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Who ought to tell us what we should know?

February 14, 2008

Among the latest to get in line for that job is Susan Jacoby who, after over hearing a conversation in New York City after 9/11 comparing the Twin Towers tragedy to the Pearl Harbor bombing that started the Vietnam War, decided she had had enough.

Her first and best idea for combating this? She wrote a book: The Age of American Unreason, criticizing what she identifies as a particularly American Hostility to knowledge.  That is an ironic strategy. No one who is hostile to knowledge will read the book.  In fact, the curious and informed (turns out the curious always become informed!) have already noted her point and feel her frustrations. Possibly Ms. Jacoby knows that that moment of empathy and identity will help sell the book?

I have not read the book.  And my to-read stack is so high it is a hazard to pets and visitors to my home, so I may not. I have been overheard lamenting the lack of knowledge, the ignorance-promoting antics of the current administration, etc.  But I have increasing uneasiness with my polemics. 

What is the problem with, for example, college students not being able to find Iraq on a map?  Should they be planning a trip there soon? Or be preparing to make a return trip, in case they are somehow transported there without a map? A World map or globe is quite abstract with its colors and words and lines—I’m guessing none of which are found on the ground in Iraq. Should we be suggesting topo maps instead of globes?

The only way knowing “where” (in the sense of pointing to it on a map) Iraq is located is a practical question is if you believe a number of other abstractions are also practical questions: Who lives near the Iraqis? What do Iraqis eat? Is it cold or hot in the north? Why do they have a mix of religions, ethnic groups? Why the history of episodic intense interest of the US and Great Britain? And so on… 

But these abstractions are only practical in the sense of providing plausible explanations (more abstractions!) for this or that event.  Once we make this leap, the rubber finally meets the road when one are asked to do something practical like vote or shoot at someone based on this long, long trail of abstractions about where Iraq is and how it matters.

If the only reason for knowing the location of Iraq is so one can participate in a long narrow trail of manipulation through abstractions, then people will continue to be hostile to knowledge. How can it be otherwise?  The curious people I know, experience this knowledge as a rich web of interconnection, explanation, appreciation, beauty.  For a long time, the curious among us have taken great trouble to turn abstractions of all kinds into experience.  Our trouble with teachings isn’t that we need louder, shiner, more elaborate, better refined or brightly colored abstractions, maybe we simply need to design richer, more accessible experiences.

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