by Geoff Olson
Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying, “two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. And I’m not sure about the universe.” The frizzy-haired physicist never said this, actually. But the apocryphal quote is in keeping with the times, when general knowledge is as rubbery as space-time near a black hole.
In a recent clip doing the rounds on Facebook, a series of students at Texas Tech in Lubbock are stumped by simple historical questions, including “who won the civil war?” Non-answers include “We did, the south;” “The one in 1965?;” “The confederates?” and “America?”
They do just as poorly when asked to identify their country’s Vice President and which country they “won their independence from.” In contrast, all the same students answer correctly to the skill-testing questions, “What show is Snookie on?” and “Who is Brad Pitt married to?”
Selective film editing of confused millennials, perhaps. But consider a recent sobering report on the rejection of a solar panel farm by the town of Woodland, California.
During the public comment period at a Woodland town meeting, retired science teacher Jane Mann expressed concern that the solar panels would interfere with the sunlight required for plant photosynthesis. “She also questioned the high number of cancer deaths in the area, saying no one could tell her that solar panels didn’t cause cancer,” according to a story in the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald.
Ms. Mann’s husband insisted “that the solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun and businesses would not come to Woodland.” The council, perhaps tone-deaf to any voices of reason present at the meeting, voted for a moratorium on future solar farms.
What I fear is that Americans capable of critical thinking are now outliers on the bell curve, not the retired Woodland science teacher and her husband.
A persistent culture of anti-intellectualism, braced by a shoddy public education system and buttressed by bread-and-circuses media, is producing Americans functionally illiterate at democratic participation. How else to explain the popularity of the fear-mongering, fact-free blowhard, Donald Trump?
In one of his final, incendiary performances, comic George Carlin observed that “the real owners” of America “don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. Thats against their interests.”
“You know what they want?” Carlin continued. “They want obedient workers… people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shitty jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it…”
This sounds like a cynical echo of one of the architects of the US public education system, Frederick T. Gates.
“In our dreams, we have limitless resources and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions fade from their minds, and unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive rural folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning, or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, editors, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have an ample supply,” Gates wrote in 1913.
Gates forgot to mention scientists. The recent discovery of gravitational waves, based on detection of a faint signal from the collision of black holes billions of light years away, is astounding confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The discovery was the result of a global scientific effort, with over 1000 signatories to the paper, including physicists from the United States (proof that brilliance persists south of the border).
“The important thing is not to stop questioning…. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity… don’t stop to marvel,” Einstein told Life magazine in 1955.
Good advice, Al. Just about every day I marvel that a large swath of the US electorate imagines their political salvation in a clownish tycoon with a candy floss hairdo.
The Vancouver Courier, Feb. 25