H.L. Mencken Had it Right

I just read that 17% of Americans believe that the sun revolves around Earth. Also that 61% don’t believe in the Big Bang, and 52% don’t believe in evolution. These are terrifying statistics. More than indicating a shocking degree of ignorance, it’s a terrible indictment of our educational system and a depressing commentary on the prominence of religious superstition in the country. And it’s going to get worse.

As I write this, there is a movement active on a number of U.S. college campuses to enact rules requiring disclaimers on certain course descriptions warning that some material in them may be offensive or disturbing to students. In other words, in the very institutions that should be challenging and stimulating students with new, controversial, and unfamiliar concepts, there are those who want to warn them that they might want to avoid classes that do just that.

Recently it was revealed that the most banned book in the U.S. in 2012 was author Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants. It even outranked Fifty Shades of Grey. Why? Because a certain faction in our country thinks kids shouldn’t learn about hygiene when the vehicle uses the word, “poop”.

Taking all these facts together, I’m forced to repeat the words of William Bendix in the old Life of Riley television show: “What a revoltin’ development this is!” Or, more specifically, to wonder just how ignorant, prudish, and stupid people can be. H.L. Mencken said it best when he commented that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

I sometimes wonder where we’re headed. American students rank 37t h in math proficiency, coming in just behind the Slovak Republic. As a nation, we are woefully ignorant of both world and our own country’s history, of world geography, science, literature, and we lack foreign language proficiency to an extent that’s shocking compared to the rest of the developed world.

Politicians, especially those of right wing persuasion, refuse to acknowledge or address all of these issues in any constructive way, their reasons being religious and economic (their own economics, actually). They’re cynical, ignorant, and willing to let the country transform itself into a third world nation with faith that “the Rapture” will ultimately resolve all problems by saving the worthy. In succinct terms, this makes me sick.

Here’s a question. If all of our technology vanished today – no more cell phones, Twitter and Facebook, cars, planes, refrigerators, i.e., everything – and we all found ourselves at square one lighting candles, would today’s younger generation have the knowledge and ability to re-create the modern world?

Think about it. Do people who are convinced that power lines cause cancer understand that their cell phones are sending out radio waves into their brains? Do people understand that if Earth were to stop spinning, people would not actually fall off into space, as someone once suggested to me? Do people really think that “intercessory” prayer can help people to survive surgery? It is almost beyond belief that such people, people who don’t have the math skills to balance a check book, would be able to re-create the technological world in which we now live and which, by the way, we take for granted.

Ah, but you say we actually do have enough older, established scientists and engineers and even some younger ones who are up to the task. Yes, it’s true, but none of the current crop of ignoramuses in government will fund them. And besides, we have ceded too much of our manufacturing capability to foreign countries. We’d have to rebuild factories and machinery that we don’t know how to build or, more likely, come up with the long green to buy it all from other countries, mainly China. Men of my age remember taking shop courses in junior high and high school, and being able to learn a trade in many occupational training schools. But we’re getting to be old farts, and schools hardly provide that kind of training these days since, as a society, we no longer value it. Instead, everyone is supposed to go to college. Not everyone should and, even among those who show promise, vast numbers of them are so ill-prepared by their prior education that they cannot write a simple, declarative English sentence without spelling and grammatical errors.

Depressing? You bet. I want to believe that all this can be fixed. That people will cast off religious superstition, overly selfish economic motivation, and apathy, that they will demand better education in basic math, language and science, and vote for increased investment in vocational training programs for those who really shouldn’t or don’t want to go to college. But in a country where half or more of the population can’t be troubled to go to the polls to vote, what hope is there for change?

It’s often been said that we get the government we deserve, but that’s the punitive view. I think we deserve better. People just need to get off their butts and demand it. If they don’t, we’ll never get the rascals out.

Today’s Annoyance: People who, like, can’t get a simple sentence out without, like, saying the word, “like”.


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