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Obstacles to critical thinking

Randal Keynes, (L) great-grandson of Charles Darwin, is interviewed during a preview of the new 'Darwin' exhibition at the Museum of Natural History. The exhibition traces the life and discoveries of Charles Darwin.
Randal Keynes, (L) great-grandson of Charles Darwin, is interviewed during a preview of the new 'Darwin' exhibition at the Museum of Natural History. The exhibition traces the life and discoveries of Charles Darwin.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

“ The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country - we haven’t seen them since.” - Gore Vidal

The freedom to be dumb appears to be an endearing quality of the American people. It’s as if most of us are ignorant and proud of it. The fact that the rest of the industrialized world is leading us when it comes to educating our children in relevant subjects is a sign we must change our approach and get rid of obstacles such as fundamentalist dogma and our obsession with entertainment.

With all the United States has been given, as far as resources, a population that includes immigrants from all over the world, and a stable form of government, though not perfect by any means, you would think we would lead the world in educating our kids for the future. That future will require Americans to be proficient in the science and math, along with developing critical thinking skills.

Those critical thinking skills were evident among the founders of the United States, and even though they were not as advanced as we are today, they were able to put together a nation based on the best available knowledge at the time. They were men influenced by the Enlightenment movement going on in Europe from 1650 to 1800. These important freethinkers included men such as Voltaire, Descartes, Issac Newton, Emmanuel Kant, David Hume, John Locke, Adam Smith plus two American colonists and founding fathers, Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine.The Enlightenment stressed reason and individualism over tradition and the importance of discovery. For these men the value of reading and the art of conversation helped them form something that has been admired throughout the world for centuries.

Results of the latest Gallup poll reveals that 4 in 10 Americans believe in strict creationism. On Darwin Day only 4 in 10 believe in evolution, 3 in 4 in the U.S. still see the bible as the word of god, and 42 % of Americans believe god created human beings in their present form less than 10,000 years ago. The National Science Foundation informs us that two thirds of Americans can't identify DNA as the key to heredity and one in five Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth. Add to this the Carsey Institute findings that 28% of Tea Party Republicans don't trust scientists.

Further evidence of American backward thinking is the presence of nine creationist museums in the United States. They are in these states; California, Florida, Kentucky, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington with three in the rest of the world, located in Canada, the United Kingdom and China. In order to educate Americans properly we need to divorce science, history and philosophy from a bronze age mentality put forward by these museums.

Due to early politics when the United States was being formed the role of education was allocated to the states and municipalities, thereby insuring regional autonomy. At the time this may have seemed like a good idea, but in a modern society with modern problems we need every child to have the benefit of a first rate education with up to date information no matter where they live or their parents religious affiliation. We are the "United" States of America and instead of concerning ourselves with how our textbooks coincide with the bible or any other religious document, we need to advance critical thinking in our children early on as a way to compete in an ever changing technological world. This won't happen if we hold on to bronze age dogmatic thinking.

The re-occurrence of fundamentalism in the U.S. has helped to shape our internal and external history, mostly with adverse effects. The Book of Fundamentals, a twelve volume set of essays outlining orthodox Christian doctrine was written just before World War 1 and was meant to counter the new liberal thought that questioned conservative religious views. Some of the principles are; The inerrant nature of the bible, the literal nature of the biblical accounts such as creation accounts and Christ's miracles, the virgin birth of Christ and Christ's atonement of our sins on the cross. Germany was the target of the fundamentalists then due to it's intellectual prowess in the fields of modern physics (Albert Einstein and Heisenberg) and a new science of psychology (Sigmund Freud). This modern way of understanding the world was in direct conflict with core religious doctrine that had stood for centuries.

During the early fifties the Christian doctrine drove events again in public policy in the form of legislation to put the words "In God we Trust" on our currency, the inclusion of "One nation under God" in the pledge of allegiance and the beginning of the National Day of Prayer, along with the National Prayer Breakfast. These events were started by evangelical minister Billy Graham and has been attended by every President since.

"The thing to remember is that the dumbing down is the project, religion is just one of many tools used to further the cause. There is a parallel attack going on against public education and another one against real hard news which is being replaced by infotainment and outright propaganda (Fox News). It's no coincidence that the Fox audience is made up largely of fundies." - David Tingley

Whether it's the conservative Fox News network or any of the major commercial television networks, they all have dirty hands in bringing down the IQ's of the American public by catering to the lowest common denominator. The network's ability to reach so many people gives them tremendous power. In a perfect world the television networks would move the public past trivial pursuits such as reality based shows and the like. It is clear the public wants to be entertained, but a reasonable balance is in order. For this to happen we need a concerted effort by the networks, ad agencies and sponsors. In 1958 the journalist Edward R. Morrow gave a speech where he challenged the television industry to do just that; In his speech he bemoans the fact that the television industry is a ready partner in distracting us from the realities of life, the serious issues that effect us all.

In the speech Mr. Morrow tells us about how we Americans are good at insulating ourselves from unpleasant information. By doing this we rob ourselves from helping to find solutions to our problems. Instead we gravitate to trivial concerns that bring immediate gratification. We know we are in trouble when a majority of our citizens can't name one Supreme Court justice, can't name one of their state Senators or can't find the country of Iraq on a Map.

Today it is possible for everyone to know much more about the world, no matter what their age or status in life because of technology. Our goal should be to harness that technology on a personal basis to help us all prosper.

In his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, the late writer, David Foster Wallace made an astute observation; "Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliche about "teaching you how to think" is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience."

What we discard, and what we keep says so much about who we are and what we value. Critical thinking leads to discovery which leads to progress.

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