The lack of capacity for critical thinking among some of the American electorate is nothing new. The French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville famously noted it in the late 1830s in the two volumes of his book, Democracy in America. Almost 130 years later, the American historian Richard Hofstadter remarked upon it in two of his works from the early 1960s, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, and The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Both of Hofstadter’s works still apply today in complementary fashion as the 2020 election nears and Clueless Leader and his cult followers on the far right drop in greater and greater numbers off the edge of reality into the realm of psychotic fever dreams.
Mike Caulfield’s “Four Moves and a Habit” method for the detection of Fake News online. Infographic created by Shonnmharen.
The great difference between now and the early 1960s, when Hofstadter wrote about the propensity of some people for ignoring facts that didn’t fit their world view, is that those people now have access to the internet and to social media, where they can spread their diseased notions like a contagion. Rumors that once took days or weeks to spread, and in the process may have fizzled out when confronted by facts, now spread in minutes and hours in a continuous onslaught that drowns outs facts. For those too intellectually lazy to engage in critical thinking, there has never been a better time for finding spurious rumors to prop up their dangerously bonkers ideas.
Most of the rumor mongering conspiracy theorists with dangerously bonkers ideas are now, and have always been, on the far right of the American political spectrum. It’s an ongoing feature of American life that the ruling class demonizes the far left because they rightly suspect the far left would overturn the cushy lifestyle of the ruling class if they could, and to help them turn the focus of hatred and suspicion upon the far left the ruling class has always had willing allies, or rather dupes, among the far right. Useful idiots.
These are the kind of people who adhere to QAnon conspiracy theories about the evil character of Democrats and Antifa partly out of credulity since they want to believe the stories, and partly because it titillates them that most reasonable adults, and particularly liberals, are outraged and appalled by the stories. For a third of the American electorate, an incapacity for critical thinking is displayed as a badge of honor, not of shame.
Too many right wing delusionists are willing, even eager, to use violence when they don’t get their way. In this they are aided and abetted by the ruling class, who use them as a cudgel against the far left and anyone else who questions the established capitalist order. Terrorism in this country has almost always come from the far right, not the far left, and for nearly four years now the current president has winked and nodded at right wing terrorists in this country. He has filled a powder keg with dangerous fantasies and then recently lit the fuse with his call out to right wing terrorists ahead of the election.
A sketch from a January 1979 episode of Second City Television, starring Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, and Dave Thomas. In 2016, 52% of white women voted for the Republican presidential candidate, someone who would be incapable of understanding this SCTV sketch as satire.
For Richard Hofstadter in his examination of American history there have been breakdowns in what may be considered the consensus of political views reconciling economic and cultural differences (though he himself chafed at being lumped with the post World War II era “consensus” historians), but only one failure of consensus, and that led to the Civil War. Perhaps hope can be found in the realization that the truly dangerous right wing terrorists in this country are fewer in number than they would have everyone else believe. If the current president somehow gains four more years in power, however, that glimmer of hope may go dark because more violent reactionaries will become ever more emboldened, growing their numbers to become a visceral threat, sinister and close.
Schools around the country have either started the fall semester or are about to, some opening their buildings to students and others not, and everywhere there is confusion and apprehension about the changed circumstances due to coping with the coronavirus. Will students, especially the very young ones, be able to maintain their concentration when learning remotely? If they attend classes in person, will they endanger themselves and everyone in school as well as at home because of failure to maintain the new disciplines of social distancing, mask wearing, and frequent, conscientious sanitation?
Back in 1918 and 1919 during the worldwide outbreak of the Spanish Flu, remote learning meant home schooling. Social distancing was barely understood, and other measures to contain the deadly flu were haphazardly implemented from locality to locality. Where city-wide rules went into effect, such as in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where officials closed the schools and banned some public gatherings (notably excepting saloons), the contagion’s effects were limited in comparison to places like Boston, Massachusetts, where public life went on much as before.
