Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture (Luke 8:6).
Some men rejoice in skill of hand,
And some in cultivating land,
But there are others who maintain
The right to cultivate the brain.
(Dudley Randall, “Booker T. and W.E.B.”)
The word “culture” is derived from the Latin cultura meaning the “tilling or tending to land.” When culture is applied to people, the metaphor suggests the mind is like a field that must be tilled, fertilized, planted, and cultivated (Witt).
One such method is through education—teachers, parents, and other guardians are farmers responsible for the growth of children. Growth, too, has obvious agricultural roots.
Many describe this process with sinister connotations: indoctrination, brainwashing, conditioning. But every human being receives cultivation, even those who choose wilderness.
American sociologist Talcott Parsons describes new generations of children as a “barbarian invasion”—they possess no language, no morality, no culture. Through enculturation, or the transmission of necessary and appropriate skills, values, and norms, these ‘invaders’ develop into successful members of society. This occurs because society, according to the great anthropologist Adamson Hoebel, “does whatever is necessary to aid any one of its members in learning proper and appropriate behavior,” (Grunland). The goal is competence, not control.
What’s important is form. Sow the field with rocks and a society will grow nothing but weeds and whatever smattering of seeds the wind and animals carry. Burn the weeds, flatten the ground, pack the best mulch and top soil, plant carefully, and society creates the perfect conditions for vitality, efficiency, and coherence. The best fruits of science and learning are grown in these conditions.
The farmer must understand the science of agriculture, the language of the land, the nature of the field’s properties and accidents, and the importance of passing on the craft to the farmers who will supplant him. This replacement does not occur by material greed for power, or survival of the fittest, but for the unfortunate necessity of entropy—that Great Dispersal which drowns every person beneath the rivers of time.
It’s not humankind after all
nor is it culture
that limits us.
It is the vastness
we do not enter.
It is the stars
we do not let own us.
(Simon Ortiz, “Culture and the Universe”)
A survivor of Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel, while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986:
I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.
I remember he asked his father, ‘Can this be true? This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?’
And now the boy is turning to me.
‘Tell me,’ he asks, ‘what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?’
And I tell him that I have tried.
That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.
And then I explain to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.
On the same note, Desmond Tutu writes:
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.
Wiesel, again. On Suffering—
Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must at that moment become the center of the universe. …
Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free. How can one not be sensitive to their plight? Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women anywhere. …
Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.
Brown, Robert McAfee. Unexpected New: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes. Westminster John Knox Press, 1984.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. 1958. Translated by Marion Wiesel, Hill and Wang, 2006.
Literacy is one of the great tools of civilization. Etymology is one aspect of this tool. Your ability to read this text is another. The moral imagination invoked is a third. Unfortunately, writing is a recent invention—we’re still getting used to it. As Sagan, in The Demon-Haunted World, notes (335):
For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.
Carl Sagan was an advocate for the importance of literacy in science, math, history, English, and other disciplines. Although he was more impressive in defending scientific literacy, his arguments often incorporated the best of the Humanities, from Hippocrates to Epictetus, Samuel Butler to Frederick Douglass. Sagan understood the importance of wise words—spoken or written. The key was books.
From Cosmos: Episode 11, “The Persistence of Memory:”
What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.
Sagan examines the utility of books further in Demon-Haunted World(p. 335-336):
Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate – with the best teachers – the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses. Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.
According to Sagan, the love for books is created by a society (or family) that already loves books (337):
If you grow up in a household where there are books, where you are read to, where parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins read for their own pleasure, naturally you learn to read. If no one close to you takes joy in reading, where is the evidence that it’s worth the effort? If the quality of education available to you is inadequate, if you’re taught rote memorization rather than how to think, if the content of what you’re first given to read comes from a nearly alien culture, literacy can be a rocky road.
Unfortunately, the art of reading is less valued in American society today. According to the Pew Research Center, “About a quarter of American adults (24%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year , whether in print, electronic or audio form.” Adults with a high school degree or less are five times more likely to report not reading books than college graduates. Adults with an income of $30,000 or less are three times less likely to be non-book readers. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the reading of literature (poetry, plays, short stories, and novels) has been in decline since the program began collecting data. In 1982, the literature reading rate was 57%. By 2015, the rate had dropped to 43.1%. (In counterpoint, this study doesn’t count reading required for work or school, nonfiction is totally absent, and the survey is conducted every five years so we’ll have to wait to view the next data point.) Then there’s this.
