Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize winner (and remnant of what once was one of our great newspapers), once wrote a column called “Losing the Race for Intelligence.” In it, he compared America with a giant who, while strong and decent, somehow lost its intelligence. Here is an excerpt from the column:
“Stupidity stole over the giant until it could no longer tell science from faith, or conventional wisdom from actual wisdom and in any event, valued ideological purity above them all. Stupidity snaked over the giant until science teachers shrank from teaching science, history books contained history that wasn’t history, late-night comics got easy laughs from people on the street who could not say when the War of 1812 was fought, political leaders told outright lies with blithe smiles and no fear of being caught and you would not have been surprised to hear that someone had fixed mathematics, so that 2+2 could now equal 17, thus preserving the all-important self esteem of second-grade kids.”
Wow. There is so much truth packed into that paragraph, truth that should give all of us in modern society a reason to pause and reflect. Let’s start with some of our historical religious tomes. The Bible. The Torah. The Quran. (Insert your favorite religious text here.) All of them are classic works, each containing nuggets of spirituality, wisdom, inspiration, poetry, and great insights into the hearts and minds of our ancestors. They’re not science books. They’re not to be used as reference texts for astronomy, paleontology, biology, chemistry, or physics. Yet millions of people in the USA still believe that the Earth is but 6,000 years old, carbon dating is a lie, and that the fossil record was put there to test our faith. No matter how much you’d like to, no matter what was written down on 2,000-yeare-old papyrus from stories handed down the generations, no matter what you think, you can’t invent your own facts!
Politicians, not educators or scientists or historians, often determine what should be taught in classrooms. Society places less value on intellectual exceptionalism than it does on celebrity or athletic skills. A large amount of students don’t care, and why should they? Their parents couldn’t care less, either. And a lot of teachers have to feel frustrated as the importance of education keeps diminishing in the halls of legislatures around this land. And while we as a nation seemingly spend a lot on education, our students are ranked but 21st in math proficiency and 26th in science proficiency.
Education, math, science, reading, the arts and music – none of this is as important as Real Housewives, MTV’s Skins, or some reality TV miscreant named Honey Boo Boo. Welcome to the New World Order.
So as we sit with one thumb on the remote control (you know where the other one is), other nations are passing us by. We may no longer be on the cutting edge of science and technology. Our once-great space-faring nation, the United States, is now totally without a way to get astronauts into orbit or to the Space Station, and there’s nothing close to ready for us in even the reasonably near future. (We have to rely on 1960s vintage Russian Soyuz launch vehicles, and we know how that relationship is going right now.) Meanwhile, China has put people in space and is working on their own space station.
This blows the whole concept of “American exceptionalism” right out of the water. Some commentators refer to the idea as if it were some kind of birthright, like just because you were born in the Lower 48 it means you’re better than everybody else on the planet. No, it just means you were lucky not to have been born in some other hellhole like Iraq or Somalia.
This nation in so many ways is the greatest place in the world. We are, however, being threatened by forces both external and internal. There are countries, free from the responsibility of maintaining our level of military preparedness, that dedicate more resources to its people and their development and well-being. There are US corporations that just laugh at the concept of American exceptionalism as they ship all their jobs overseas.
But worst of all is that we’re turning into people who couldn’t care less.