Purblind

Our enlightened president recently noted that if we had fewer carona virus tests there would be fewer cases. Now we know (he has told us) he is the smartest man on the planet, but this is close to the stupidity he evidenced when he recommended that we drink Clorox.

The notion that if we don’t test there will be fewer cases rests on the absurd assumption that if we don’t see it then it isn’t there. I honestly think this man actually believes this. He is nothing if not sincere.

But this is delusional. There are facts and there are realities and no amount of strong belief can change those things. I cannot fly unassisted and I will not live forever. I don’t want to believe these things, but that doesn’t alter the facts.

I don’t want to join the parade of president-haters. It’s too exhausting and not very productive. Life is too short and attention to what the man is doing on a daily basis is certain to shorten my life which is already approaching its end. But I do believe that as a trained philosopher I have a responsibility to point out that what we want to be the case is rarely, if ever, what is the case. It’s an epistemological truth: facts exist independent of thought. And truth is a correspondence between what we believe and what is the case, independent of us. As much as I want the virus to be over I still realize that it is still killing people and as an old fart with a disease I am smack in the middle of the target demographic (as they say).

This is why I get so worked up when I see the delusional people going about their business as though the virus is over. Business demands that sports return as soon as possible, so the various billionaires who own the professional sports teams fall all over themselves trying to make it happen — as do college presidents. The colleges are even considering going ahead with collegiate football even if there are no students in the stands. Billions of dollars are at stake. There is even talk about holding the motorcycle rallies in Sturgis, South Dakota again this Summer because it is a celebratory year. So thousands of folks from around the country will gather there for a few days of fun and fames and then leave and take away with them hundreds of cases of the virus they can spread back home.

What we have here is a failure to communicate, as Strother Martin once said. There are a great many people out there who simply refuse to believe what they are told — even by experts with no axe to grind. So we open things up and express our surprise that folks are getting sick again. The numbers rise and we ignore the facts because we don’t want to believe them.

I have said it before, many times, and I will say it again. America is living in the Age of Entitlement when children are told they are terrific even when their work simply doesn’t measure up and all are supposed to succeed even though this empties the word of all meaning: when all succeed, none succeed. Thus do we refuse to recognize true excellence when it stands before us. Since they were very young the children of this country have been told they can walk on water by their parents and teachers. They grow up and, being unused to anyone saying “no,” they don’t hear the word — or see the writing on the wall. They cannot walk on water. Sorry about that.

Whether we like it or not, this virus has not gone away. It still sickens and kills and we need to remind ourselves that what we want to be the case may not be the case at all. In a word: for the first time in our lives, we may have to do something don’t want to do.

And we are demonstrating that we can’t handle that message very well. This does not bode well.

 

 

Widespread Ignorance

One of the major reasons the Trumpet has been so successful in convincing people to follow him wherever he leads is that there are a great many ignorant people in this country. I’m not talking about ignorance of rocket science or nuclear physics. I am talking about ignorance of the most basic truths about this country and its history and political machinery.

The problem is of special concern to me as an educator because I feel like I am a part of the problem and even though I sense how to solve the problem I don’t see any serious attempts being made. The solution is not to attack the public school system by increasing the number of charter schools or allowing for “vouchers.” The solution is to eliminate schools of education with their ridiculous “methods courses”; require a solid academic major of our teachers; pay the teachers more; eliminate the bureaucracy that controls public education; keep politicians out of the mix; and truly commit ourselves as a nation to an education system that will be worthy of imitation.

But let me turn to the evidence that steps such as these are absolutely necessary: let us probe the depth of ignorance in this country for a bit. It is not new, of course, since there has always been a strong anti-intellectual strain in this country that leads many to suspect well educated people of being cynical and judgmental — and, worse yet, liberal. This may or may not be the case, but it is irrelevant. The fact is, we are failing our young people and they are easily led.

As far back as the Korean war it was known that the young men who were captured during the “police action” were easily “brain-washed,” that is, led to change their allegiance and believe what they were told. It was discovered that the North Koreans were very good at convincing these young men because they were ignorant of their own history. The captors were able to tell them things about their own country’s history that were either altogether false or only half-true, and the captives were generally helpless to ward off the disinformation and were easily led to believe what their captors wanted them to believe.

More recently an interviewer asked one of Donald Trump’s followers why he was convinced that Barack Obama was a terrible president — one of the cardinal tenets of the Trump dogma. He responded that Obama was responsible for 9/11 because he wasn’t in his office, he was not attending to business. Asked where Obama was at that time the man responded that he didn’t know but would love to know that. Apparently the fact that Obama wasn’t president when the Twin Towers were destroyed had escaped this man. And, I dare say, if it were pointed out to him he would dismiss the fact as a liberal fiction. Again, ignorance creates a blank slate on which demagogues are able to write their own program and have it believed without question.

