Carl Sagan’s “foreboding” of a dumb America; too late to stop it?

August 9, 2017

NASA photo of Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Mars Viking Lander, in Death Valley, California. Or was it taken on Mars? How could we tell, if we lacked sharpened and practiced critical thinking practices?

NASA photo of Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Mars Viking Lander, in Death Valley, California. Or was it taken on Mars? How could we tell, if we lacked sharpened and practiced critical thinking practices?

Are we already too late?

In The Demon-Haunted World in 1995, astronomer and thinker Carl Sagan worried about the directions America was heading, intellectually, and what it could mean for the future. He wrote:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

Sagan had hope. His book’s full title is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark.

Should we hold that hope today? Elections in 2016 demonstrated that false news does sway the electorate, superstition can overcome knowledge. Worse, too many Americans cannot tell the difference. In a time when millions of Americans profess to work to find “the way,” we confront those same people wandering aimlessly through American culture, apparently with little clue as to how far off the path of reality they are, or any real understanding of what “the way” would even look like. Their compasses operate on faith, not magnetism; their compass needles point whichever way they want them to point, with no fixed power to guide them.

Sagan didn’t write that long ago. A child born in 1995 just voted in her first national election — we hope. Perhaps she didn’t bother to register, and did not vote. What causes our national lack of motivation to even vote, to push our government in the directions we think it should go?

How do we remove the barriers to that motivation? is a more important question.

Was Sagan right? Are we doomed?

We have cause to worry, I think.

  • 58% of Americans eligible to vote, voted in 2016. While that’s near a recent high-water mark, it’s a paltry percentage compared to other democracies in the world. Apathy was highest in key states Donald Trump carried; Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but trailed President Barack Obama’s 2012 totals by 2 million votes, in those key states. 2016’s election was decided by people who did not vote.
  • While tensions run high in the Korean Peninsula, only about 36% of Americans can find Korea on a map. Most of those who can find Korea favor diplomacy to resolve tensions, not war. Who was the wag who said God gives us wars so Americans learn geography? (It was Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly in 1879, rephrased and repeated dozens of times by others.)
  • Flat Earthers? Oy.
  • Anti-vaccine movement. Chem-trails fearfuls. Climate change dissenters. Creationists. Moon-landing deniers. Racists. So-called non-racists who oppose immigration completely. Republican senators who imagined a tax cut for the wealthy would help working and poor Americans have better health. DDT advocates. “Libertarians” and so-called conservatives who fear “socialism” of the economics of John Maynard Keynes, one of the foremost capitalism defenders in economics.
  • Cuts to education. As a barometer, consider Texas, where 25 years ago the state provided 67% of funding for public schools. After decades of cuts, the state provides only 38% of public school funding in the 2017-2019 budget. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick touts the total as an increase.
  • Cuts to science. Trump administration proposals slash all science research dramatically, as if we already have cures for cancer and the common cold, and Alzheimer’s disease.

To be sure, we can find pockets of hope. Girl Scouts demonstrate great success with new programs to attract girls to careers in science, with special camps for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Boy Scouts have their own initiative. But the Texas legislature cut back on math, science and geography requirements for graduation. For every hopeful sign, there’s another sinister sign.

How can we tell civilization, and humanity, gain ground?

 

Pollsters for the New York Times asked 1,746 Americans to locate North Korea on a map. 36% could do it; many of the guesses are troubling, if not downright shocking. In the map above, from the New York Times, correct answers are marked in red, incorrect in blue.

Pollsters for the New York Times asked 1,746 Americans to locate North Korea on a map. 36% could do it; many of the guesses are troubling, if not downright shocking. In the map above, from the New York Times, correct answers are marked in red, incorrect in blue.

“Science as a candle in the dark” is a good image.

How can we provide light in the darkness, if we don’t have a candle, and we can’t find matches?

More:

The Tweet that piqued my interest tonight:

 

 

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Lost history: Groucho Marx died on August 19, 1977

August 19, 2013

1958 Publicity photo of Groucho Marx from the television program You Bet Your Life.  NBC Television-NBC Photo/Photographer:  Elmer Holloway

1958 Publicity photo of Groucho Marx from the television program You Bet Your Life. NBC Television-NBC Photo/Photographer: Elmer Holloway

36 years ago?  Grouch Marx died on August 19, 1977? 

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The man became an icon, though too few know the great history behind the icon. “Self-made caricature of Groucho Marx” Wikipedia image

 

That means that not only have your high school history students probably never seen much, or anything, of Groucho Marx and his comic genius; it means their parents don’t know him, either.

