January/February 2003

Knowledge for Dummies
Feeding Your Head in the Info-tainment Age

by Greg Hartman

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Jay Leno once interviewed UCLA students during their graduation ceremony, asking them how many moons the Earth has (he got answers from zero to nine).

If you like being depressed, watch "Jay Walking," a regular segment on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show." Leno hits the streets with a camera, asking people questions about, as radio host Michael Feldman put it, "things you should have learned in school if you'd been paying attention."

Some of Leno's favorite venues for "Jay Walking" are college campuses. Once he interviewed UCLA students during their graduation ceremony, asking them how many moons the Earth has (he got answers from zero to nine). Another participant said the pilgrims had landed in New York. When

Leno said Plymouth Rock was the correct answer, the interviewee said the pilgrims simply took a train to Plymouth from New York.1

I can't stand "Jay Walking;" my wife thinks it's hilarious. I suppose it is, in the same mean-spirited way a rubber crutch is funny. I can't help but notice, though, that Leno never asks questions about pop culture except in conjunction with other basic questions. Some doofus who can't name two former presidents, for instance, invariably knows the names of all the Backstreet Boys.

That indicates, to me at least, that we're not getting any dumber. Rather, we've lost our love of learning.

Void of Knowledge

I'm a student of Universal Kempo Karate, which stresses humility. And one of the main ways our instructors achieve it in their students (besides frequently pounding us down into the ground headfirst) is by reminding us that we all have a "void of knowledge" -- that is, things we don't know -- represented on our logo by a black rectangle. We should spend our lives trying to fill the void of knowledge, even though we know we never will.

In other words, Kempo students should love to learn, knowing it can be a happy and neverending pursuit.

Buy this soda and some of a certain athlete's talent will rub off on you; drive this car and be as cool and beautiful as the models driving it in the commercial.

Too many of us, though, cover our void of knowledge with the TV remote and pretend it's just not there. Why? I think it's because certain factors in today's world have taught us that the pursuit of learning for its own sake simply isn't worth it.

Emotional Carpet Bombing

Our info-tainment-based society bombards us from every corner these days. It's estimated that the average American is exposed to three thousand advertisements every day.

It's only natural that many of us simply quit paying attention to what goes on around us, what with all the voices clamoring for our attention.

But there's more. Today it's more popular to communicate by conveying emotion rather than information. Advertisements rarely deliver much data; instead, they attempt to provoke emotions such as humor, poignancy, nostalgia, hero worship -- and attach that emotion to a product. Buy this soda and some of a certain athlete's talent will rub off on you; drive this car and be as cool and beautiful as the models driving it in the commercial.

Reading books forces us to slow down. Most other media try to provoke emotional (and usually unwise) reactions. Books make us stop and think.

The emotional roller coaster of today's media can make simple learning look bland in comparison. Yet while artificial emotion may seem intense, its only effect on us is exhaustion and instability. On the other hand, the Bible tells us that knowledge brings stability and opens a door for character development (Psalm 119:66; Proverbs 1:22).

Wag the Dog

Another factor undermining the love of learning is that intellectual inquiry has, in many cases, become the slave of ideology:

· Emory University professor Michael Bellesiles' book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture created a stir in 2000, claiming that very few colonial Americans owned firearms. When other historians disputed his findings, Bellesiles claimed a flood destroyed his research. Only when it was revealed that the book cited nonexistent public records did Emory reluctantly begin to investigate Bellesiles -- nearly two years later.

· In 2002, seven wildlife biologists were caught planting Canadian lynx hair samples for a survey to determine the

animal's habitat and thus its range of protection under the Endangered Species Act. A National Academy of Sciences panel also accused the Bureau of Reclamation of cutting off Oregon farmers' irrigation water with no scientific basis, despite the bureau's claim that it needed to protect suckerfish.

· Professor Joseph Ellis of Mount Holyoke College was recently suspended for lying about his military career. Before that, though, he took the lead in claiming that DNA evidence proved Thomas

Jefferson fathered children by a slave, Sally Hemings, the timing of which led many to accuse him of trying to defuse the Clinton impeachment hearings. Later reviews by a panel of historians pointed not to the third president, but his younger brother Randolph. None of this discouraged The New York Times Book Review from asking Ellis to review a new book about Jefferson and John Marshall.

