Friday, July 6, 2012

Ignorance Is Bliss

Christian orthodoxy has a schizophrenic and ultimately self-destructive relationship with education and learning.  On the one hand, the Church has encouraged the faithful, ranging from erudite theologians to amateurish Sunday School teachers, to "think" about metaphysical subjects (i.e., things that cannot actually be apprehended/known by the operation of human senses). Indeed, Christianity's greatest minds have traditionally devoted themselves unstintingly to such speculative thinking about will-o-the wispy stuff that can never be grasped:  Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Tillich.  But on the other hand, the religious establishment has historically harbored deep suspicions of any intellectual activity that might weaken or discredit the supposedly physical (i.e. provable) underpinnings of their metaphysical  (i.e., unprovable) constructs and thereby bring the entire airy-fairy edifice tumbling to the ground.  St. Paul, for instance, attempting to defuse doubts about a mythology that, even in the first century CE sounded pretty far-fetched, says, in effect, that it is reason itself that doesn't make sense:  "the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom" (I Corinthians 1).  Later, St. John Chrysostom urges us to "restrain our own reasoning, and empty our mind of secular learning, in order to provide a mind swept clear for the reception of divine words."*  And, mincing no words, Pope Gregory (the Great!?) loftily commands us to suppress all inquiring thoughts whatsoever:  "the wise should be advised to cease from their knowledge."*

In other words, ignorance is bliss--and knowing nothing is holy.  Amen.

The theists' conundrum, however, is the obvious fact that human beings cannot actually function without exercising their reason, without seeking knowledge.  After all, Adam and Eve, the story goes, ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  Sure, it was original sin--they were exceedingly naughty in their efforts to shed purely animal instincts and assume the godlike powers of discernment and free-will.  Still, there is just no going back--no way After The Fall that we can survive individually or as a species without learning, without understanding, without reasoning and without making informed choices based on that reasoning.  Knowing nothing may indeed be holy, but--for human beings at any rate--it is also fatal.

Thus, even the most zealous of God's fools must grudgingly come round to admitting this fundamental truth:  humans require at least some education.  And countless Christians--the medieval "schoolmen" who founded universities, the American Puritans who fostered literacy so that the Bible could be read by all, the Jesuits who recognized that education could be a formidable weapon in the war for converts--all these pious believers found some way to harmonize their need to know truth with their need to believe nonsense.  Cognitive dissonance of the first water.

For many years, I, too, practiced such mental juggling and compartmentalization.  Living an essentially reason-based life, I nonetheless continued to pay lip-service, especially on Sunday mornings, to blatantly unreasonable fairy-tales dreamed up by guys like Paul, Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Tillich,

Until finally it dawned upon me that the essence of education was acquiring and applying knowledge of what is knowable, NOT knowing a lot of fantastical dogma about what is unknowable in the first place.  In other words, in later life, I finally picked up a few of what the psychologists call "higher order thinking skills." At last I am learning (and it's a slow and painful process) to apply my reason exclusively to that which can be known and to eliminate from my life behaviors and attitudes that are either extraneous or inimical to that knowledge.

Ironically, then, I--who so prided myself on my ability to "get kids to think critically"--must now confess that in my own intellectual life I have frequently contented myself with the sort of mechanical, survival-level thinking that Benjamin Bloom (he of the famous "Taxonomy") would characterize as mere "comprehension" or "application."  For all my bookishness, mine has been a surprisingly unexamined life (was I too afraid? probably).  Rarely have I forced myself to analyze, evaluate, create--those higher-order behaviors that Bloom in particular and humans in general--despite the fustigations of Gregory the Great--most admire.  I have been, for the most part, a "low-level" thinker, rarely questioning established order, relishing the mindlessness of religious ceremonies, plodding complacently along in the painless game of follow-the-leader.

When St. Paul invented Christianity, he must have suspected that most people are just as lazy as I, and just as inclined to low-order, undemanding thinking.  He also must have sensed that such careless cognition would guarantee success and dominion for his new religion.  He was right.

Because low-order theological thinking, even in its most rapturous and convoluted flights of polysyllabic prosody, remains inescapably schizophrenic: an attempt to use reason and logic to explain (and control) that which is unknowable--and therefore inexplicable and uncontrollable.  Not only a perversion of reason, but also a complete waste of time.

I am truly obsessive, aren't I?  Though I intended that this blog entry should be about education and the importance of critical thinking in human self-actualization, I have instead, once again, engaged in a Rant Against Religion, another KK take on "Ecrasez l'infâme."  Well, so be it.  But let me, finally, make my point about education and religious orthodoxy:  it seems to me that religion doesn't mind if you think--provided your thinking remains at the lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy--i.e., if you learn that tomatoes will die without water and if you apply this understanding by watering your plants.  But religion--and, it would seem, today's Republican Party--cannot easily tolerate analysis, synthesis, evaluation or--above all--creativity--i.e., a global understanding of how tomatoes interact with the ecosphere.  Such high-order mental activity--because it frees the individual from blind allegiance to established authority and "fixed ideas"--threatens the very existence of all that relies upon illogic and simple-mindedness to exploit and control others.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the Republican Party of Texas (dominated by fundamentalist Evangelicals and cynical oil barons) recently formulated a blatantly anti-education plank for its 2012 platform.  "We oppose," declare the Texas Republicans, "the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills...which...have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority." In other words, the Texas Republicans have aligned themselves with the know-nothings and the holy fools:  keep everyone stupid and obedient to conventional practices (as I was for so long) so that they'll never know what they're missing.  Ignorance (in the weak and disenfranchised) is indeed bliss (for those already in control).

Dunce caps, anyone?

*cited in Freeman, Charles. The Closing of the Western Mind. New York: Vintage, 2005.