Both the Pew Center and NEA found that the higher the level of education, the more likely the reader.
Sagan provides several factors for this decline (337):
You have to internalize, so they’re second nature, dozens of upper- and lower-case letters, symbols and punctuation marks; memorize thousands of dumb spellings on a word-by-word basis; and conform to a range of rigid and arbitrary rules of grammar. If you’re preoccupied by the absence of basic family support or dropped into a roiling sea of anger, neglect, exploitation, danger and self-hatred, you might well conclude that reading takes too much work and just isn’t worth the trouble. If you’re repeatedly given the message that you’re too stupid to learn (or, the functional equivalent, too cool to learn), and if there’s no one there to contradict it, you might very well buy this pernicious advice. There are always some children – like Frederick Bailey [i.e. Frederick Douglas] – who beat the odds. Too many don’t.
Malnourishment is a factor, too (338):
Recent research shows that many children without enough to eat wind up with diminished capacity to understand and learn (‘cognitive impairment’). Children don’t have to be starving for this to happen. Even mild undernourishment, the kind most common among poor people in America, can do it. This can happen before the baby is born (if the mother isn’t eating enough), in infancy or in childhood. When there isn’t enough food, the body has to decide how to invest the limited foodstuffs available. Survival comes first. Growth comes second. In this nutritional triage, the body seems obliged to rank learning last. Better to be stupid and alive, it judges, than smart and dead.
This impairment leads to disinterest (338):
Instead of showing an enthusiasm, a zest for learning as most healthy youngsters do, the undernourished child becomes bored, apathetic, unresponsive.
But Sagan’s is not a hopeless world of constricting opportunity. He reminds us that he, too, grew up in poverty. What set his cultivation apart were the values imposed by family—not only for reading, but for wonder, curiosity, and rationality.
Finally, Sagan delivers us a passionate plea for literacy (341-342):
The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness and low self-esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that grinds down dreams from generation to generation. We all bear the cost of keeping it running. Illiteracy is its linchpin.
Even if we hardened our hearts to the shame and misery experienced by the victims, the cost of illiteracy to everyone else is severe – the cost in medical expenses and hospitalization, the cost in crime and prisons, the cost in special education, the cost in lost productivity and in potentially brilliant minds who could help solve the dilemmas besetting us.
Sagan makes it very clear. Not only should we read, we must. Literacy is not only an entertaining exercise—it’s education. Through reading, we can acquire the laws of the cosmos and nature—at least, what we theorize those laws to be. We also acquire moral laws by which we must abide, laws regarding charity and community. In other words, literacy is the key to cultivating beautiful minds, and from there a beautiful world.
In the American Democracy, it’s our moral imperative to develop the youth into good citizens, for citizens will determine the country’s actions, progress, and enduring values. Good citizenship starts with ethical thinking.
Therefore, we must assist the youth in becoming conscientious adults—a pedigree of people who can think critically, morally, and competently. The conscientious adult is critical but not cynical, collaborative but not coercive, inclusive while unafraid of difference, favorable of equitable structures without undermining self-interest. If there is confrontation, it’s with systems of injustice—those old institutions and habits.
We must also develop the youth into global citizens—to see this planet not as a competitive arena to exploit but a community to improve. Every person can be both independent and interdependent—not only promoting their own life, liberty, and happiness, but actively promoting the dignity of others.
In Desmorious, I want to engage this process (making conscientious citizens) by examining politics, philosophy, pop culture, scientific inquiry, and story. Especially important are the Sciences and the Humanities. Both offer moral instruction and the tools for truth-testing; both are necessary to prevent the demise of virtue and critical thought in the United States. To ignore either is to invite disorientation, perhaps disaster.
Russell Kirk in “The Moral Imagination” (1981):
Every major form of literary art has taken for its deeper themes the norms of human nature. What Eliot calls “the permanent things”—the norms, the standards—have been the concern of the poet ever since the time of Job, or ever since Homer: “the blind man who sees,” sang of the wars of the gods with men. Until very recent years, men took it for granted that literature exists to form the normative consciousness—that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their place in the scheme of things. Such was the endeavor of Sophocles and Aristophanes, of Thucydides and Tacitus, of Plato and Cicero, of Hesiod and Vergil, of Dante and Shakespeare, of Dryden and Pope.
Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World (1995):
Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.]
Here’s to Kirk’s moral imagination and Sagan’s baloney detection kit, to the importance of a critical mind mixed with a creative spirit—a toast to the conscientious citizen and to the future of the world.