What a great tragedy.

Groucho Marx brought genius to American comedy films, to radio, and then to television.  His genius was of a sort that does not age, but remains fresh to audiences of today — get a group of teenagers to view Duck Soup or A Day at the Races and you’ll find them laughing heartily at even some of Marx’s more cerebral jokes.  It is symbolic that the films that brought writer Norman Cousins to laughter, and a lack of pain, were Marx Brothers movies (in the day when one had to rent a projector to show the film, long before VCR).  Cousins went on to a grand second career talking about hope in healing, starting with the book, Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit.  I recommend these films to anyone seriously injured or ill, or recovering.  We got VHS, and then DVD copies of several of the films when our kids were ill, with great effect.

Groucho Marx should be in the pantheon of great Americans, of the 20th century, if not all time, studied by children in high school, for history and for literature purposes.

Groucho’s been gone for 36 years, and we are much poorer for his passing.

More:

Groucho grills Ray Bradbury and a woman named Leticia on You Bet Your Life in a 1955 episode:

English: Groucho Marx & anonymous blogging

“I intend to live forever, or die trying.” ― Groucho Marx (Wikipedia image)


Beloit College’s list: E-mail already passé to freshmen

August 18, 2010

If they knew what “old hat” meant, they might say that e-mail is old hat — but today’s entering college class of 2014 doesn’t regard e-mail as modern enough, nor much of other technology as fast enough.

Beloit College, in Beloit, Wisconsin, began to publish its profile of the cultural world of entering college freshmen in 1998.  The Mindset List originally aimed to help Beloit professors understand the views of incoming freshmen, with some hopes of bridging the ever-widening Generation Gaps between faculty and students.

Among other things, the Mindset List highlights the importance of teaching patient scholarship methods to students who have astonishing access to electronic information, though not necessarily better access to real knowledge; students need to learn the difference between data and information, information and knowledge, and knowledge and wisdom.

The newest Mindset List comes as one of the list’s creators will retire, an interesting footnote in historic attempts to understand rates of cultural change affecting college-bound kids.  Beloit’s public relations chief Ron Nief created the list with Prof. Tom McBride, who teaches modern students about Milton and Shakespeare.  It is unclear whether Nief will be able to retire from compiling or interpreting the annual Mindset List.  O tempora o mores!

We might assume that Nief had a hand in writing the Beloit College press release on the 2014 list:

Beloit, Wis. – Born when Ross Perot was warning about a giant sucking sound and Bill Clinton was apologizing for pain in his marriage, members of this fall’s entering college class of 2014 have emerged as a post-email generation for whom the digital world is routine and technology is just too slow.

Each August since 1998, Beloit College has released the Beloit College Mindset List. It provides a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college this fall. The creation of Beloit’s Keefer Professor of the Humanities Tom McBride and former Public Affairs Director Ron Nief, it was originally created as a reminder to faculty to be aware of dated references, and quickly became a catalog of the rapidly changing worldview of each new generation. The Mindset List website at http://www.beloit.edu/mindset, the Mediasite webcast and its Facebook page receive more than 400,000 hits annually.

The class of 2014 has never found Korean-made cars unusual on the Interstate and five hundred cable channels, of which they will watch a handful, have always been the norm. Since “digital” has always been in the cultural DNA, they’ve never written in cursive and with cell phones to tell them the time, there is no need for a wrist watch. Dirty Harry (who’s that?) is to them a great Hollywood director. The America they have inherited is one of soaring American trade and budget deficits; Russia has presumably never aimed nukes at the United States and China has always posed an economic threat.

Nonetheless, they plan to enjoy college. The males among them are likely to be a minority. They will be armed with iPhones and BlackBerries, on which making a phone call will be only one of many, many functions they will perform. They will now be awash with a computerized technology that will not distinguish information and knowledge. So it will be up to their professors to help them.  A generation accustomed to instant access will need to acquire the patience of scholarship. They will discover how to research information in books and journals and not just on-line. Their professors, who might be tempted to think that they are hip enough and therefore ready and relevant to teach the new generation, might remember that Kurt Cobain is now on the classic oldies station. The college class of 2014 reminds us, once again, that a generation comes and goes in the blink of our eyes, which are, like the rest of us, getting older and older.

Here is the list of 75 touchstones of cultural change guaranteed to give you twinges of your own aging, even if you were in the class of 2010:

The Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2014

Most students entering college for the first time this fall—the Class of 2014—were born in 1992.

