Monday, December 11, 2006

"The Enlightened We of Today"

Yesterday’s post raises puzzling questions.

Why do so few people think outside the box of their times and place – or as I wrote, why do almost none peek around their television screens to search for what is in the darkness behind? What gives only a few individuals the motivation and ability to question and rebel against the common wisdom? And by “question and rebel” I do not mean just choosing a socially-approved side in a debate (as when two talking heads shout angrily at one another within the cage of a talk show), but going outside all the permitted debates.

I don’t know the answer. I’m sure studies have been done on the subject, and I’d like to find out. One thing occurs to me at the moment: There are probably more questioners among people of college age – when many men and women are at their most interesting -- than among people who have settled into careers and families. A problem is that the young tend to be drawn to rebellion against not only the status quo but also the past generally, and to be attracted to the latest utopian fantasies. Thus they aren’t well suited generally to realizing the error of tossing out the beliefs and standards of the past without disproving the factual assumptions that supported those beliefs. Nevertheless, if we could prolong the will of youth to look behind the screen we might prolong our planet’s survival.

Another question: What underlies the common belief – which is implied throughout yesterday’s post -- that “we of today” are enlightened and the people of earlier times were wrong? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please read yesterday’s VIEW FROM THE MOON, where I pointed out that a conviction of the superiority of today’s beliefs is almost never based on disproof of facts or on new factual evidence, but rather on the success of somebody’s self-serving propaganda. If I didn’t point that out clearly, I should have!

Obviously a doctrine of “progress” is at work, whereby each successive generation becomes more enlightened and can look down on the beliefs of previous generations. If this theory of progress is not based on new evidence or the disproof of factual assumptions, it seems completely arbitrary and without foundation. What, other than blind faith in Progress, could make the present population more “right” than all earlier populations? People are not getting any smarter, that’s for sure. Extraordinarily brilliant minds have existed for as long as we have records. Sir Isaac Newton may have been the pinnacle so far. And there is no evidence that more of the available brilliant minds are in charge of our societies today than were in charge in ancient Greece. On the contrary. Are U.S. IQs on the rise? No. Are more intelligent and educated students graduating from our schools then ever before? Definitely not. Are our “intellectuals” superior in wit and insight to those of 100 or 200 or 300 years ago? Absolutely not!

So why are “The Enlightened We of Today” convinced that their views are superior, and, for example, that a number of history’s greatest and most revered writers suddenly deserve drubbing out of our nation’s libraries . . . and probably WOULD be drubbed out if it weren’t for that pesky U.S. Constitution and the outmoded notion of academic freedom (another “bad idea” from the past unless selectively applied)?

For now I’ll offer one suggestion. People in general are extremely shortsighted as well as ignorant when it comes to the past. “History” to them is sketchy caricature rather than an approximation of reality. They tend to view the most recent developments as the only developments worthy of consideration. This contributes to their baseless pride in the superiority of contemporary beliefs and their susceptibility to trotting after the latest passing parade.

No comments: