A story about what happens to nations when education and truth are under assault.
Abraham Lincoln said that “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next,” pointing to two truths. The first was his view that what we teach our children today becomes the prevailing dogma of tomorrow — that we are the sum of what we hold to be truth, which makes it an extremely powerful tool. But his statement also implied that without an education, we have no ability to govern. That is, the absence of quality learning has a grave impact on both the individual and the collective.
Syndicated newspaper columnist Sydney J. Harris wrote, “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” Without an education, we are narrow-minded — stuck inside our own eco-chambers, limited by uninformed impulses and prone to the influence of whatever we are told, by whomever is in a position to teach us. A perfect example of the dangers attending an uneducated generation is Afghanistan. There, the Taliban have sought to disempower their people by destroying their primary source of power: education. They razed over 650 schools in the 1990’s while they were in power, during which most teachers fled the country for their own safety. In 2008, despite the fact that they had lost ‘official’ control of the nation, they regardless managed to mount 770 attacks on schools, preventing five million students — the majority of the population — from attending classes. Then again, in 2016, there was a resurgence of violence, with 300 more schools being destroyed in just two months. And it’s not over. Just last year, the Taliban once again fire-bombed another two girls’ schools. Girls were always their primary target. On its walls, they wrote, “Long Live the Islamic Emirate” — the Taliban’s name for the ‘government’ they hoped to reinstate. They realized that they could cripple their country and maintain their grip on power far more easily if their people were robbed of the tools to oppose them.
The only tool more powerful than a gun is an enlightened mind.
The influence of an education — and the crippling effects of its absence — are what led Adam Braun to create Pencils of Promise — a non-profit entity that builds schools around the world, and increases access to education. By the end of 2016, they had built 380 schools for 35,000 students in Guatemala, Ghana, Nicaragua and Laos, collectively enabling more than 25 million hours of education.
But what if it’s not the absence of an education that disarms its people, but — more subversively — its quality? While the Taliban seek to maintain control by prevention — when in power, they prohibited the education of girls over the age of 8 — other groups, like ISIS, control by indoctrination, by forcing its people to learn only that which fuels their anger toward the group’s targets. According to a 2017 article in Foreign Affairs, ISIS primarily uses propaganda videos to recruit and arm children. They report, “In graphic propaganda videos, ISIS has featured ashbal, or “lion cubs” — the term that the group uses to describe its underage fighters, most of whom appear to be well under ten years old — participating in violent training exercises and even executing prisoners.”
Both groups are crippling their people. It’s tragic. But not all attacks on education involve guns. In the United States, education is under assault, and its people are paying a high price. According to the Centre for Research on Globalization, “American students are lagging behind virtually all developed nations”. Education researcher Cynthia Weatherly refers to the US education system as “limited learning for lifelong labor”. According to the US Department of Education, 19% of high school graduates cannot even read, while 21% of adults read below a fifth-grade level. I’ve watched videos of college students who are asked to name the president of the United States, and cannot. Nor can they name their system of government, the documents that outline the rights of its people, tell you how many states there are, or point to their own country on a world map. It’s astounding. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you can dip your toes into the fetid waters here. Even more shocking is that in the next breath, when asked, they can tell you Beyoncé’s life story, what she wore to the Grammys and when her next album will drop. If the United States is losing its power, it is not because of the elections Russia ran for us, nor the man they chose to lead our people. Russia, too, has an educational crisis, as do China and Saudi Arabia, among other autocratic nations: one of censorship. When the flow of information is controlled and edited, people’s reach is handicapped. While our problems are different (for now), the United States is without doubt on a downward trajectory that won’t stop unless the true education of its people becomes a priority, and the existing system is overhauled.
Perhaps even worse than any of these three diseases — the disease of outlawing education, the disease of indoctrination, and the disease of substandard teaching— is the disease of the dissolution of truth. Tragically, the truth is under assault by the president, the media, and most insidiously, the Internet. It’s ironic, given that the Internet was created to disseminate knowledge, to maximize the flow of information between departments of the US government. But when it reached the hoi polloi as a commercial tool, the race to capture our attention — and by extension, our dollars — was on; and the medium for graphics and video was so rich that like television before it, we were rapt — moths to the virtual flame. Over its short life, the Internet has allowed anyone with a basic knowledge of code to make it continually easier to say less and less with diminishing effort, until it succeeded in reducing both our attention spans and the quality of the pablum we were — and are — spoon-fed, at the hands of anyone with a keyboard, or a phone, and a minute to spare. We see signs of ‘the new education’ every time we walk down the street, stand in an elevator, sit on a subway, drive in a car, sit in a restaurant, or attempt, fruitlessly, to get someone to look us in the eye and hold our gaze for more than the span of a finger flick.