For these students, Benny Hill, Sam Kinison, Sam Walton, Bert Parks and Tony Perkins have always been dead.

1. Few in the class know how to write in cursive.

2. Email is just too slow, and they seldom if ever use snail mail.

3. “Go West, Young College Grad” has always implied “and don’t stop until you get to Asia…and learn Chinese along the way.”

4. Al Gore has always been animated.

5. Los Angelenos have always been trying to get along.

6. Buffy has always been meeting her obligations to hunt down Lothos and the other blood-suckers at Hemery High.

7. “Caramel macchiato” and “venti half-caf vanilla latte” have always been street corner lingo.

8. With increasing numbers of ramps, Braille signs, and handicapped parking spaces, the world has always been trying harder to accommodate people with disabilities.

9. Had it remained operational, the villainous computer HAL could be their college classmate this fall, but they have a better chance of running into Miley Cyrus’s folks on Parents’ Weekend.

10. A quarter of the class has at least one immigrant parent, and the immigration debate is not a big priority…unless it involves “real” aliens from another planet.

11. John McEnroe has never played professional tennis.

12. Clint Eastwood is better known as a sensitive director than as Dirty Harry.

13. Parents and teachers feared that Beavis and Butt-head might be the voice of a lost generation.

14. Doctor Kevorkian has never been licensed to practice medicine.

15. Colorful lapel ribbons have always been worn to indicate support for a cause.

16. Korean cars have always been a staple on American highways.

17. Trading Chocolate the Moose for Patti the Platypus helped build their Beanie Baby collection.

18. Fergie is a pop singer, not a princess.

19. They never twisted the coiled handset wire aimlessly around their wrists while chatting on the phone.

20. DNA fingerprinting and maps of the human genome have always existed.

21. Woody Allen, whose heart has wanted what it wanted, has always been with Soon-Yi Previn.

22. Cross-burning has always been deemed protected speech.

23. Leasing has always allowed the folks to upgrade their tastes in cars.

24. “Cop Killer” by rapper Ice-T has never been available on a recording.

25. Leno and Letterman have always been trading insults on opposing networks.

26. Unless they found one in their grandparents’ closet, they have never seen a carousel of Kodachrome slides.

27. Computers have never lacked a CD-ROM disk drive.

28. They’ve never recognized that pointing to their wrists was a request for the time of day.

29. Reggie Jackson has always been enshrined in Cooperstown.

30. “Viewer Discretion” has always been an available warning on TV shows.

31. The first computer they probably touched was an Apple II; it is now in a museum.

32. Czechoslovakia has never existed.

33. Second-hand smoke has always been an official carcinogen.

34. “Assisted Living” has always been replacing nursing homes, while Hospice has always been an alternative to hospitals.

35. Once they got through security, going to the airport has always resembled going to the mall.

36. Adhesive strips have always been available in varying skin tones.

37. Whatever their parents may have thought about the year they were born, Queen Elizabeth declared it an “Annus Horribilis.”

38. Bud Selig has always been the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

39. Pizza jockeys from Domino’s have never killed themselves to get your pizza there in under 30 minutes.

40. There have always been HIV positive athletes in the Olympics.

41. American companies have always done business in Vietnam.

42. Potato has always ended in an “e” in New Jersey per vice presidential edict.

43. Russians and Americans have always been living together in space.

44. The dominance of television news by the three networks passed while they were still in their cribs.

45. They have always had a chance to do community service with local and federal programs to earn money for college.

46. Nirvana is on the classic oldies station.

47. Children have always been trying to divorce their parents.

48. Someone has always gotten married in space.

49. While they were babbling in strollers, there was already a female Poet Laureate of the United States.

50. Toothpaste tubes have always stood up on their caps.

51.  Food has always been irradiated.

52. There have always been women priests in the Anglican Church.

53. J.R. Ewing has always been dead and gone. Hasn’t he?

54. The historic bridge at Mostar in Bosnia has always been a copy.

55. Rock bands have always played at presidential inaugural parties.

56. They may have assumed that parents’ complaints about Black Monday had to do with punk rockers from L.A., not Wall Street.

57. A purple dinosaur has always supplanted Barney Google and Barney Fife.

58. Beethoven has always been a dog.

59. By the time their folks might have noticed Coca Cola’s new Tab Clear, it was gone.

60. Walmart has never sold handguns over the counter in the lower 48.

61. Presidential appointees have always been required to be more precise about paying their nannies’ withholding tax, or else.