These incidents and many others have lead many to the conclusion that America's intelligentsia is more concerned with its agendas than with the truth. And if our intellectual guides can't be trusted, the pursuit of knowledge can easily be dismissed as a waste of time (2 Timothy 3:6-7).

Readin', Writin' and Radical Politics

This distrust has filtered down to our public schools. Many parents suspect their children are not being educated so much as brainwashed. Some critics charge our educators with discarding education in favor of indoctrination:

"Schools have been asked to assume (and have asked to assume) extraordinary burdens; they are expected not to merely educate children, but to deal with and help resolve society's race problems, to eradicate poverty, to be on the front lines of economic competitiveness, environmentalism, child abuse, AIDS, multiculturalism, drug addiction, sexual harassment, to mediate our ambivalence about family life and sexuality, and to provide children with a moral compass."2

It's estimated that the average American is exposed to three thousand advertisements every day.

Little wonder that so many parents feel public schools are nothing more than laboratories for social engineers to test pet theories on our children.

Of course, there is a difference between unlearned and stupid -- and America's schoolchildren are far from stupid. They know as well as any adult that our schools are a wasteland of unpredictable draconian zero-tolerance policies, political correctness, senseless, arbitrary rules, tenured incompetence and soulless bureaucracy. Confronted with a system that squashes personal initiative, encourages and condones sexual immorality, coddles criminals and punishes the innocent (see "School Daze" on page 26), school kids do well simply to survive with sanity intact -- if not their virtue, integrity or love of learning, which leaves us with much to answer for (Matthew 18:1-6).

Out of the Frying Pan

As is so often the case, our Christian subculture not only mimics a secular social trend, but also exacerbates it. Theology was once the "Queen of Science" -- the discipline students needed to master before studying the physical sciences. Monasteries and cathedrals provided the seat of learning for western civilization for hundreds of years. Christian writers and thinkers were at the core of research and science. Christianity was a religion for learners.

Why then do we Christians waste so much energy arguing about trivialities -- Bible versions, worship styles, communion or baptism practices? It's not hard to understand why we're often compared to the Taliban: repressive anti-intellectuals who cheerfully sacrifice progress on the altar of the status quo. We fight nonChristians and Christians alike, insisting that our neck of the theological woods is the right one.

Yes, we need to know how to defend our beliefs (1 Peter 3:15). But astronomy itself, for instance, is hardly to blame for Carl Sagan's atheism. We should take scientists to task if necessary -- not their disciplines. Biology, astronomy, psychology, to name a few disciplines some Christians oppose, are not our enemies; they are wonderful tools to help us learn about God's creation.

It's only natural that many of us simply quit paying attention to what goes on around us, what with all the voices clamoring for our attention.

The mysteries of God will never be completely discerned by humans (Job 11:7-8; Romans 11:33). God is certainly not boxed in by denominational doctrines. Therefore, without discarding our differences, we can certainly leave room for dialogue with one another over theological minutiae (Romans 14:1-13).

As for the rest of world, if what we as Christians believe really is true, then it can stand up to testing and scrutiny, even hostile scrutiny. If Christianity or the Bible is attacked by a skeptic, let's calmly defend our faith; shrill protests and outrage are not necessary (Psalm 2:1-3). Christianity and the Bible have been here for two millennia; no one's going to formulate an argument tomorrow that will bring it all crashing down around our ears.

The Conclusion of the Matter

One of my favorite Bible characters is Solomon; I love his inquisitive spirit. Thousands of years before the Renaissance, he was the first Renaissance Man. Solomon studied botany, natural science and music (1 Kings 4:29-33); he was an architect (1 Kings 5:5) and a dedicated wordsmith (Ecclesiastes 12:10).

Yes, Solomon made mistakes -- up to 700 at a time, in fact (1 Kings 11:3). But when God offered to grant Solomon anything he wanted, he asked for knowledge (2 Chronicles 1:11). Despite Solomon's flaws, God greatly blessed him for seeking knowledge more than wealth or power. If we as Christians want to please God, we would do well to emulate Solomon's lifelong love of learning. 

1 While researching this article, I found at least 50 online college newspaper articles and editorials by embarrassed student respondents, all complaining that "Jay Walking" is unfair and that Leno deliberately humiliated them. Leno, on the other hand, often insists that he goes out of his way to broadcast the rare correct answer.