Rosana Martinelli, mayor of Sinop, a city in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, meets with schoolchildren in May 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic gripped that country. Photo provided by Rosana Martinelli.
Schoolchildren, however, are a special case, then as now. Besides having a limited understanding of what’s at stake and the measures necessary to protect everyone from the coronavirus, many are incapable of respecting boundaries. Children, the younger ones particularly, by nature lack social control. For proper development, children need social contact of all kinds, whether that means actual touching or merely being in the presence of other children and adults. Can children, especially the very young, be expected to sit still and apart from each other for six hours or more every day, never getting close enough to play and roughhouse with each other?
The experiment of returning children en masse to in-person learning from teachers in school buildings is bound to fail. The primary reason for trying it out is to mollify those right wing supporters of the current president who are clamoring loudly for schools to reopen for a number of reasons, but mostly to do with denying the reality of the pandemic while somehow boosting their cult leader’s chances of reelection in November. The experiment will fail before November, and the school boards responsible for catering to right wing extremists can then say that they tried. Meanwhile, thousands of people will fall ill unnecessarily and some will die, sacrificed to the experiment.
An episode ofPocoyocalled “Don’t Touch!” wherein Pocoyo, a very young boy, tries and fails to restrain himself from touching, demonstrating a lack of self-control natural to small children. Narration is by Stephen Fry.
There are other people, surely, with reasons for wanting the schools opened for in-person attendance. Working class families, for instance, many with only a single parent, have managed with great difficulty the extra burden of their children staying home more than usual. Those are the people most in need of assistance now, both financially and by having school districts reach out to them with help in keeping their children safe at home and learning. Family circumstances have changed in the century since the Spanish Flu outbreak, when it was more likely that one parent would be home during the day.
It would not serve today’s parents well to have their children exposed to risk at school, where they might easily pick up the coronavirus from classmates and then bring it home to their families. Working class parents already expose themselves to risk because they cannot afford to quarantine at home, but most go out in public to work, many of them in low-paid service economy jobs with few, if any, health benefits. Keep the kids at home for now, where being out of touch during a pandemic can be a good thing.
Where were you when the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944? Were you only a glimmering in your parents’ brains?
Where were you when the Battle of Khe Sanh began on January 21, 1968? Were you nursing the bone spurs in your heels that would eventually earn you a medical deferment from the draft? Or were you awaiting a pilot’s commission in the Texas Air National Guard?
A drawing made by a refugee child, formerly resident in Pristina, Kosovo, depicting his horrific experiences in the Kosovo War in 1999. The drawing was taped to a wall in the Brazda refugee center in Macedonia. Photo from the U.S. Department of State and NATO.
Where were you when the United States and its allies launched the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, beginning an unnecessary war that would spiral the entire region into chaos? Were you looking under furniture for weapons of mass destruction, something you would joke about later?
Where were you when the world learned in April 2004 that American soldiers had been torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison? Were you throwing a few “bad apples” under the bus, rather than acknowledging a culture of cruelty encouraged from the top down in the chain of command? Or were you busy making the first year of your daytime television talk show a success? Or were you occupied with creating an illusion of yourself as a successful and hard-nosed, but fair, businessman on the first year of your television reality show that was more fiction than reality?
Dire Straits performs “The Man’s Too Strong” in concert at Wembley Arena in London, England in June 1985 during their Brothers in Arms tour.
Where were you in 2008 after conservatives had used the wedge issue of gay marriage four years earlier to whip up the ire of homophobic reactionaries and send them to the polls in just enough numbers to make it possible for the Republican candidate to steal another presidential election? Were you getting married? What does your friend, the Republican presidential candidate, have to say about that now? Is he against gay marriage only when it suits political expediency?
