Friday, February 04, 2011

The Dumbing Down of America

Pulitzer prize winning pundit Leonard Pitts wrote an anguished op-ed piece for the Miami Herald, lamenting the humbling of his beloved America through self-inflicted stupidity.  What set Pitts off was a report that less than a third of American high school science teachers follow their National Research Council guidelines urging them to present students with evidence of evolution while 13% explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design.
 Once upon a time, there lived a stupid giant.

The giant had not always been stupid. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say the giant had once revered intelligence, reason and the byproducts thereof. Indeed, the giant was renowned for an ingenuity and standard of living that made it the envy of the world.

...stupidity crept over the giant with the stealth of twilight, a product less of one abrupt moment than of a thousand moments of complacency, of resting on laurels, of allowing curiosity to be teased and bullied out of bright children, of dumbing down textbooks so kids could get better grades with less work, of using "  elite"   like a curse word. And, of behaving as if knowing things, and being able to extrapolate from and otherwise make critical use of, the things one knows, was a betrayal of some fundamental human authenticity -- some need to keep it real.

Stupidity stole over the giant until it could no longer tell science from faith, or conventional wisdom from actual wisdom and in any event, valued ideological purity above them all. Stupidity snaked over the giant until science teachers shrank from teaching science, history books contained history that wasn't history, late-night comics got easy laughs from people on the street who could not say when the War of 1812 was fought, political leaders told outright lies with blithe smiles and no fear of being caught...

It is impossible to dispute Pitts' argument.  In reading this I kept coming back to Trudeau's motto, "Reason over Passion."  Trudeau believed passionately in many things but he was almost always able to defend his beliefs with forceful reason.  It was why, when he left politics, he was pretty unpopular but yet still enormously respected.  That was the Holy Grail that Brian Mulroney so desperately sought but never attained.

We live in a world today where outright lies have become the stock in trade of many, very powerful individuals.   Lies fuel the entire rightwing movement in the United States and afford no small comfort to their counterparts in Canada.

I watch these supposed leaders on television.  Most of them are obviously educated.  There is no way they can possibly believe what comes out of their mouths.  They are deliberately selling their own people a toxic gruel of deception warmed up with overheated emotion.   How many Americans have been trained to believe that the answer to their federal government's debt crisis is to slash its revenues through tax cuts for the very rich?  That is the very essence of magical thinking.  How many Canadians and Americans have been trained to believe, even to this day, that global warming is a hoax?  As Pitts notes, how many have been trained to distrust, even despise voices of intelligence, of reason?  How many have been duped to equate 'elite' with 'elitism'?

The hardest part is the knowledge that no good can come to those who are trained to believe these things, to think this way.   They are, as I've said before, a bit like round-eyed North Koreans.

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