2 Charles Sykes. Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can't Read, Write, or Add (St. Martin's Press, 1995), pp. 11-12.

Greg Hartman's mother used to take him to the library with a wagon because he checked out so many books.

School Daze

One reason our kids aren't learning might be that our schools are infected with bureaucratic lunatics:

 In an effort to make sure no testee felt uncomfortable, New York State rewrote literary excerpts in their standardized tests. For instance, the line "many Jewish women" in a reading by Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer was changed to "many women." Elsewhere, "fat" was changed to "heavy;" "skinny" became "thin." The state hastily revised its revisions after widespread complaints and ridicule.
Franklin Elementary School in Santa Monica, California, banned the game of tag during recess, because "in this game, there is a 'victim' or 'it,' which creates a self-esteem issue."
Cindi Samson, a director at Rodelph Sholom, an exclusive and expensive day school in Manhattan, informed parents the school wouldn't observe Mother's or Father's Day because "recognition of these holidays in a social setting may not be a positive experience for all children."

National Review editor Jonah Goldberg, who attended Rodelph Sholom, pointed out that such folly was hardly new, Jonah said that his mother sent him to school with a picture of a whale drawn on his lunch bag, in honor of his namesake. The school asked her to stop, saying it wasn't fair to the kids whose parents couldn't or wouldn't decorate their kids' lunch bags. (Mrs. Goldberg replied, "The Goldberg family whale policy shall continue. Tell the other kids to get over it.")

Petula Caesar told the Baltimore Sun that Baltimore's Fort Washington Elementary School offered counseling to her daughter after she filed eight complaints about being kicked, hit, sworn at and harassed.

So what's the problem? Just that the school recommended counseling not because being bullied was traumatic, but because the bullying was the victim's fault. The harassed girl, they said, was not "interacting with her classmates effectively" -- said classmates being the bullies the school had made no attempt to stop.


Recommended Reading:

l Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don't Think and What to Do About It, by Os Guinness (Baker Book House, 1994).

l Illiterate America, by Jonathan Kozol (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1985).

l The Hollow Men: Politics and Corruption in Higher Education, by Charles Sykes (Regnery Gateway, 1990).

l Brave New Schools, by Berit Kjos (Harvest House, 1995).

l The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, by Neil Postman (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).

l Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can't Read, Write, or Add, by Charles Sykes (St. Martin's Press, 1995).

l Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman (Penguin Books, 1985).


Tips From an Expert With No Credentials

I'm no expert on education. Yet the editor of this magazine asked me to write this article anyway. Go figure.

I'm far from perfect, but when it comes to being a lifelong learner, I do two things I hope my kids will emulate:

1. I read books. In Good Will Hunting, the eponymous lead character, after intellectually humiliating a Harvard student, chides him for blowing $150,000 on an education he could have picked up at a public library. I'm no off-the-charts genius like Will Hunting, but I'm smart enough to apply for a library card. God, after all, chose to give us his Word in a book -- not a website, a magazine, a video or a series of billboards.

Reading books forces us to slow down. Most other media try to provoke emotional (and usually unwise) reactions. Books make us stop and think. Besides, rereading a sentence in a book is a lot easier than hitting the rewind button.

2. I hang out with people who make me feel stupid. 1 Most of us like to hang out with people who make us feel good. But I find that I learn more if I hang out with people who make me feel stupid (I nurse my bruised ego by reminding my dog that I'm smarter than she is).

I count among my friends a computer geek/mathematician/musician who was programming professionally when he was 14; a semipro zymurgist who knows more about chemistry and food science than most scientists; a seventh-degree black belt who's been studying Kempo for 28 years and who could probably kill me with his eyelashes; and a military historian/MacGyver wannabe who could go on Junkyard Wars and build a fully functional stealth bomber out of old appliance parts. I don't have the slightest hope of learning one percent of what they know -- but nature abhors a vacuum, so I'm learning just the same.2

1 Just because this comes very easily to me doesn't mean you shouldn't at least try it.

2 Half these people, by the way, are not Christians. Being willing to learn from others is, I think, a great way to earn the right to be heard: I pray that while I'm learning from my nonChristian friends, they might learn the gospel from me.


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