Where were youin August 2016 when the Turks made their first incursion into the Kurdish zone of Syria, where the Kurds had been America’s ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS)? Were you listening to what the Russians had to say about your Democratic opponent in the presidential election, a practice you appear to have made into a habit since then as you extort other countries to get them to investigate your political rivals?
And where were all three of you when the brains were being passed out? It’s nice for people to have friends, but some friends are not worth having, such as a narcissistic sociopath or a war criminal, both of whom have proven time and again they look out only for themselves, and maybe their cronies as well. And in the sense of cronyism, a crony is not a true friend. And a friend may be a “sweet man” in private, but that shouldn’t shut out all the harm he’s caused in the world. Millions of Iraqis and Kurds may reflect on the old saying that “with friends like these, who needs enemies?”
David Gilmour, best known as the lead guitarist for Pink Floyd, performs the Pink Floyd song “Coming Back to Life” with a new band backing him in a concert at Pompeii, Italy in July 2016.
“You, who are on the road, Must have a code That you can live by. And so become yourself Because the past is just a goodbye.”
— Opening lyrics of “Teach Your Children”, written by Graham Nash.
Organizers of Woodstock 50 have canceled the event scheduled for this weekend that was intended to commemorate the 1969 concert on a scale commensurate with the original. There were mounting difficulties in putting together the 2019 concert, and at the end of July the organizers threw in the towel. Instead there are small scale events scheduled for the weekend that have been organized by the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts near the site of the 1969 concert, and there are also some informal events happening at the original site.
It’s just as well Woodstock 50 fell through the cracks, because these continuing reboots of past successes have become tiresome and shallow scavenging for meaning grafted Frankenstein-like onto the present, as if clinging to the past would revive only the good times. For the promoters of such events and movies and television shows like them, there is profit to be made borrowing on memories. And since people continue paying for these popular culture revivals, there is no reason for promoters and Hollywood producers to stop digging up old things, slapping a modern sheen on them, and charging admission to the public for the dubious enjoyment of reliving the old days.
A protester holds up a sign at the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington, D.C., in March 2018. Photo by Flickr user Lorie Shaull.
Let the past be past. “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). Let the past be its own thing. For the important things that face everyone today and in the future, it appears children are taking the lead, while adults around them are either in denial or slogging along, many of them disheartened and looking in the wrong directions for answers. In the last couple of years, youngsters have marched in protest against legislators who drag their feet in addressing gun violence, and have struck from school and marched in protest against legislators’ unwillingness to effectively tackle climate change.
Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg is now on a sailboat crossing the Atlantic Ocean in order to attend the United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York City next month. She started striking from her school in Sweden last August, founding the Youth Strike for Climate movement, and she has attracted so much attention to the cause since then that earlier this year three Norwegian parliament members nominated her for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. If she wins, she would join 2014 winner Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan as the second teenage activist to win the Prize.
Greta Thunberg with her sign outside the Swedish parliament building in August 2018. The sign reads “School Strike for Climate”. Photo by Anders Hellberg.
More importantly, she will gain international validation for the cause, an essential step in repudiating and ultimately sidelining the hateful antagonism of skeevy jackasses such as British businessman Arron Banks, who tweeted to Ms. Thunberg as she set off on her Atlantic cruise “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August.” He later claimed his vile suggestion was “a joke.” Ha ha. It was a joke like the 2016 campaign trail hint from the skeevy jackass now occupying the Oval Office was a joke when he floated the idea of “Second Amendment people” assassinating his Democratic Party rival. Ha ha.
