Thursday, October 25, 2012

Teach a Man to Fish: Cultural Illiteracy and the Decline of the Informed American

I need to talk about this or I will explode. Truly. The idea for this post has been kicking around in my head ever since a person who shall remain unidentified told me that President Obama wants to put tracking devices in our heads. "No he does not," I replied, rolling my eyes at what some people will believe. The response: "Yeah, I read about it on the internet."

Or maybe it started before that. Maybe it started when people started talking about Death Panels. Or the Mayan Calendar. Maybe it was the first time someone said to me, "Global warming can't exist because it's snowing." Or when I found out that a girl from my hometown had insults hurled at her while she was standing in line at the grocery store for sending a letter to the editor of our newspaper explaining that America was not founded as a Christian nation. Or a million other moronic things that I have had to hear over the last 26 years.

Let me state this all for you right now:
  • What you read on the internet isn't always true.
  • Death Panels don't frakking exist.
  • The Mayan Calendar is just the latest in a long history of "end of the world" scares.
  • Global warming doesn't mean that it won't snow in the winter.
  • And FYI, America wasn't founded as a Christian nation.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, this is what I really want to talk about today: cultural illiteracy. Cultural ignorance. Cultural blindness. Call it what you want, we here in the States are suffering from a woeful (and, in some cases, voluntary) lack of information and understanding.

We are constantly bombarded by media reports and blog posts and politically-charged statements designed to stir up people's emotions and make them think, act, or vote a certain way. What they aren't designed to do is inform people or make them think for themselves.

What's worse is that we have been cowed into being mindless consumers of products, television shows, magazines, and the like. We have been nudged into believing what we see, hear, and read without being encouraged to find out the truth for ourselves. We have fallen into the trap of thinking that catching the newest episode of crap like Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo is far more important than picking up a book. We don't trust newspapers and yet we'll devour anything that's spewed at us from CNN or FOX News without question.

Americans can't explain how their government works. They can't concentrate on anything longer than 140 characters. They buy into sensation and hype rather than calm, rational, reasoned arguments. They are saddened by the death of a movie star, but don't bat an eyelash when they hear (if they hear) that tens of thousands of people have died in the Syrian clash. They'll even argue that it doesn't matter, that it doesn't affect them, and that they don't care what happens to other people. Oh, really, Mr. or Mrs. I-Followed-the-Royal-Wedding-More-Closely-Than-My-Own?

Right, because rich white people getting married is so important.

The people around me are far more likely to be able to tell you who their favorite celebrity is dating than they are to be able to tell you who their congressman or woman is. They can recognize singers or athletes on sight, but they can't name scientists, humanitarians, or civil rights activists.

And don't get me started on books. Everyone and their grandmother has read 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight, The Da Vinci Code, or whatever Nicholas Sparks crapfest has just come out. Ask them about titles of actual worth and merit and they'll look at you with a blank stare. Ask them to name the last non-fiction title they've read and you'll either hear "non-fiction is boring" or (gods-forbid) "I love Glen Beck." Gag me with a spoon.

People are actually walking around bragging that they don't read, don't follow the news, don't vote, don't...whatever. If you really think that those are things to brag about, then I really hope that you also don't complain about "the state of things today." If you can't inform yourself, you have no right to sit there and talk about how bad things have gotten. Your pride in your own ignorance, your refusal to be an informed citizen completely takes away your right to have an opinion.

Some people might read this and think that I'm being harsh. Damn right, I am! If you tell me that you believe something because you saw it on the internet or because you heard it from a friend, I'm going to ask you if you've looked into the issue. I'm going to ask you if you've done any research. If you tell me no, then I'm going to judge you. And I think I have a right to. We are living in an age where information is freely available in many forms, where you can easily find out what opposing viewpoints are saying, where you can form an informed opinion based on different facets of an issue.

Don't tell me you don't have time. Skip the latest episode of whatever craptastic TV show you want to watch and put on a documentary. Put down the romance novel you're reading and pick up a book on a topic you don't understand. Turn off CNN or FOX and turn on NPR or BBC or Al-Jazeera and find out what's going on outside of your bubble and what the rest of the world is doing/thinking/feeling/going through.

There's a whole big world out there, folks, and it doesn't look like this.

I'm calling for parents, teachers, politicians, and regular old individuals to encourage their children, their students, their constituents, and themselves to become informed. We've been living in a society where we've been handed fish for so long that we've forgotten how to fish. We've stopped thinking for ourselves and have let others think for us for far too long. Teach a man to "fish." Teach yourself to "fish." Become informed. Have an opinion based on fact rather than emotion. Don't depend on what you see or hear. Think for yourself!

We need to teach cultural literacy, critical thinking skills, and the beauty and benefit of fact vs. feeling. If we just buy into what we're told without thinking, we end up looking like complete idiots on national TV. I'm appalled that, as a nation, we spend more time researching which computer we're going to buy than we do researching issues and candidates and other things that actually matter. We're "informed consumers" of all the useless products that we buy, but we aren't informed consumers of information.

You can think that I'm being ridiculous or over-the-top or blowing things out of proportion. That's fine. I'm not, but that's fine. As long as we continue to pretend that ignorance is bliss or that it isn't an issue, we will continue to be uninformed and unlikely to make changes in our behavior. Think about whether or not you want to be one of those "dumb Americans" that people always talk about or if you'd actually like to be seen as someone who is open, informed, and able to talk about something without looking like you've spent the last fifty years in a bomb shelter.



  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! It kept percolating in my head and finally I broke down and wrote it. :)