Saturday, March 13, 2010

Thomas Sowell again . . .

Thomas Sowell, reliably insightful, has this:
A woman with a petition went among the crowds attending a state fair, asking people to sign her petition demanding the banning of dihydroxymonoxide. She said it was in our lakes and streams, and now it was in our sweat and urine and tears.

She collected hundreds of signatures to ban dihydroxymonoxide — a fancy chemical name for water. A couple of comedians were behind this ploy. But there is nothing funny about its implications. It is one of the grim and dangerous signs of our times.

This little episode revealed how conditioned we have become, responding like Pavlov’s dog when we hear a certain sound — in this case, the sound of some politically correct crusade.

People are all born ignorant but they are not born stupid. Much of the stupidity we see today is induced by our educational system, from the elementary schools to the universities. In a high-tech age that has seen the creation of artificial intelligence by computers, we are also seeing the creation of artificial stupidity by people who call themselves educators.

Educational institutions created to pass on to the next generation the knowledge, experience, and culture of the generations that went before them have instead been turned into indoctrination centers to promote whatever notions, fashions, or ideologies happen to be in vogue among today’s intelligentsia. . . .

Many of today’s “educators” not only supply students with conclusions, but promote the idea that students should spring into action because of these prepackaged conclusions — in other words, vent their feelings and go galloping off on crusades, with neither a knowledge of what is said by those on the other side nor the intellectual discipline to know how to analyze opposing arguments.

When we see children in elementary schools out carrying signs in demonstrations, we are seeing the kind of mindless groupthink that causes adults to sign petitions they don’t understand or, worse yet, follow leaders they don’t understand, whether to the White House, the Kremlin, or Jonestown.

A philosopher once said that the most important knowledge is knowledge of one’s own ignorance. That is the knowledge that too many of our schools and colleges are failing to teach our young people. 
Sowell's whole piece is here.

1 comment:

Doughlas Remy said...

Gil, in my view, Sowell is much too restrictive in his interpretation of his story of the woman petitioning to ban dihydroxymonoxide (water). (The lessons he draws from it are about political correctness, the times we live in, and the influence of today's "intelligentsia.")

The story is a good one, but it could be about gullibility in general and at all times. I see it as a parable about all forms of uncritical and uninformed responses to suggestion and manipulation. Humans have always been susceptible to deception and trickery, and it is part of the task of education to provide our young people with the intellectual skills to discover the truth. All schools, whether secular and sectarian, could do a much better job of this. Religious schools, starting as they do with a set of "prepackaged conclusions" (Sowell's words) have the handicap from the start. At least secular institutions admit the possibility of questioning their basic ideological assumptions, even if they do not always succeed in doing so.

The challenge is always the same--to subject our ideological "givens" to critical scrutiny and to understand how culture shapes our thinking. The cost of failure is that we are led like lemmings to the sea by political and religious demagogues.

Sowell suggests that the problem is only with those "notions, fashions, or ideologies [that] happen to be in vogue among today's intelligentsia." In focusing so much on the present and the counter-traditional, he ignores longstanding ideologies that deserve scrutiny as well. Slavery was widespread and well-established throughout the pre-modern world and nearly always found justification in religious ideologies. Are we to say that liberty is just a "fashion?" If so, then "fashion" must take on an entirely new meaning.

I think it would be a mistake to infer that the "groupthink" Sowell decries is only a recent phenomenon or even that there is necessarily more of it now than in times past. Sowell's tendency, if I am reading him correctly, is to idealize the past. But I cannot think of a time in history when bad mimesis didn't rule the world.