There are other examples, of course, and anecdotes don’t prove much of anything. But national and international tests reflect the same wide-spread ignorance on the part of those who graduate from America’s schools, which is frequently dismissed (by educators themselves) as simply a reflection of the fact that this country must educate so many of the poor.  This excuse will not stand up to criticism, as evidenced by the recent Program for International Student Assessment results:

According to this line of reasoning, the US doesn’t make it on the list of the top 25 countries in math (or top 15 in reading) because America has higher poverty and racial diversity than other countries do, which drags down the national average. . . .Wrong!

. . . PISA test results, released Dec. 3, 2013, show that the U.S. lags among 65 countries (or sub country entities) even after adjusting for poverty. Top U.S. students are falling behind even average students in Asia. . . . Asian countries (or sub entities) now dominate the top 10 in all subjects: math, reading and science.

And that ignorance makes it relatively easy for a demagogue to present half-truths and blatant falsehoods as the truth and have them believed. Without reservation. If something is repeated often enough and there is no factual frame of reference for questioning what has been said, it will be believed; it will be held to be the TRUTH. And this problem is exploding with the recent revelations that bogus news on the internet is being taken as legitimate by a great many ignorant people who previously relied on such publications as The National Enquirer for their news.

It is fair to say, I do believe, that the root cause of this ignorance is the failure of our schools and that radical steps need to be taken in order to remedy the situation. If this does not happen (and I am not optimistic) then the number of followers of demagogues such as our president-elect will continue to grow.

The Life of Reason

The American philosopher, George Santayana, wrote a book with the title of this post. In that book he famously said, among many other things, that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But it is mainly an attempt to trace the development of reason in the human mind from birth to old age. The book is complex and somewhat technical, but it draws on the fact that reasoning in humans is developmental and natural, though certain prompts are required at certain points along the way. This notion was later fostered by the French psychologist Jean Piaget who started the school of “developmental psychology” that stresses the various stages of mental development in children and adults.

In any case, the conclusion of these two men is clearly stated: reason is not something that just “happens,” it develops in stages and requires the right kind of encouragement along the way. And in an alarming number of cases, as is evident in the current race for the presidency, reason remains undeveloped altogether. This thesis has been verified by recent tests that show the development of the left hemisphere of the human brain, which is the “analytical” side, requires that parents read to their very young children and tell them stories — and keep them away from television and electronic games. Now, while analysis is only a part of our reasoning capacity, which also includes synthesis (the ability to make connections) it is critical for the ability to think one’s way through complex issues. Reason must be developed and nurtured along the way and it begins with reading and telling stories, but it goes well beyond that.

Santayana gives us a hint at what might be required in developing reason in young people:

“The child, like the animal, is a colossal egoist, not from want of sensibility, but through a deep transcendental isolation. The mind is naturally its own world and solipsism needs to be broken down by social influence. The child must learn to sympathize intelligently, to be considerate rather than instinctively to love and hate; his imagination must become cognitive and dramatically just, instead of remaining, as it naturally is, sensitively, selfishly fanciful.”

This is an example of the close, compact — and somewhat technical — way Santayana writes. But his point is worth unpacking and taking to heart. He suggests that children are, at the outset, much like other animals. The development not only of reason but also of sensitivity and human sympathy come with socialization. It is the job of the family, the church, and the schools — not to mention the many people whom the child will encounter outside those specialized institutions — who help him or her to develop into a mature human being. Interesting in this regard, is the role that sports might play in the development of the whole person. As Santayana outs it,

“Priceless in this regard is athletic exercise; for here the test of ability is visible, the comparison [with others] is not odious, the need for cooperation clear, and the consciousness of power genuine and therefore ennobling. Socratic dialectic is not a better means of learning to know oneself.”

Thus, in this man’s carefully developed opinion, we seem to be on the wrong track today in rewarding children for little effort and handing out such things as participation trophies. The young need to learn from failure and we must all, in turn, acknowledge the growth that such failure can prosper. The things that young people need to learn, to come out of themselves (“egoists” as we all are as very young people) come with age but especially with nurturing and education. Age comes naturally; development of the mature person comes with guidance and support from family, friends, and institutions such as schools and churches. The tendency to turn on the TV, hand the kids an iPhone or a video game, emphasizes their instinctive, strong sense of living in a fantasy world, fosters further “isolation,” keeps them within themselves and prolongs childhood well into the later years. This is a serious problem not only for the survival of our democratic system (if that horse hasn’t already left the barn) but also for the survival of the planet. We desperately need people who have a sense of duty to the community, a strong sensitivity to the needs of others, and the ability to reason if we are to survive. Santayana was a wise man and his words are well worth careful consideration.