Tag Archives: education

Candles vs Demons

Among scientists who write Carl Sagan has always struck me as one of the more open minded. Dedicated to the scientific method, he nonetheless admits that there are some things scientists don’t know. The last time I was in Ithaca, therefore, I picked up a copy of his tour de force, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I wasn’t really sure what to expect—I’ve been researching demons and I supposed they would be addressed in his book, since they feature in the title. Although that is indeed the case, the book is a collection of essays vindicating in various ways the practice and teaching of science. It is quite a scary book. It was also Sagan’s final book published in his lifetime.

Reading this just after Gabriele Amorth’s An Exorcist Explains Demons, noteworthy for its credulousness, The Demon-Haunted World was like whiplash into reality. Back into the realm of observable facts and testable hypotheses, it was indeed like a candle in the dark. Sagan admits that science can’t speak definitively on the supernatural—something that sets him apart from other science writers—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply scientific thinking anywhere it’s appropriate. And that includes the universe of politics. Published some two decades before the rise of Trump, the book is surprisingly prophetic when it points to the possibility of the rise of fascism in a nation that distrusts science. Indeed, the book shows Sagan clearly worried that an authoritarian, totalitarian government was on the rise. It’s almost preternatural in its accuracy.

The tome is large enough to dissuade a full summary within the word-limits I set for myself on these daily posts, but I can say that this book is necessary now more than ever. Sagan was a celebrity in his lifetime, a “rock star” scientist. Even so he worried about the deplorable state of science understanding among political leaders he met. For many years America has been mired in conservative causes that distrust science implicitly. Another strain that runs throughout this book is the need for education. Not only has America catered to anti-science groups, it has fallen behind much of the rest of the world in science education. Those who claim to make America great again can’t see that their very tactics have made our nation fall behind the rest of the world when it comes to education, across the board. Surely Sagan was right that a good grounding in scientific thinking is the equivalent of lighting a candle. As for the rest of the country it has been getting darker and darker, and our “leaders” have no idea even how to strike a match.

Teaching Peace

Teachers, preferably unarmed, are some of my favorite people. While the travesty of a government muddles along in the District of Columbia I think back on my own education and wonder what went wrong. I’m sure you knew kids who hated school; I certainly knew plenty. For whatever reason they didn’t want to be enclosed in a classroom with everyone else, learning stuff for which they could see no practical application. Reading doesn’t appeal to everyone. Memories of advanced math still send shudders down my spine. And what was the point of gym class if it wasn’t to make those of us who liked reading feel bad at that awkward stage of life when you discover your body isn’t as well-made as that of others your age? Education isn’t perfect, but it’s what we now need more than ever.

There’s no way that everyone will learn to enjoy reading. We aren’t cookie-cutter people. Thinking, as my own mathematical experiences demonstrated, can be very hard work. No one person knows everything. That’s why, at least in my day, after you reached sixth grade you started to have teachers who specialized in subjects. What I didn’t realize as a kid is how hard these modern-day saints have it. Pay scales are low. Hours are long for those dedicated to being good teachers—the brevity of the school day beliefs the amount of work done after hours. Increasingly our educators have to hold down a second job to be able to survive. The least we can do is learn in gratitude.

School shootings are so tragic because many of the victims are those who haven’t had a chance at life yet. We elect uneducated presidents and wonder what could possibly go wrong. Education, if done right, becomes a lifelong journey. The day that passes without learning something new is the day I come home and go to bed depressed. More than simple evolving, life is learning. Teachers are those who set us off on that track. The young, it is true, have more flexibility in learning. There are more options open to you before your thinking gets set in its way. I ran into seminarians who, no matter how much you’d offer, had already made up their minds. No education required. Perhaps what we need to teach at the youngest possible age is that school never ends. The formal classroom experience may cease at grade twelve, the baccalaureate, masters, or doctoral degree, but the learning goes on. And it’s a good thing, not some bizarre punishment. For that teachers, unarmed, are those to whom we should be grateful. If only we’d be willing to invest in them.

Classical Education

Andrew Dickson White famously wanted Cornell University, unlike what would become known as the other Ivy League schools, to be non-sectarian. Most Ivy League universities were founded as seminaries or with the strong influence of churches. On farmland gifted by Ezra Cornell, in Ithaca, New York, the school became one of the first truly secular world-class universities. As I approached Ithaca over the weekend, my wife told me that the town had once been briefly known by the name of Sodom because the remote location’s reputed notoriety for sabbath breaking, horse racing, and profanity. It is now considered one of the most enlightened towns in the country. Famous for its waterfalls and gorges, one of the cascades is still rejects the biblical slur with the sobriquet “Lucifer Falls.”

