get annoying. So, how do we retain our sanity in a dumb, dumb world? I wouldn’t be a good teacher if I didn’t come prepared with a few ideas.

No. 1: read a book. Big D Reads is an initiative to bring a love of reading back to the forefront of our city’s culture. Something special happens when you set aside the inane distractions of modern culture and immerse yourself in a novel. You open yourself up to new ideas, new experiences, new perspectives. It’s an experiment in patience and mindfulness. The New School for Social Research in New York proved that reading literature improves empathy. It’s true. Reading makes you less of a jerk. So, read often. Read difficult books. Read controversial books. Read a book that makes you cry. Read something fun. But read.

No. 2: learn something. Your brain is capable of so much. Feed it. Learn something new. The greatest threat to progress is the belief that something is too complex to fix. Poverty is permanent. Racism will always exist. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is too difficult to understand. The Dallas public education system is broken. Educate yourself, so you can be part of the conversation. Learn something scientific, something mathematic. Explore philosophy. Study paleontology. Try to learn a new language. You don’t even have to make fluency your goal, just get a few more words in your head. Listen to an educational podcast. Professors from colleges — such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford — are offering their lectures online for free. Think of what you could learn. One of my greatest challenges as a teacher was convincing students that they were smart after someone had told them they were dumb.

No. 3: stop buying so much crap. This may seem like a non sequitur, but I’m convinced consumer culture and idiot culture are closely linked. Simplify your life. Idiocy dominates our cultural landscape because it sells more Nike tennis shoes and Big Macs. When we thoughtfully consider what we bring into our home, we are less likely to be manipulated by empty impulses.

And finally: protect the nerds. A computer programmer from Seattle is doing more to alleviate world poverty, hunger, and disease through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation than any other person in America right now. Nerds create vaccines. Nerds engineer bridges and roadways. Nerds become teachers and librarians. We need those obnoxiously smart people, because they make the world a better place. We can’t have them cowering before a society that rolls their eyes at every word they say. Ross needs better friends.

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Comments

  • Christine Allison

    Love you David Hopkins!

  • John Guild

    I have always had this sense Friends caused a decline in Western civilization, but have never been able to express the precise reason. Bravo.

  • John Guild

    I have always had the sense that Friends caused a decline in Western civilization, but have never been able to express the precise reason. Bravo.

  • Larry Powell

    Charles Portis is a god of infinite gifts.

  • peteramartin

    Great pick. An excellent book with an authentic voice that reads very easily.

  • RAB

    A valuable lesson to all children: be nice to the nerds, for some day you will be working for them.

  • Dan Koller

    [standing and emphatically slow clapping]

  • Sourabh Gujar

    Dwight Schrute seems to be concerned about the content being watched by his fellow colleagues and must bring this to light. Great attempt, Dwight!

  • Max

    Read this on Medium, comments were closed, followed the link at the bottom of the article to here.

    Ever heard of the new Friends called The Big Bang Theory? How do you make of that then?

  • Mr.Witthawat Suangpho

    Thailand

  • On ‘medium.com’ it said: No 1 read a f*******g book. Isn’t that word counter to your objective!!!!???

  • The Real problem is in the developing world where people can’t tell the difference between FACT and FICTION. They then act out this behavior that the media flaunts.

  • Dana In OK

    I too had this appear on Medium and found it very thought provoking. My hubby and I did not watch Friends nothing about the characters appealed to us. When Big Bang Theory started, we immediately found it to be very different from typical sitcoms. It has continued to be so. CBS handled it as though it would be cancelled for four seasons before they realized it was a great show. Another difference between Bang and typical shows is they have 3 couples in stable marriages (there seems to be a rule in Hollywood that you can only have one marriage in a show). I also like your comments to read, improve yourself, open your mind to realities of what can be fixed and what cannot be fixed, and admire fellow people with intellectual abilities. But society has accepted Hollywood’s disdain of knowledge. I sent my kids off to school loving to learn. The message from their peers was very clear, “do not learn anything, say everything your teacher presents is stupid and boring.” Our society has many problems now and the root of them lies in shows like Friends that reflect the attitudes in Hollywood and not those of people that want a better society.

  • Hai Tong Ng

    An economy made up of Nike and Big Mac is different from an economy made up of books and online courses. You should take English 101. It’s “You should keep your ideas to yourself FROM now on.” and not “FOR now on”

  • CombatMissionary

    When I was 15, I scored in the top 10 percent nationwide on the ACT, the SAT, and the ASVAB with no prep work. When I was 18, I scored a 136 on an IQ test. I’ve been into reading and writing and technology since before Bush Sr. was in office. What am I saying? Not that I’m super special, just that I have nerd cred. And I have some advice for the nerds.

    I agree that Ross was the tragic hero of the series. But he was marginalized by his buddies because he allowed himself to be, and he ended up with Rachel because he decided to (OK, it was the writing, but how many of us have you seen make the same kinds of decisions? Ultimately Ross’ character arc was believable because we all have friends who have done similar things).

    My advice? Spend some time at the gym. Learn a martial art (not Americanized Tae Kwon Do). Build some muscle. Join the armed forces. Learn car repair and house repair. We all have the urge to cloister ourselves away where we can be understood by our peers, which only makes it harder for us to relate to normies. Want to be taken seriously by regular people? Do enough of the things that they do that you can relate to them watching Roseanne or reading Dilbert. Gain a little respect from the jocks. And above all, don’t marry a vapid shopaholic like Rachel Green. Asking for the world to protect you from bullies gets you picked on more. Apply that big brain to beating the bullies instead. THEN you won’t get laughed at. THEN you’ll be taken seriously, because you’ll have enough real world experience to offer practical advice as well as understanding the academic position.

    Go buy a copy of Curse of the High IQ by Aaron Clarey. But for Heaven’s sake, don’t just throw up your hands and give up on relating to regular people and winning their respect and being able to relate to them. That only makes your problems worse. And it severely limits your knowledge base.

  • Don’t get me wrong, I also think the banality of most people’s life is not a good thing, but intellectuals and intellectualism are the main enemies of the Western Civilization. And the healthiest thing that came out of CNN in the last 20 years is probably Kim Kardashian’s ass.

    But, who am I kidding? You’re a progressive: you think you have all the answers.

  • We are huge Friends fans and are very (troublingly) familiar with this show, it’s characters, and the storyline. To this article I have one singular response…what a bunch of pseudo-intellectual bullshit. One could come up with a similar thesis revolving around any one of the main characters. And by the way, how can you possibly claim simultaneously that Ross regressed and gave in to stupidity, even while this same gag (the other characters making fun of Ross for being boring) went on for all 10 seasons? Makes zero sense. I identify with Ross because my own family has the same reaction to me when I try to inform them about the fascinating geology of our vacation site. But like Ross I keep trying, if for no other reason than torturing them is fun for me. Am I also a trigger for the downfall of western civilization? Good grief.