It is perhaps appropriate that on the day we learn a reality-TV star (which is actually one of the more flattering things one can say about T-Rav) is vying to become a U.S. senator from South Carolina, Burl Burlingame brings my attention to this piece, headlined “America dumbs down,” which begins with an anecdote from the Palmetto State:
South Carolina’s state beverage is milk. Its insect is the praying mantis. There’s a designated dance—the shag—as well a sanctioned tartan, game bird, dog, flower, gem and snack food (boiled peanuts). But what Olivia McConnell noticed was missing from among her home’s 50 official symbols was a fossil. So last year, the eight-year-old science enthusiast wrote to the governor and her representatives to nominate the Columbian mammoth. Teeth from the woolly proboscidean, dug up by slaves on a local plantation in 1725, were among the first remains of an ancient species ever discovered in North America. Forty-three other states had already laid claim to various dinosaurs, trilobites, primitive whales and even petrified wood. It seemed like a no-brainer. “Fossils tell us about our past,” the Grade 2 student wrote.
And, as it turns out, the present, too. The bill that Olivia inspired has become the subject of considerable angst at the legislature in the state capital of Columbia. First, an objecting state senator attached three verses from Genesis to the act, outlining God’s creation of all living creatures. Then, after other lawmakers spiked the amendment as out of order for its introduction of the divinity, he took another crack, specifying that the Columbian mammoth “was created on the sixth day with the other beasts of the field.” That version passed in the senate in early April. But now the bill is back in committee as the lower house squabbles over the new language, and it’s seemingly destined for the same fate as its honouree—extinction.
What has doomed Olivia’s dream is a raging battle in South Carolina over the teaching of evolution in schools. Last week, the state’s education oversight committee approved a new set of science standards that, if adopted, would see students learn both the case for, and against, natural selection….
If you’re getting the impression that the author of this piece holds that people who hold conservative positions are stupid, you’re getting the right impression. Which, I admit, I find off-putting. I mean, I have trouble understanding why some fundamentalist Christians find it necessary to deny evolution (as a Catholic, I see no conflict between faith and science on this point) — trouble that grows out of my failure to understand why anyone would think such obvious allegories as the Creation story are factual, accurate history — I don’t believe in mocking or sneering at people who believe such things.
Predictably, the piece goes on to describe conservative positions on gun control, global warming and health care reform as evidence of idiocy.
Perhaps the most offensive (intellectually offensive, that is) assertions in the piece is this:
… many Americans seem less concerned with the massive violations of their privacy in the name of the War on Terror, than imposing Taliban-like standards on the lives of others. Last month, the school board in Meridian, Idaho voted to remove The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie from its Grade 10 supplemental reading list following parental complaints about its uncouth language and depictions of sex and drug use. When 17-year-old student Brady Kissel teamed up with staff from a local store to give away copies at a park as a protest, a concerned citizen called police. It was the evening of April 23, which was also World Book Night, an event dedicated to “spreading the love of reading.”
Apparently, this author who thinks other people are so stupid is incapable of seeing the difference between parents being concerned about their children’s exposure to depictions of sexuality and drug use and… the Taliban. Let’s see… on the one hand, you have parents who doubt that a particular book is appropriate for their kids (not whether the book should be burned or anything, but whether it’s appropriate for their kids). On the other hand, you have people who shoot girls in the face for the crime of going to school. Yeahhhh, that’s just exactly the same. Riiiight…
All of that said… the overall phenomenon under discussion here is a real one. American history is rife with anti-intellectualism, and there is a downward trend over time, as our politics becomes more democratic, in a bad way. We do, indeed, live in a time and place in which you can win elections by appealing to foolishness over wisdom.
I was referring to an example of this earlier today, cited by Michael Kinsley back in the mid-90s — the polling that indicated that solid majorities of Americans believe we spend too much on foreign aid, that they think, on average, that we spend about 18 percent of our budget, and that they think a better amount would be 3 percent (actually, that that should be the minimum) — when actually, we spend about 1 percent.
It’s OK for the people to be confused on something like that — unless that confusion becomes the basis of actual policy going forward. Which, unfortunately, does happen sometimes.
Anyway, it’s a deeply flawed piece that nevertheless touches upon a real problem…