Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Right Not To Learn

This is an important right in the United States of America. David Brooks, among other conservative columnists, often writes about the horrible liberal elitists in their ivory towers, the ones who are not your salt-of-the-earth type of people with the proper scorn towards book learning. The Palin sagas showed us that the Right To Remain Ignorant is something many would like to see as a constitutional amendment.

Sinclair Lewis notes this tendency in his 1930s anti-fascist novel It Can't Happen Here, so the tendency is not exactly a new one. But it IS a very American one.

And more complicated than it seems at first glance, because people just don't walk around, eyes closed and fingers in their ears, trying their utmost to stay as ignorant as possible. Rather, the assumption is that one already knows everything that is necessary to know, and that the solution one arrives at, based on that mysteriously acquired knowledge, is the correct one.

Hence Lewis' picture in the book about the contempt many Americans in the 1930s held for the job of a politician: Why, anyone could do it! The problems are obvious and the solutions even more so! If you just get rid of the current scum and install some new ignorant people you will do well!.

Where that initial (and sufficient) knowledge comes from is unclear. But personal experience rates very highly as an acceptable source. That such personal experience may not be typical and even might be highly colored by emotions of the less admirable kind isn't addressed in this way of thinking, perhaps because to gather other types of information would require the equivalent of that hated book learning.

This whole topic is an odd one. I can see myself writing on it, through the eyeballs of David Brooks, and what do I see? An elitist (?) goddess, someone who is not in the mainstream, someone who is not real and wholesome and in touch of the truthiness that is everywhere. How dare she write on this topic? Who does she think she is? Is she ridiculing the ignorant?

And that shows you the marvelous sleight-of-hand that has taken place! Knowledge has become not something that you have to work to acquire but something which is about emotions, about social rankings, about making yourself better than other people! Perversely, knowledge has become something which props hierarchies! And the solution to this dilemma is not to open up the gates of learning for all but to deny the value of learning altogether. Or, perhaps, to ridicule the ignorant ones because that props up another type of hierarchy?

Instead of discussing the very important questions about information, bias and the limits of learning of all types, what do we do, in the public political debates? I think people defend their own truthiness, not in the sense of digging up evidence or juxtaposing explanations but in an emotional sense: What the f**k makes you think that your knowledge is better than mine? We are all equal here!

It is oddly emotional. But we don't see it that way because politics is not labeled the emotional exercise it often is. It is also based on the idea that everything we are presented with should be easy-to-digest and delicious, and that's something the television has created. If you expect to acquire all the information you need by lying on the sofa with a nice cool (it's so hot here!) bottle of beer in your paw, you are going to be sorely disappointed.

Learning really is hard work. Sure, you can make it more interesting, you can teach better, you can personalize the message and provide an easier path to more knowledge. But ultimately learning is hard work, and that is one of the reasons why it is possible to sell learning as unnecessary.

That and how useful it is to have an easily led electorate.