Saturday, February 14, 2009

In Love With Our Own Ignorance



Mark Slouka, writing in the “Notebook” column in the February, 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine, believes Americans are rapidly losing themselves in their own ignorance.

“What we need to talk about...” Slouka writes in his thesis, “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.” He believes we are no longer ashamed of what we do not know, and we no longer strive to understand ourselves or our place in the world. Sadly, this attitude is evident in Washington, in our churches, our universities, in our daily lives. “We don’t know…” Slouka insists. “Or care to know.”

Instead of intelligence and knowing, we have become obsessed with empty pursuits such as reality TV, celebrity gossip and behavior, and food. For example, Slouka argues that we care little about lies our government told us after 9-11. He cites a wealth of statistics to support his assertion of American stupidity. One in four of us believe in reincarnation; forty-four percent believe in ghosts; seventy-one percent think angels exist; forty percent hold to the idea that God created us in our present form within the last 10,000 years, even in the face of scientific evidence.

I can validate his position by what I see in the classroom. I have been asked repeatedly by students and their parents why someone would take a job like teaching with guaranteed lack of respect, low pay, and constant conflict? No one seems to understand a commitment to intellectual values, or the cultural imperative behind it. I have worked for principals whose decisions defy logic and violate the rules of sound pedagogy. I see people who have no interest in reading or the acquisition of knowledge. Among students, and even my fellow teachers, there is a healthy disrespect for, and lack of understanding of, reason and argument. Every week, I get questions from students like “How do you know this?” Or, “What if I interpret the poem another way?” Often their ideas lack evidence from the work of literature, or even from real life experiences. They do not know why they believe something. They just do.

On the other side, I take meetings with parents who are angry that their children were told they were wrong. I am supposed to say “good try,” or “that’s good thinking, Dylan.” God forbid I should tell the truth: “Dylan, you are not only wrong, your answer lacks all logic and coherence.”

“I was raised to be ashamed of my ignorance,” Slouka writes. He goes on to say that he finds that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of logic and belief. “Belief is higher, nobler; it comes from the heart; it feels like truth. There’s a kind of Biblical grandeur to it, and as God’s chosen, we have an inherent right to it. Knowledge, on the other hand, is impersonal, easily manipulated, inherently suspect. Like the facts it’s based on, it’s slippery, insubstantial—not solid like the things you believe.” The situation is a subversion of the proper order.

I see this in the classroom quite frequently. My students are often upset when we argue and debate. They tell me that argument serves no purpose. We are never going to agree on an issue. All we do is allow people to trumpet their opinions. But what is so wrong with putting out our ideas and examining the validity of them. The point of debate is not to come to agreement; it is to discuss and validate what we believe based on knowledge and evidence. Slouka recognizes this as “our inherent discomfort with argument.”

So who is to blame for Americans’ love affair with their own ignorance? “We could blame the American education system,” Slouka says, “which has been retooled over the past two generations to churn out workers… not skeptical, informed citizens.” Or, we can blame the usual suspects: television, the computer, video games, a lack of role models.

Maybe our national crisis is not economic. Quite possibly it is the idea that we do not want to think anymore. We want what is left of real journalism to tell us safe bedtime stories about Brad and Angelina, what Mrs. Obama is wearing, and what clubs Paris Hilton frequents.

We do not want to think, discuss, argue. We do not want to know upsetting things about the collapse of American life and culture, gun violence on our streets, mothers and fathers who murder their children or vice versa, the failure of our education system, the appalling inhumanity we demonstrate every day. We do not want to validate our belief system by subjecting our ideas to standards of logic and reason.

In the end, we want to sit in the cozy darkness of our heavily mortgaged homes, watch our giant flat screen TVs, and sleep the pleasant slumber of infants.

God help us.