Make no mistake about it – when Greta Thunberg arrives in this country, the Oval Office Blowhard will heap scorn, derision, and personal insults on her simply for defying the power of entrenched interests in the fossil fuel industry, and his morally bankrupt cult followers will cheer him on because he will frame his invective as salvos in another battlefront of the culture war against politically correct liberals. Never mind that she is a mere child. Never mind that what she has taken upon herself is simply bringing to everyone’s belated attention the scientific fact that our house is on fire and we have to do something about dousing the flames now, not stand around arguing about it as the fire engulfs us. For bearing that unwelcome news, they will heap abuse upon her, and not reflect for even a moment on what they are teaching the children of the world.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performed at Woodstock in 1969, but “Teach Your Children” was not in their set list even though Graham Nash had written the song earlier, while he was still part of the British group, The Hollies. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young included the song on their 1970 album Déjà Vu. Here the San Francisco Community Music Center Children’s Chorus sings the song for Mr. Nash and attendees at a Climate One conference in 2013.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
— Barack Obama, speaking at a July 2012 campaign appearance in Virginia. Republicans quickly jumped on his comments, taking them out of context in order to convince business owners he was insulting them and their hard work and initiative.
If anyone needed a reminder there is no such thing as a level playing field, the recent college admissions scandal ought to have brought it home. There was no surprise about wealthy parents greasing the skids to get their children into prestigious universities, and no surprise about the willingness of those institutions to bend their own rules to the breaking point in order get more money in their coffers. The admissions dance between wealthy patrons and their preferred institutions of higher learning has never been particularly secret, either, as can be seen with the admission of Jared Kushner to Harvard in 1999.
There’s enough hypocrisy and corruption in this latest scandal to go around many times, equal in its way to college admissions standards being contorted for the benefit of the athletic program and wealthy and amoral alumni supporters who want top athletes for the school no matter how deficient their academic qualifications. Any sober scrutiny of that boondoggle would cause the implosion of most major athletic programs at schools large and small. Poorly qualified students have always entered the doors of academia, whether the ticket they or their parents proffered was wrapped in large amounts of currency or in the promise of athletic prowess.
Eton schoolboys digging potatoes from an allotment allocated for wartime vegetable production on the school playing fields during the First World War. Photo by Horace Nicholls (1867-1941) archived in the Imperial War Museum. Unfortunately, times of dire emergency and full mobilization are required to get the rich and their progeny to pitch in and work like everyone else.
The interesting aspect to examine after the latest revelations is the idea of meritocracy, which seems to offer a delusion of an open society to the poor and the unlucky. Rich, successful people want everyone to believe they achieved their exalted station entirely through their own merits. Many of them fervently believe this themselves. They take little account of the advantages afforded them by the society at large, and especially by dumb luck. This society’s adherence to the tenets of meritocracy results in rich, successful people giving themselves too much credit for their good fortune and poor, working people accepting too much blame for their abysmal circumstances. Meritocracy serves the purposes of the rich in allowing them to excuse their selfish behavior and to have disdain for the poor.
The way the system really works on behalf of well-off individuals and organizations is that they are made to believe a successful business or investment is all their own doing, and therefore they immodestly grab the larger portion of the profits for themselves, while unsuccessful endeavors are the fault of others, usually the workers, who need to accept blame and financial losses in the form of wage cuts or termination of employment. Privatized profits and socialized losses – that’s the American Way. Top executives sit on the boards of companies to look out for the interests of other top executives, members of what has largely been an Old Boys’ Club for as long as elites have dodged responsibility to the greater society, which is to say forever.
An excerpt from the “Dumb Americans” section of George Carlin’s 2005Life Is Worth Losingperformance. Warning: foul language.
If the minimum wage had kept pace with Wall Street bonuses – not pay, but bonuses only – over the past generation, it would stand at $33 an hour today. The people on Wall Street do provide the necessary economic service of concentrating investment capital, but that service is not as vital nor the work as important as portrayed in the 1980s television advertisements for the investment firm Smith Barney, in which the actor and producer John Houseman pompously announced “They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.” Hogwash! And it has only gotten deeper since the 1980s, to the point we’re all drowning in it, and Wall Street investors would have everyone believe they are the driving force of the economy, not the workers who actually produce useful things. Better education is needed, starting with teaching that rich does not necessarily equate with deserving, and that money is not a measure of worth beyond its contribution to the common good.