Social media will — in my view — presage the death of education, relegating it to the fringes, where intellectually-minded ‘holdouts’ will be like DJs, revering their LPs. It has already killed truth, now that it is nearly impossible to parse opinion from research; and while the first of these is spreading rapidly, the second has atrophied. Between 2008 and 2019, according to the Pew Research Center, newsroom employment declined by half, from 71,000 to 35,000. Job losses were comprised of analysts, reporters, journalists and editors — the news ecosystem of ‘checks and balances’ that ensures — at the very least — that what was reported reflected accepted truths. My own ex-wife, along with perhaps half, if not more, of her colleagues, were all casualties. Today, in large part, those jobs have been replaced by the voices of people who did not train in the subject of analysis, reporting, writing or editing. Rather, they are as often as not people with strong opinions, serviced by no more than their own feelings, and/or by whatever else they have found online, and decided was worth sharing, or repackaging, or interpreting. The blog is the chief weapon in this arsenal; and the number of pageviews — that is, the ‘hook factor’ on which clickbait thrives — confers an aura of gravitas, and truth, to what amounts to an opinion.
The truth still remains out there, and a good dose of quality journalism has moved online, where the eyeballs now primarily reside. They are islands in the storm, anchored, but shrouded in mist and buffeted by winds and waves, always under attack, and hard to keep in sight amid the chaos. Finding it is complex, not least of which is because the illusion of legitimacy is so easy to create, with the right web design and message-crafting.
While there are few ‘real’ newspapers left, online or off, network news outlets have gone toe to toe with the alarm bell-ringers, retooling their platforms to vie for our attention by cranking their virtual knob up to eleven. Like Chicken Little, they are now perpetually telling us that the sky is falling. Breaking news and crises sound the alarm 24/7 now, abetted by a ticker tape of half-second outrage underneath it, for those who tune in, and want the ‘nut of it’ at first glance, in the time span of a typical swipe. These outlets, like adware-powered blogs, are scratching for our dollars, trading on the bet that we no longer have the patience to finish a sentence, let alone a book; and that panic is a better hook than reason.
They are largely right.
While the sound bite garners maximum viewership — something people seem proud of, for reasons that escape me — our ‘headline education’ is a self-defeating engine whose end state is a people who can no longer act knowledgably, let alone do so armed with the facts.
The 2006 science fiction comedy, Idiocracy, follows an ‘Average Joe’ soldier who is recruited for a military hibernation experiment precisely because he is unremarkable, but is mistakenly forgotten; and who wakes up 500 years later to find he’s now the smartest man on Earth, with an IQ of 100. It was memorable when I saw it, because although it’s a terrible film, it struck a nerve for its utter plausibility. Wikipedia describes the world he awakens to, saying “commercialism has run rampant, mankind has embraced anti-intellectualism and is devoid of intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, and coherent notions of justice and human rights.”
Anti-intellectualism has long pitted populists against elitists, with the first of these valuing ‘spirit’ above all, while the latter still prizes ‘intellectual rigor’, to use a colorful description by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Hofstadtler. Totalitarian governments have long used anti-intellectualism to suppress dissent and maintain control over their people. In Spain, Franco’s ‘White Terror’ — the execution of 200,000 intellectuals, teachers, writers and academics — is just one example. In Pol Pot’s ‘Killing Fields’ in Cambodia, some two million citizens were burned to death, including the majority of the nation’s own intelligentsia, to quell potential opposition. And in Argentina, military strongman Onganía’s ‘Night of the Long Batons’ exiled the nation’s own academics and intellectuals, kicking off a long-lasting brain drain.
In the United States, anti-intellectualism is little different, but for the sanctioned violence. There, the attack is purely psychological. American epistemologist Larry Laudan — author of Science and Relativism — argued that in the United States:
“The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter, by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is — second only to American political campaigns — the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time.”
That was 1990, before George W. Bush famously called himself “a gut player”, and long before his successor, Donald J. Trump recently said, “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.” And while gut instincts are real, and in the hands of a man like Winston Churchill, they can help save a continent during its ‘darkest hour’, the difference is that Churchill was a prolific writer, historian and painter, including his four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, that covered all of history from Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BC to the First World War, nearly two thousand years later. Churchill’s ‘gut’ was fed by a deep wellspring of objective learning, internalized.
Trump may yet have a larger impact on the death of intellectualism than any president before him. We will have to see how that plays out. Even then, it will likely pale in comparison to the role the Internet plays in delivering upon Laudan’s fears.
So while people like Adam Braun fight the mullahs by building schools, and while the CIA continues — in spite of their elected leader — to fight a cyber-war with the Russians for control over what its own citizens read, and assume to be truth, there is no movement or even strategy I know of to fight the dumbing down of a population that lacks a strong educational backbone, that has diminishing access to — and no longer knows how to recognize — scientific truth, that lacks a sufficient attention span to learn and internalize the nuggets that do manage to come across our screens, between swipes, and that mistrusts the scientists, academics, journalists and teachers who aim to inform and empower the public to think for itself, rigorously.
It therefore befalls us, as parents, friends and individuals to foster intellectual curiosity on our own—ours and others; to seek out brilliant minds, well-researched writing and provocative thinking, and share that with others, preferably in a forum that cultivates an exchange of some kind, where knowledge can become living, rather than a static; and to exercise our minds and attention spans in service of growing both, because they are muscles. It is imperative that we do so, if we are to develop the strength we will require to cultivate the only antidotes I know to the dumbing down of the populace:
An appetite for expanding our perspective, by feeding our minds what they do not already know, or believe; the patience to learn deeply about all of it; and the informed presence of mind to question that which we are told, while seeking varied sources of authoritative material, to enhance our sense-making.