Many place names—indeed, much of American culture in general—reflect(s) the Bible. Ours is a culture in denial of just how formative religion has been for who we are. Because of our willful blindness on this point we sometimes run the risk of being entrapped by our heritage. Despite how much we’ve educated ourselves we still see what we want to see. Our religious heritage is often considered an embarrassing family secret rather than the path by which we came to be a civil society. Religion is so frequently portrayed as an evil force that it’s easy to forget just how much we owe it for our evolution. Even education itself had a religious motivation since teaching students to read was often done with the intent that they should read the Bible.

Like nearby Binghamton, Ithaca has a statue dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. It bears a biblical quotation from Amos without embarrassment. Ithaca today is a livable, socially conscious community. Recycling is strongly encouraged while cars are not. Hardly a hotbed of immorality, it is one of the great examples of an American college town. Ideas are welcome here. Befitting its classical heritage of education, the city is named after the island ruled by Odysseus, according to Homer. Indeed, Ulysses lies just down the road. Homer (and yet another town in the area bears that name) presented Odysseus as among the smartest of the Greek kings. Like most classical Greeks, Odysseus was only too conscious of how the gods could interfere with one’s life. Instead of denying the obvious, however, religion was recognized as a necessary source of culture. Not that it always has to be taken too seriously. Maybe it shouldn’t be completely ignored either.

Animal Fights

What does it mean to be human? The answer’s not as straightforward as it might seem. Reading Robert Repino’s Culdesac, that question came back to me time and again. This novella takes off from the story of Mort(e), about which I blogged shortly after its publication. Humans and animals that have acquired some human characteristics are at war. Most see those on the other side as inferior and that can make a human being reading the tale just a touch uncomfortable. We don’t have a great track record when it comes to dealing with non-human animals. We are all, after all, members of the same “kingdom.” Even down to the level of phylum and genus many of us show more general similarity than stark differences. Culdesac is a morphed bobcat who remembers all too well how humans treated animals before the war. And memory is a powerful thing.

Repino has a way of sweeping the human reader (here the enemy) into the story and making those foundational questions ring as if struck with a hammer. What does it mean to be human? Granted, reading such provocative work under the current administration adds a layer of poignancy that wasn’t there when Mort(e) stood alone. In fact, it is a question that we have to ask just about every day when we see the headlines. There’s no leadership on this point coming from above. The idea of other humans as chattels has a long and disgraceful history. You can differentiate anyone on some basis or another: female or male or intersex, black or white or brown, rich or middle class or poor, large or average or small. Differences working together might be the very definition of culture. Culdesac shows what can happen when one sees only the distinguishing characteristics rather than the commonalities. It’s a parable.

Education, the one weapon in our arsenal that actually dismantles prejudice and intolerance, was one of the first targets our government sought to dismantle after 11/9. Indeed, the antipathy—if not downright hostility—toward education has been a characteristic of which Americans have long been unduly proud. We are not self-made, none of us. We all had our teachers. We all had our books. As we stand on the rim of this smoking crater and wonder how hatred toward one’s own species could be allowed to be nominated, let alone win, I believe the answer lies in our personal belief in education. We must all use the opportunities we have to educate. Get caught reading a book. Or helping a stranger. Or just being kind. As Culdesac emphasizes, wars are long-term events. Results won’t change after only one skirmish. If we all valued education—reading, learning—enough such aberrations as this could never happen. If you’re casting about for something to read that will make you ponder things at a most human level, I would suggest Culdesac.

What Democrats Don’t Understand

Human evolution (while it still legally exists) tells us a considerable amount about belief. Brain science (while we still have it) has long indicated that our noggins evolved to help us survive, not “to figure out” the world. Along its long and torturous path to modernity, the human brain has developed the ability to believe what it knows not to be true. This doesn’t just apply to the study of religions, but, in reality, primarily to psychology. Patients with split brains have shown a mastery of rationalization that should make any Republican jealous. So far the Dems are with me. What Democrats don’t understand is that you can’t change beliefs with reason. I grew up a Fundamentalist. That past still continually haunts me. What brought me out of it wasn’t thinking. It was experiencing. Specifically, experiencing in the course of education.

Recent polls show that well over 50 percent of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote. You could show this 50 percent as many statistics as you like and you won’t be able to convince them. Belief doesn’t work that way. In my experience, higher education (typically characterized as liberal) doesn’t really care about understanding belief. They hire professors recommended by establishment friends, very much like cabinet posts are now being filled. They still believe if you talk at someone long enough with reason, they will change their minds. I can’t change that belief of theirs—I have an idea how belief functions. We’ve all seen how the system works. Not every 1930s German was a Nazi.