“‘Tis education forms the common mind: Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.”
— from Epistle to Cobham, “Of the Knowledge and Characters of Men”, a 1734 poem by Alexander Pope (1688-1744).
On Sunday evening, January 20, at the end of the weekend that started with the fracas in Washington, D.C., on Friday, January 18 involving members of the Indigenous Peoples March, Covington Catholic High School participants in the March for Life, and the Black Hebrew Israelites, tens of thousands of mostly white people got worked up cheering on the Chiefs in their American Football Conference (AFC) championship game against the New England Patriots at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, by enthusiastically doing numerous tomahawk chops in unison to some sort of ersatz Native American war dance chant while encouraged by the stadium public address system. While the timing of Sunday’s so-called festivities coincidentally marked the two year anniversary of the Racist-in-Chief’s inauguration, Friday’s incident in the nation’s capital more properly marked the tone he has set the past two years.
Fans of the Atlanta Braves doing the tomahawk chop on October 3, 2010, during the last game of the baseball season. Photo by Kyle James.
The history of mostly white sports’ fans enthusiasm for tomahawk chopping goes back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the success of teams such as the Atlanta Braves in major league baseball and the Florida State Seminoles in college football brought it to the attention of the rest of the nation. Native Americans objected, as they have to the more egregiously stereotyped names of sports teams like the Washington Redskins, but no one paid them much heed, not even Ted Turner, the ostensibly liberal owner of the Braves, nor his wife at the time, actress Jane Fonda, who has often professed her liberal views. When it comes to disrespect for Native Americans, there are apparently few differences among other Americans of whatever political stripe, ethnic origin, or religious affiliation.
Rod Serling’s introduction to “He’s Alive”, a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone television series, starring Dennis Hopper.
Naturally the boys from Covington Catholic were not born with mockery and dismissal of Native Americans ingrained in their systems. They had to be instructed, as Oscar Hammerstein II wrote in the lyrics to “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, a denunciation of racism in a song from South Pacific, the 1949 musical Hammerstein wrote with Richard Rodgers. Even if their parents didn’t teach them directly, it would be difficult for them to not pick it up from the larger culture of privileged white people, among them those who have the wherewithal to buy tickets to an AFC championship game. The larger culture of privileged white people then came to the boys’ defense, among them large media companies that went to work smearing Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder most prominently involved in the Washington fracas, and the public relations firm with connections to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that was hired by the family of Nick Sandmann, the teen wearing the MAGA hat who stood smugly smirking at Phillips, to spin media coverage in his favor.
The end of the “He’s Alive” episode.
How would it be if the tables were turned and the Washington Redskins became the Rednecks and the Kansas City Chiefs became the Crackers? There are slurs for other ethnic groups that the teams could use, all of which are highly objectionable and would of course never be used. How about instead of pantomiming a tomahawk chop, the mostly white sports fans attending games started imitating a police baton swing? Perhaps in order to add insult onto injury and further enhance their reputation for insensitivity, the fans could do it during the playing of the National Anthem while black players are kneeling in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. No doubt some white people would enjoy the activity and feel entirely justified in doing it because of the satisfaction it would grant their perversely self-pitying sense of grievance, as evidenced by the white supremacist phrase “It’s OK to be white”. Like “Make America Great Again”, it is at first glance a defensible phrase, but examine it more closely and it becomes clear it is a code hiding a host of indefensible horrors.
The title song to the 1972 documentaryImagine, with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
There never was any truth to the notion that schools closed in the summer so that farm children could help out with chores at home, and the real reason had to do with urban schools having low attendance in the summer and teachers and administrators wanting a summer break to escape city heat in the days before air conditioning, as well as using the extended break to pursue avocations or take temporary jobs. Farm children were needed at home in the spring for planting, and then again in the fall for the harvest. While it’s true farm work never slacks off entirely, particularly when animal husbandry is involved, there still were lulls in the summer and in the winter when children could attend school. Through most of the nineteenth century, a short school year was sufficient for farm children who had no ambitions in learning beyond the sixth or eighth grade. Farm children who had greater ambitions resorted to supplementing their learning on their own when they could, much like what we know about how Abraham Lincoln learned to become a lawyer.