62. Having hundreds of cable channels but nothing to watch has always been routine.

63. Their parents’ favorite TV sitcoms have always been showing up as movies.

64. The U.S, Canada, and Mexico have always agreed to trade freely.

65. They first met Michelangelo when he was just a computer virus.

66. Galileo is forgiven and welcome back into the Roman Catholic Church.

67. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always sat on the Supreme Court.

68. They have never worried about a Russian missile strike on the U.S.

69. The Post Office has always been going broke.

70. The artist formerly known as Snoop Doggy Dogg has always been rapping.

71. The nation has never approved of the job Congress is doing.

72. One way or another, “It’s the economy, stupid” and always has been.

73. Silicone-gel breast implants have always been regulated.

74. They’ve always been able to blast off with the Sci-Fi Channel.

75. Honda has always been a major competitor on Memorial Day at Indianapolis.

Beloit College ranks among the best small, liberal arts colleges in the U.S.  Beloit College is part of a consortium our family has some fondness for, the 40 colleges in the group Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL).  Every high school student should be aware of this group, and the methods developed to make application to several of these colleges easier (our son chose Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin).

This list highlights areas of potential ignorance teachers need to consider.  Notice there is little on the list about the Cold War, Vietnam, nor popular books.  The skew to technology includes an implicit skew away from some of the traditional ways we have transmitted culture to our children:  Newspapers, magazines, books, Broadway plays and musicals.  Even broadcast television is notable for the pop culture icons, and great changes in television viewing methods and habits.

The class of 2014 graduates a complete century away from the outbreak of World War I.  Their parents may not have known the administrations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson — Richard Nixon and Watergate may have been learned only from history books, by their parents.

How much more distant is the class of 2018, who enter high school as freshmen this year — next Monday, in Texas?

More:


A song for our times: Arlo and Pete sing Woody

July 20, 2010

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, conservatives made big displays of singing this song.  The Mormon Tabernacle Choir recorded one very popular version of it; it showed up often.  In those occasional complaints about the difficulty of singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” this song’s suitability for national anthem status was always raised.

Today?  I haven’t heard it at a Republican gathering in long, long time.  I’m not saying that it’s completely disappeared from the conservative song book — among other things, I don’t attend Republican conventions as often as I once did, but I don’t think I’d hear it if I did.  I am saying that people finally started listening to the song, and it’s been largely dropped from conservative sing alongs for political reasons.

And that tells us a lot.

It would be good to hear this song a lot more; it would be good if more people sang it.

Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger leading the congregation in singing Woody Guthrie’s “The Land Is Your Land,” from a 1993 concert at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Virginia (one of my favorite venues for any music):

(Arlo’s got a new release this year, featuring this tune.)

More:


Quote of the moment: David Brooks, books vs. internet

July 12, 2010

Wisdom comes in keen insights:

These different cultures foster different types of learning. The great essayist Joseph Epstein once distinguished between being well informed, being hip and being cultivated. The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on, as Epstein writes, “in those lively waters outside the boring mainstream.”

But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.

It’s better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious.

David Brooks, “The Medium is the Medium,” New York Times, July 9, 2010, page A23


Kicking U.S. butt even when we’re trying to study their language

May 10, 2010

Who gets the most out of this exchange?

“This country doesn’t value teachers, and that upsets me,” she said. “Teachers don’t earn much, and this country worships making money. In China, teachers don’t earn a lot either, but it’s a very honorable career.”

Ms. Zheng said she spent time clearing up misconceptions about China.

“I want students to know that Chinese people are not crazy,” she said. For instance, one of her students, referring to China’s one-child-per-family population planning policy, asked whether the authorities would kill one of the babies if a Chinese couple were to have twins.

Some students were astonished to learn that Chinese people used cellphones, she said. Others thought Hong Kong was the capital.

Barry Beauchamp, the Lawton superintendent, said he was thrilled to have Ms. Zheng and two other Chinese instructors working in the district. But he said he believed that the guest teachers were learning the most from the cultural exchange.

“Guest Teaching Chinese and Learning America,”  Sam Dillon, New York Times, May 9, 2010, page A14.


2009 Poets Forum – October 15 – 17, in New York City

August 3, 2009

This sounds like fun, actually.  I wonder if they offer Continuing Education Units?

Shouldn’t schools make sure all English teachers get to make this pilgrimage at least once every four years?  Principals, are you listening?

