Years ago, France had a minister of education who liked to boast that when he looked at the clock, he could tell exactly what lesson every child in the nation’s schools was studying at that moment. That’s usually used as an example of centralism run amok. But as I grow older, I am worry that we are getting to the point where we don’t know enough in common. This is a concept I call “intellectual furniture.” If you invited me over to your house, I would have a reasonable expectation that you would have a couch and some chairs and a table. But I also used to be able to make some reasonable assumptions about your intellectual furniture. I think you should know that the Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, and that Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow are Michigan’s United States Senators. Actually, I think we should all have a lot more intellectual furniture in common than that. But I run into people every day who do not know the basic facts I just mentioned. This isn’t just trivial pursuit. I think it goes a long way to explain some of the misunderstandings we have in our society.
A recent poll asked Michiganders whether they thought only evolution should be taught or whether other relevant scientific theories should be as well. The vast majority of us wanted to appear broadminded. Eighty-three percent were in favor of teaching all scientific theories. What’s the problem with that?
Simple. There aren’t any other scientific theories that explain the changes in life forms. There are plenty of religious theories, but not scientific ones. Someone who was scientifically literate would have known that. People who know how important immigrants have been and still are to this society would be able to filter out much of the nonsense politicians are spouting about immigration reform.
Several years ago a very bright young black woman who evidently trusted me came and told me she thought her political science professor was a racist. Why do you think that? I asked. “Well, he claimed that black people were only about 12 and a half percent of the population.” That’s exactly right, I said.
“How can that be?” she asked. Turns out she had lived her entire life in the city of Detroit, which is overwhelmingly black.
She knew as an abstract theory that African-Americans are a minority, but it certainly didn’t seem that way to her.
Elsewhere in this country, there are whole states that have only a small handful of black people. It is always easier to believe nasty propaganda about people you don’t know. When times get tough, human beings have a nasty habit of blaming the unseen “other,” and of swallowing fantastic theories about problems whose causes they don’t understand.
Those who know their history know what that can mean.
And I think the best way to make sure it can’t happen here is to make sure we all have enough intellectual furniture in common.