The modern summer break came about instead from the needs of urban school administrators and the upper and middle economic class students and their families who supported many of the schools. The needs of poor students and their families, as always, hardly entered into the concerns of the rest of society. Before school attendance became compulsory in the late nineteenth century, urban schools were open year round, but often were only half full, and even less than that in the summer. School administrators eventually came around to following the model of colleges by closing for the summer so that students and teachers could pursue other interests outside the baking cities, leaving behind only enough staff to help students who needed to take extra courses of learning during the break. Public health officials added their approval to emptying out the schools in summer because they deemed the hothouse conditions unhealthful in general, and not conducive to learning in particular. By the early twentieth century school administrators had generally adopted the summer break, which started in late May or early June, and ended in late August or early September.
A 1940 Works Progress Administration (WPA) poster promoting reading and library use upon returning to school in September after the summer break.
The system appeared to work well for most of the twentieth century. Rural schools synchronized their schedules with those of their urban counterparts so as not be left behind as it became increasingly clear a high school diploma was the minimum academic achievement necessary in modern society. The tourism industry could count on a steady source of both customers and labor during the two to three month summer break. The American public school system ranked highly among the school systems of other industrialized nations, even with its extended summer break. Then in the late twentieth century alarm bells started sounding about the supposed failings of that highly successful public school systems, the details of which are beyond the scope of this article, and so in effort to increase academic rigor, or at least appear to do so, school boards have been eroding the summer break, largely on the back end.
A 1913 “Back to School” cartoon by Bob Satterfield (1875-1958) that captures how most children have always viewed the occasion.
In many school districts, fall semester classes now start in the first weeks of August. School may have ended in mid-June, leaving less than two months for the summer break. And yet still academic achievement appears to be falling, at least among the middle and lower economic classes. That also is another article for another day. For today it is sufficient to point out that the public school system does not exist in isolation from the greater society, and lackluster academic achievement by the students cannot be remedied merely by making them sit at their desks for more days every year.
The problem is in quality, not quantity. The society as a whole is fracturing, and the problems with poor learning begin and end in the home. The long summer break enacted by the twentieth century public school system was an excellent compromise that worked well for nearly everyone except families that had both spouses working outside the home. That presents a difficulty today, too, but the answer is not in charging the public schools with child daycare duties and calling that increased academic rigor. It’s not. August is too hot for school, in air conditioned facilities or not. August is for causing students anxiety about the imminence of schools reopening when they start seeing “Back to School” sale advertisements, which now also draw the attention of their teachers, who too often feel pressed to use their own money to buy supplies for their students. July is too early for a return of that unique schooldays anxiety, especially when schools closed only a few weeks before, in June.
Archaeologists recently uncovered the remains of a public library in Cologne, Germany, which they surmise was built in the second century of the common era by the Romans or the workers of the Roman client state in control of the region. The architecture follows the model of other large Roman libraries of the period, such as the one in Ephesus, on the western coast of modern Turkey. The reason for thinking it was a public library rather than a private one is the great size of the structure and its location in the public forum of the ancient city, where all buildings were public.
Bookplate of American painter and illustrator Edward Penfield (1866-1925). Bookplates are labels people paste into the frontispiece of their books to declare ownership. They were more popular a century ago than now, and as seen here some readers contrived custom bookplates.
A public library of two thousand years ago was not the same as a public library now, offering books on loan to members of the general public. Because books were hand copied into scrolls or codices, they were limited in number and expensive to produce. No one could walk in to a public library of two thousand years ago and expect to walk out with one or more books under their arm, to be returned after several weeks. People read the books in the library and the books never left the premises.
