HISTORIC HISTORICAL IGNORANCE

Posted in Rants on July 7th, 2015 by Ed

Every time another survey reveals that Americans can't find their asses with both hands in their back pockets knowledge wise, we end up having the same nails-on-chalkboard argument. Look how stupid everyone is, this is the problem! vs. What is the point of knowing facts anymore, you can just look everything up. I have tried over the years to become more open-minded toward the latter, with some success. It isn't a sign of moral and intellectual weakness for an individual to fail to know all of the members of the Supreme Court, provided they have a working understanding of what the Court does and how. In that example, Google will serve a roughly equal purpose to memorizing all nine names.

What that argument fails to account for, of course, is that this hypothetical rarely reflects reality. Apologists have argued that it's OK if American students, for example, do not know any facts as long as they develop critical thinking skills. The problem is that they suck at that, too. We've gone from a couple generations of students who memorized a lot of facts and information and may not have been taught much about how to put such information to productive use to generations who haven't memorized anything, don't pay attention to much, and are as good at critical thinking as the Chinese are at hockey.

This is why I've always been on the Facts side of the argument. And lately we are seeing the second major shortcoming of the "They can just Google it" thesis: Ignorance of information has a mysterious tendency to correlate with ignorance of history. History may be the subject area most affected by the declining relevance of actually learning things. I can't explain the Space Race to you if you don't know what the Cold War is, don't know what the Soviet Union was, and can't identify Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Kennedy, Sputnik, the Mercury Program, and other important figures. And none of the preceding will make any sense without understanding World War II, how it ended, and the geopolitical consequences. I can send you an article or even a video to explain the Space Race, but what good is that without some understanding of who these people and events are? What you're left with is a Michael Bay Transformers movie version of learning: nobody has any idea who is who or what is going on. It's a miasma of events and names that mean as much to most Americans today as Runic stones.

To see the practical results of this kind of collective mental atrophy, look no further than the Confederate Flag debate or, if you're a little more policy-oriented, the current economic situation in Greece. Watch Thomas Piketty calmly explain to a reporter that what Germany, the EU, and neoliberals the world over are demanding of Greece is the exact antithesis of what Germany, France, the UK, and other cripplingly indebted nations were asked to do at the end of WWII. The idea that austerity would solve a problem with debt was so patently ridiculous at the time that it was not even suggested. Quite the opposite; inflation and economic growth were understood to be the only logical ways to reduce a debt at 200% of GDP, and governments the world over were encouraged to spend like drunken sailors. Provided those drunken sailors had an eye toward building productive, growth-oriented industrial economies.

It worked. How many people today know that? What is being proposed now demonstrably does not work. How many people today know that? Once you've punted on knowledge and facts, the hope of having an informed debate is gone. The result is what we see today: people all around the world, from bankers and world leaders to reporters and newscasters to minimum wage earners on the street, who have absolutely no ability to look at two options and conclude that one has worked before and is therefore likely superior to the other that has been tried and doesn't work at all.

Good luck getting that from Googling "Greek debt."