Friday, January 21, 2005

Sapere aude!

My parents instilled in me a respect for higher learning and academics. I remember my mother telling me about famous works of art, and the discoveries of Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie. Over dinner, if we were lucky, my father would quiz us on geography and current affairs. Before I was ten, I had learned to recognize famous steam trains, and fancied myself as an ornithologist (and proud member of the Young Ornithologists Club). Naturally, I was an insufferable smartypants. Nonetheless, my parents invariably praised me for my "expertise," and never belittled me for it. I was no wunderkind, I just had an insatiable curiosity for all things scientific. I regularly shushed my family so they wouldn't disturb my viewing of David Attenborough's Life On Earth or Carl Sagan's Cosmos, and I read encyclopedias for fun, preferring them to novels.

I may have been a nerd in high school, but I wasn't the only one. In my high school, it seemed that you could always find students who were genuinely interested in something, whether it was English, Mathematics, or Chemistry. It was almost collegiate. By my senior year though, most of the enthusiastic kids had already graduated. Three nerds and a sea of apathy were all that remained.

Today, I get the sense that we have to bribe our kids to get them to appreciate academics. The 1990's saw the appearance of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Bill's TV show tried to make science look cool with assorted sight gags and flashy screen transitions. His show was critically acclaimed, and I, too, praise his good intentions. However, I never understood how kids were actually going to get any lasting appreciation for the sciences from watching his show. Wouldn't science be chucked out next year along with the kids' disused skate boards and hula hoops?

Don't get me wrong. Science is cool, but it's cool because of what it does for enlightenment, not because of its gimmicks. Throughout history, the forces of evil and ignorance have stubbornly refused to use reason. Tyrants prefer their truth dictated by executive order, or by executive order posing as divine fiat. Persecution of infidels invariably ensues. Idiots and political power-seekers through the ages burned libraries, then spent billions of dollars (and thousands of human lives) building useless cathedrals so that the survivors of their construction projects could worship their dictator's imaginary friends.

Who are the heroes who put a stop to this sort of rubbish? Scientists. Scientists are the people who care enough about the truth to subject their own theories to tests of reason. Not in back rooms or in closed committees, but on the world's stage and in the light of day. Scientists have the courage to agree to let reason and empirical tests determine the merits of our ideas. That's what's cool about science.

The Enlightenment philosopher Immanual Kant wrote this in 1784:

"Enlightenment is man's leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one's intelligence without being guided by another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence!"

I think this throws into stark relief the difference in values between the enlightened, and the hodge-podge of consumerism and religion that dominates contemporary America.

Americans are becoming shallow, plastic people who have time for nothing but corporate servitude and consumption. We live in a comfortable illusion conjured up by the marketing departments of cartels and multi-nationals. It's a swell deal: they tell us we need DVD players and Hummer H2's, and, in exchange, they sell them to us.* We go to university, not to learn, but to get a piece of paper so we can work for corporate blackguards like Exxon and Wal-Mart.

In this context, Republicans find it easy to prey on anesthetized consumers. Just tell the consumer to be proud of his lack of sophistication, and tell him he's a martyr of plain folk, oppressed by the liberal elites and their fancy book learnin'. Not just a consumer who refuses to learn anything about evolution or environmental protection, but a patriot who resists the subversion of new ideas. At the same time these compassionate conservatives are demonizing the arts and sciences, they're making the elite of Wall Street very happy at the expense of the consumer masses. Apart from lost jobs, underfunded education and poor healthcare, what's in it for the conservative common folk? A foolish pride in their ignorance of art and science, and a false sense of persecution for their superstitions.

Yet, America's story doesn't have to end this way. Enlightenment values are not foreign to Americans. They are the values of our founding fathers. Every one of us is ignorant about something non-trivial. Whether we wallow in the blissful pride of that ignorance or renew our scholarship is surely a sign of our character.

Embrace the values of the Enlightenment, lest we follow the Republicans to the source of their perverse values: the Dark Ages.

It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.
- Thomas Paine

*In all fairness, we probably need the DVD players.


Rob said...

Bill Nye was great.

I was watching a History channel show about the life of Thomas Edison and my son came into the room and sat and watched it with me. He was interested and watched the rest of the show with me. I didn't remember the part about Edisons' involvement with Tesla and the competition that ensued. I like this channel and it is every bit as entertaining as anything I've seen if not more so.

Every time I travel to the bookstore I buy a big picture book and we read it together to wind down the day. We just finished "The Sea" book and dinosaurs is on deck. He looks forward to this now and I'm glad. I used to look through and read encyclopedias before bed and I hope to instill in him the same kind of inquisitive nature. He's got a good imagination.

Nice post Doc.

Nevin ":-)" said...

I think you hit the nail on the head with your first sentence: "My parents instilled in me a respect for higher learning and academics."

I don't know that many parents encourage their kids in this way anymore.

50+ years ago education was the way to get out of the ghettos and lower classes. I don't know that many people believe that today.

Many parents schedule every moment of their kids day. When do they have the time to be curious and develop their own interests? And that is just the parents who have time for their kids.

When one of my kids was younger, he was playing with a light switch, noticing that flipping it changed the state of the light. His grandmother (on my wife's side, of course :-)) tried to stop him, afraid he would break it. Since it was in My House, I had her back off. If he breaks a $5 light switch, I certainly don't care. His exploring and learning is far more important.

If the kids are going to watch television anyway (a whole separate issue), things like Bill Nye are great, as they can be the spark that piques their interest. But it isn't a substitute for loving, caring, supportive parents.

I do miss MathNet, though...