In other words, it is very easy to believe a lie is the truth. In the words of Jim Steinman, “everything’s a lie and that’s a fact.” Education may help you spot the contradiction there, but it won’t help you unbelieve it. The truth is power can’t be taken, it must be given. If people do not believe what the media tells them, it isn’t true. As someone who’s spend a half-century trying to figure this out, I’m always amazed that my own party can’t see what’s so obvious to a reformed Fundamentalist. Until the day comes when avowed rationalists admit that emotions matter just as much as orthodox reason we will all be at a loss to explain how otherwise intelligent people will insist that what they know to be lies are indeed the truth.

Source: Lbeaumont based on image by Mila / Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Lbeaumont based on image by Mila / Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Nightmares

I spend a lot of time thinking about monsters. Could there be any more statement of the obvious? The deeper issue, however, is why. Why am I, among countless others, drawn to the monster? This may not be politically correct—I apologize in advance—but that which is unusual naturally draws our gaze. Humans, along with other conscious creatures, are curious. (There’s another trait that reductionism hasn’t adequately explained; we’d be far more secure sticking with what we already know works.) The out-of-the-ordinary will keep our attention although we’re told not to stare. The monster is defined as something that isn’t “normal.” We’re captivated. We stare. Indeed, we can’t look away.

477px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)

The media play into this with their coverage of Trump. I realize I risk participating in that rude behavior by even addressing the topic, but as I hear intelligent people everywhere asking why Trump has captured the imagination I have to ask, have you seen the headlines? Newspapers that don’t endorse him run huge headlines when his name is in the news. It’s horrible, but I can’t look away. Historians scratch hoary heads and wonder how Hitler came to power. Populism combined with an undereducated population in a democracy may be an equation that political analysts should try to solve before it’s too late. Meanwhile, my thoughts turn to monsters. Ugly, large, and threatening, they rampage through my dreams and now my waking reality. I watched in horror as the electorate lined up behind Reagan. Bush, I told myself, was an aberration. Until the second time. Then I realized it was the summer of Frankenstein indeed.

From my youngest days I recall the antipathy that my classmates showed toward school. I didn’t mind school that much, or at least the learning part. Gym I could’ve done without. I never did get the socializing thing down. Feeling a bit like Frankenstein’s monster myself, I realized I was a pariah (that was a vocabulary word). When did monsters shift to being worthy of emulation? The monsters of my childhood were to be feared, and curious creatures will always keep an eye on that which causes fear and trembling. The media say we don’t want Trump but they give him all the air time he could wish and more. In headlines in massive, almost misshapen letters. They’ve expended their superlatives on what they tell us we shouldn’t see. They have, perhaps unwittingly, played into the very hand bitten by that which it feeds. I can’t help it. I’m staring.

Uisce Beatha

The idea of a state church, I have to admit, sometimes seems not so bad. Before you click off this page in disgust, please let me explain. Once in a great while, I think about what state churches really are. From the most ancient of times, religious institutions supported governments and governments gave money to state religions. It isn’t a perfect system, but the reason it sometimes appeals is that it might prevent the kind of religious quarreling that we see in the run-up to every election: whose religious vision will govern us? I get theological whiplash. Wouldn’t it be easier to have a state church and be done with it? After all, those who live under state churches really aren’t obligated to believe in the teachings, but just to pay for them.

I’m only being facetious here, of course. We all know that in reality where religions and governments get too intertwined human misery results. The Reformation should have taught us that, if nothing else. The crimes of ISIS continue to show that religious belief makes a poor basis for government. Another case that my wife recently pointed out to me is in the quiet and civil nation of Ireland. Ireland has the stereotype of being Catholic, but according to an article in The Guardian, more than 90 percent of state-run schools there are under the control of the church. For some residents, like the family featured in the article, this becomes a conflict when schools won’t admit the unbaptized. Admissions committees with holy water may be a concept that many people find strange, but the fact is churches can set rules just as strict as secular bodies. No baptism, no confirmation, no matriculation.

I would, I think, be concerned as such a parent. Once my child was admitted and enrolled, would not the teaching go against what was being taught at home? Do governments have the right to decide a child’s religious outlook? Here is the dark underbelly of the apparently benevolent state church. Belief, of all things, is an intensely private matter. Many church goers do not understand the deep beliefs of their religious body, and since we seldom stop to think about religion we just do as we’re told. Education, it seems to me, should be very much aware of religion. Instead we see the opposite happening, at least in this country. If we pretend religion doesn’t exist, it will just go away, right? There is a reason that the church teaches that baptism is symbolic drowning. Only for those, however, who pay attention.

Angel's view of Ireland?

Angel’s view of Ireland?