Saturday, February 07, 2009

Ignorance In America

Mark Slouka has a rant about ignorance in America ignorance in America in the latest issue of Harpers. Here are some excerpts:

What we need to talk about, what someone needs to talk about, particularly now, is our ever-deepening ignorance (of politics, of foreign languages, of history, of science, of current affairs, of pretty much everything) and not just our ignorance but our complacency in the face of it, our growing fondness for it.

A generation ago the proof of our foolishness, held up to our faces, might still have elicited some redeeming twinge of shame—no longer. Today, across vast swaths of the republic, it amuses and comforts us. We’re deeply loyal to it. Ignorance gives us a sense of community; it confers citizenship; our representatives either share it or bow down to it or risk our wrath.

Seen from a sufficient distance (a decade abroad, for example), or viewed through a protective filter, like film, or alcohol, there can be something almost endearing about it. It can appear quaint, part of our foolish-butauthentic, naive-yet-sincere, roughhewn spirit.

Up close and personal, unromanticized and unfiltered, it’s another thing entirely. In the flesh, barking from the electronic pulpit or braying back from the audience, our ignorance can be sobering. We don’t know. Or much care. Or care to know.

What do we care about?

We care about auto racing and Jessica.

We care about food, oh yes, please, very much.

And money. (Did you catch the last episode of I Love Money?)

We care about Jesus, though we’re a bit vague on his teachings.

And America. We care about America.

And the flag.

And the troops, though we’re untroubled by the fact that the Bush Administration lied us into the conflict, then spent years figuring out that armor in war might be bookstores to lay our money down.

Wherever it may have resided before, the brain in America has migrated to the region of the belt—not below it, which might at least be diverting, but only as far as the gut—where it has come to a stop.

The gut tells us things.

It tells us what’s right and what’s wrong, who to hate and what to believe and who to vote for. Increasingly, it’s where American politics is done. All we have to do is listen to it and the answer appears in the little window of the eight ball: “Don’t trust him. Don’t know. Undecided. Just because, that’s why.”

We know because we feel, as if truth were a matter of personal taste, or something to be divined in the human heart, like love.

I was raised to be ashamed of my ignorance, and to try to do something about it if at all possible. I carry that burden to this day, and have successfully passed it on to my children.

I don’t believe I have the right to an opinion about something I know nothing about—constitutional law, for example, or sailing — a notion that puts me sadly out of step with a growing majority of my countrymen, many of whom may be unable to tell you anything at all about Islam, say, or socialism, or climate change, except that they hate it, are against it, don’t believe in it.

Worse still (or more amusing, depending on the day) are those who can tell you, and then offer up a stew of New Age blather, right-wing rant, and bloggers’ speculation that’s so divorced from actual, demonstrable fact, that’s so not true, as the kids would say, that the mind goes numb with wonder.

“Way I see it is,” a man in the Tulsa Motel 6 swimming pool told me last summer, “if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for us.”


Jeremy D. Young said...

Ignorance is an institution. It's called Government education. Millions and millions of people get a High School diploma with nothing to show for it other than the ability to cram for a multiple guess scantron test.

They get to college and can't make any decisions without the input of their peers. They don't know the facts unless someone spoon feeds them. Reading is straight out the window for most. They cannot challenge authority in any real sense unless it's something all their friends are doing too.

So don't make it sound like it's just the red states that have been lulled into a mental slumber. The zombie masses shouted and cheered on Obama as well. (YES WE CAN! What?!)

In my estimation it's the desired result of someone to create a Nation of Sheep, and it's definitely not in the people's best interest. The groups that benefit are the two major parties, the national corporations that fight for the non-thinking acceptance of their products, and the government in general.

The solution is true education. Training people to think for themselves and to process information critically with logic and reason. There are definitely teachers out there that want this for their students, but the system as a whole, fails the majority of students in this endeavor.

Janet Camp said...

“Way I see it is,” a man in the Tulsa Motel 6 swimming pool told me last summer, “if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for us.”

That's right up there with the astroturfer who yelled, "keep your socialist hands off my Medicare"!

I've been lamenting this for 30 years and while I see a bright spot here and there, I have largely given up. This lack of critical thought learning, more than any other factor (and there are many) will hasten our decline. So be it; we've been on top of the heap long enough.

Jeremy D. Young said...


Contemplate the mangled bodies of your countrymen, and then say 'what should be the reward of such sacrifices?' Bid us and our posterity bow the knee, supplicate the friendship and plough, and sow, and reap, to glut the avarice of the men who have let loose on us the dogs of war to riot in our blood and hunt us from the face of the earth? If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animated contest of freedom, go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen!

-- Samuel Adams

Jeremy D. Young said...

“Let divines and philosophers, statesmen and patriots, unite their endeavors to renovate the age, impressing the minds of men with the importance of educating their little boys and girls, of inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity and universal philanthropy, and, in subordination to these great principles, the love of their country; of instructing them in the art of self-government, without which they can never act as a wise part of the government of societies, great or small in short, of leading them in the study and practice of the exalted virtues of the Christian system.”

-- Samuel Adams