The meaning of “public” was also limited at that time to those who were literate and therefore had a reason to be there accessing the books. These would have been scholars of one sort or another, whether in the employ of government, academia, or a wealthy individual, and they would have been almost certainly all male. Lending libraries did not come about until the Renaissance, after the invention of the printing press made available large numbers of copies of books at lower cost.
Even then, the number and type of people who could borrow books was limited. Universities and colleges had their own libraries, with their collections available not to the general public but to students and faculty of the institution. That model persists to this day. Private societies lent out books to their members, who also contributed books. They were lending libraries, but in no sense were they public. It was not until civic groups and prominent citizens in Boston, Massachusetts, created the Boston Public Library in 1848 that the institution of the lending library as we know it came into being. The Boston Public Library was the first institution in the country that was open to all and was funded largely by taxpayers, with some assistance by private endowments and gifts of books.
An 1855 engraving showing the future building of the Boston Public Library on Boylston Street. The library moved into the building in 1858 and stayed there until 1895, when it moved into the grand building on Copley Square where it has remained to this day.
The model caught on, obviously, since today there are over 16,000 public libraries around the country. In the past 30 years or more, two great changes have affected those public libraries, and they are no longer what they were during their heyday in the twentieth century. The first change came from the effects of cutbacks in social programs starting with the Reagan administration. Homeless numbers increased as politicians undercut the social safety net and as mental hospitals could no longer afford to house indigent patients, setting them loose on the streets. Shelters that took in homeless people overnight often turned them out during the day, and the homeless gravitated toward public libraries for safe daytime shelter with access to bathrooms.
Boston Public Library Reading Room in October 2013. Photo by Brian Johnson.
The second change came about with the rise of computers and the internet. Public libraries have gamely kept up with the technological changes despite cutbacks in taxpayer funding, and for the most part they have successfully integrated patrons’ interest in checking out electronic books as well as traditional paper books. Where conflict has arisen it is in affording access to library computers to patrons, some of whom had little interest in setting foot in their local public library until it installed computers with free internet.
With the influx of people who are not readers as much as internet users and are likely as not indifferent to norms of behavior in the library, and homeless people who sometimes abuse library facilities and even other patrons, librarians now have their hands full with duties that have nothing to do with their traditional training in library science. Patrons who are readers and have used their local library’s services in person for decades no longer feel comfortable there, and now often prefer checking out electronic books from the library’s website rather than visiting the library in person. Pity the unfortunate librarians then, who cannot escape the loud cell phone users, the raucous children who have been dumped by their parents in the young readers’ room as if it were a free day care center, and the homeless people who, often through no fault of their own, have been thrown on the good graces of the librarians, but who complicate the work day for those overburdened librarians by the criminal or mentally unstable acting out of some of their number.
Attempting a do it yourself (DIY) repair of something around the house or of a vehicle is mostly regarded by onlookers as well as by the eager amateur repair person as virtuous, valiant, and frugal, though after much frustration the do it yourselfer may not mind foregoing the admiration of family and friends in exchange for a functional repair. People get in over their heads and underestimate the value of technical skills honed from years of experience that the professional possesses, as well as often expensive specialty tools. Too many times the amateur tackles a problem using a limited arsenal of tools, and perhaps more critically, limited knowledge and zero experience.
DIY Toilet in Nature. Photo by Formerchemistuow. Sometimes the right tool is a telephone for calling on the help of a professional.