Poets Forum Update:
New Events and More Participants Announced for 2009
Discounted passes available for a limited time at poets.org/poetsforum

Participants include Frank Bidart, Rita Dove, Lyn Hejinian,Edward Hirsch, Haryette Mullen, Sharon Olds, Ron Padgett, Carl Phillips, Robert Pinsky, Kay Ryan, Gerald Stern, Susan Stewart, Jean Valentine, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and many more.

The Academy of American Poets invites you to join us in New York City for the annual Poets Forum, a series of events exploring the landscape of contemporary poetry in America.

This year’s Poets Forum includes new talks and discussions with an array of distinguished poets, readings, publication parties, and an expanded selection of literary walking tours, led by poets, through Manhattan and Brooklyn.

“In only three years, the Poets Forum has become the poetry event of the fall, as poets (and fans of poetry) of all aesthetics celebrate and learn about what they all have in a common: a desire to give life itself a shape through language.”
– Carl Phillips

Poets Forum Reading
Thursday, October 15
7 p.m.
Join us for an unforgettable evening as some of the most acclaimed poets of our day come together on one stage to read from their latest work. Featured readers include Frank Bidart, Rita Dove, Lyn Hejinian, Edward Hirsch, Sharon Olds, Ron Padgett, Carl Phillips, Robert Pinsky, Kay Ryan, Gerald Stern, Susan Stewart, and Ellen Bryant Voigt.
The Times Center
242 West 41st Street

Poetry Walking Tours
Friday, October 16
10:30 a.m. & 2 p.m.
Take a trip down the same streets traversed by Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, George Oppen, and countless other poets. Walking tours will explore the literary history of Brooklyn, Harlem, the Museum of Modern Art, the West Village, and SoHo. Tour guides include poets Anselm Berrigan, Jordan Davis, Bob Holman, Katy Lederer, Greg Pardlo, Tom Thompson, and Mónica de la Torre.
Meeting locations throughout New York City.
TOURS ARE RESERVED FOR ALL-EVENTS PASS HOLDERS ONLY

NEW: Poets & Place Talk
Friday, October 16
2 p.m.
“Show Me Your Environment, and I Will Tell You Who You Are”:  Place, Pathos, and the Problems of Identity
David Baker discusses the relationship between poets and their environment.
Philoctetes Center
247 East 82nd Street
Co-sponsored by the Philoctetes Center
RESERVED FOR ALL-EVENTS PASS HOLDERS ONLY

Poets Awards Ceremony Friday, October 15 7 p.m. Celebrate contemporary poetry and recipients of the premier collection of awards for poetry in the United States. The night will include readings and presentations by Linda Gregg, Jennifer K. Sweeney, J. Michael Martinez, Harryette Mullen, James Richardson, Avi Sharon, Jean Valentine, and many others. A reception will follow.
Tishman Auditorium
The New School
66 West 12th Street
Co-sponsored by the New School Creative Writing Program

Poets Forum Discussions Saturday, October 17 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. 6 Sessions Examine the issues central to contemporary poetry as we present a day of engaging and intimate conversations with some of the most renowned poets of our time, including Frank Bidart, Rita Dove, Lyn Hejinian, Edward Hirsch, Harryette Mullen, Sharon Olds, Ron Padgett, Carl Phillips, Robert Pinsky, Kay Ryan, Gerald Stern, Susan Stewart, Jean Valentine, Ellen Bryant Voigt and other special guests.
Tishman Auditorium
The New School
66 West 12th Street
Co-sponsored by The New School Creative Writing Program

“This public forum on American Poetry is the first of its kind for our brave, wild world of poesy. We will leave no stone unturned to address all the voices and all the thoughts that beset, overwhelm, confuse, delight, and alarm us.”
– Gerald Stern

American Poet Publication Party
Saturday, October 17
7 p.m.
Reading and reception for the new fall issue of American Poet, the journal of the Academy of American Poets. Noelle Kocot, Robert Polito, and Brian Teare will read from their work. Ico Art and Music Gallery
606 West 26th Street (at 11th Avenue)
Co-sponsored by the Ico Gallery

Ticket Information
All-Events Pass: $85 before Sept 15 / $110 after
Saturday-Only Tickets: $60
Students (with current ID): Student rates are available by by phone.
Contact: Jennifer Kronovet, (212) 274-0343, ext.10.

Purchase tickets online at poets.org/poetsforum or by phone,(212) 274-0343, ext.10.

All times are subject to change. Contact Jennifer Kronovet at jkronovet@poets.org with further questions.
Academy of American Poets
584 Broadway, Suite 604
New York, NY 10012

212-274-0343


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