What is the problem? It’s a simple enough question, but one which an amateur will often follow circuitously through trial and error, while the professional, having likely seen the problem before, will cut right to the core of the issue. One of the best tools an amateur can employ when confronted with a difficult repair is the judgment to know his or her limitations and when the time has come to call in a professional. Sometimes that judgment is taken away from the do it yourselfer by manufacturers, particularly of electronics. The demise of Radio Shack, once a resource for electronics hobbyists and people buying parts for repairing their equipment themselves, is as much a testament to the connivance of manufacturers in shutting out amateur repair efforts on their devices as it is to the incompetence of Radio Shack management. Consumers have also acquiesced in the past generation to the accelerated obsolescence of electronic devices, and are far more inclined than they were forty or more years ago to replace malfunctioning equipment rather than repair it, either by themselves or by hiring a professional.
A montage from The Andy Griffith Show 1964 episode “Bargain Day”, in which Sheriff Andy Taylor, played by Andy Griffith, continually exhorts Aunt Bee, played by Frances Bavier, to call the repair man to fix their broken freezer. Aunt Bee, in a penny wise and dollar foolish way, fusses and drags her feet about calling the repair man because of the expense, meanwhile risking the loss of an entire side of beef she had hoped to store in the freezer.
For do it yourselfers, quick diagnosis of the problem needing repair is key, because otherwise they are prone to waste time, energy, and expense in labor and materials casting about blindly in hopes of isolating the problem. The professional will likely save that trouble and expense. Not always, but most of the time. Where a sophisticated diagnosis is required, such as it can be with electronics, the professional is likely to possess the proper equipment. Not all amateurs have the wherewithal to run out and buy expensive diagnostic equipment for what may only be a one time use. More and more of the devices we bring into our houses require special knowledge and tools to fix, if indeed a fix is possible or economical, and unless the defects they develop can be recognized by us quickly we are probably better off leaving the repair to a professional. The alternative is to limit ourselves to mechanical and electronic devices that were available one hundred years ago, when a person with a standard set of household tools could still effect many needed repairs without undue aggravation. In the twenty-first century, the end of Radio Shack ought to signify for most of us where we stand in our willingness and ability to repair things ourselves.
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
― 1 Corinthians 13:11; King James Version of The New Testament.
It’s fine to believe in fairy tales as a child, at least when the belief is harmless. Children learn about human behavior, often through the actions of animal characters, and they pick up some moral lessons. Fairy tales have their place in educating children, but that place is not in science textbooks. Recently the New Mexico Public Education Department injected a dose of the fanciful in editing science standards for the state’s schoolteachers to follow in their classrooms.
Mother Goose reading fairy tales in an illustration by Gustave Doré (1832-1883) for the frontispiece of an 1866 edition of Charles Perrault’s Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals, or Mother Goose Tales.
The questionable edits dealt with the age of the Earth, evolution, and human-caused global warming. All the usually controversial subjects in the battle over teaching the nation’s youth. The standards that New Mexico’s top public school bureaucrats were altering came from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which were formulated by national science and teaching associations. Editing science teaching standards appears to be another case of cherry picking facts and replacing them either with fancy or with the assertion of widespread doubt where there really is very little, along the lines of what has been happening with textbooks for years now.
Texas has long been in the news for leading the way for creationists and climate change deniers in pressuring textbook publishers to muddy the scientific waters on those two subjects, and perhaps has served as an unfortunate model in that respect for other states like New Mexico and California. The playbook borrows from the scientific method in that it adopts skepticism as a tool for doubt, ignoring the part about overwhelming evidence eventually tipping the scales to the point where continued skepticism is no longer productive without the presentation of convincing countervailing evidence. Persisting in error to that degree becomes obstructionism, and while some of it is ideologically driven, it can often serve the ends of greedy corporations, such as in the fossil fuel industry.
From the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a scene where logic serves absurdity.
Teaching children falsely, either by substituting fanciful notions for facts or by omitting facts altogether, results in ignorant adults who are poorly prepared to manage real problems. Insisting children believe in fairy tales to the exclusion of understanding how the world really works will only reinforce the continued destruction of the environment and the misunderstanding of our place in it. Instructing children in dominion instead of husbandry replaces a clear-eyed view of what is and has been with what never was nor will ever be.