Saturday, September 05, 2009

A New Illiteracy

Everyone should have someone in their lives who challenges them to think about what they hear. In my case this was my Uncle Paul, a large, swarthy man who smelled like cigars and loved a good story--especially if it contained a punchline. He was a hopeless practical joker and his sense of humor knew no bounds, even including small children as his list of targets.

My father tells me that at the age of two or so I was demonstrating my new found knowledge that dogs barked and cats meowed and was quite pleased with myself until my uncle informed me that the sounds were the other way around.

"Dogs go meow, Mary," he said. "And kitties go woof-woof."

I giggled at him. Uncle Paul was funny. Any minute now he was going to hug me and tell me I was right.

But he continued to insist that I had it backwards and I continued to repeat the facts as I knew them to be.

"That's what my dog says," he said finally.

According to all accounts, I narrowed my eyes, studied him for a second, and asked him to go get his dog.

He looked sad. "You don't believe me?"

"No. I teach him how to go woof-woof."

When I was four, Uncle Paul waited until just before Christmas and told me a horrible story about how he'd shot Santa Claus and barbecued Rudolph. My cousins confirmed it and my father chimed in, telling me how good reindeer tasted. I am apparently either an optimist at heart or a hard headed skeptic, because I laughed and assured them that I knew there would be presents under my tree, but if they kept on lying they were going to get coal in their stockings.

Looking back on my family's idea of a good time--i.e. messing with preschooler's heads--I am amazed I am not more warped than I am.

I'm pretty sure my dear uncle was simply having fun with me the way he did with everyone he loved (my mother says he sometimes planned jokes for months in advance). But I think this teasing actually functioned on more than one level--triggering my B-S detector early on. I rarely believe anything I'm told unless I can prove to my own satisfaction that it's true.

As I've perused online news articles over the last few months and listened to the various debates concerning everything from health care to immigration to the president's speech on the value of an education I've become aware of a disconcerting fact.

More people in this world need an Uncle Paul.

Our country has a huge literacy problem. I'm not just talking about high schoolers graduating with fourth grade spelling skills. And I'm not talking about people who are too lazy to reach for the shift key. Nor am I talking about people who really can't read for whatever reason.

I'm talking about people who can, but don't read or listen critically. Who have not been taught (or never bothered to try) to think about the information they've just been handed. People who scan headlines and assume they know the whole story. Those who read the first few lines of the article and skip to the comments because they're less complicated and more fun. Once there, they become the victims of someone else's poor reading comprehension and come away mouthing the same half-truths and lies. They read scandal sheets without seeming to recognize the fact that they are reading dubious sources of information. I am refraining from naming names to avoid angering anyone, but scandal sheets sometimes masquerade as Christian news sources who are guilty of sensationalizing half-truths in order to boost subscription rates and their own agendas. Too, people often read blogs without taking into account that the blogger might themselves be misinformed or just passing long what they "heard". Then these people take all their misinformation, half-baked theories, and outright lies and spread them like fertilizer across equally uninformed fertile fields.

Whether we know it or not, we are influential. It does not matter whether you're a guy working behind the machine at the factory, or a minister who stands behind the pulpit on Sunday morning, or a teacher in the classroom, what you say, what you think, and what you know matters. Someone somewhere will trust you to be speaking the truth, so it pays to get your story straight.

I've seen it everywhere on the internet and I'm hearing it coming out of people's mouths. Easily disproved facts that only require that the person who is mouthing it stop for just a second and ask, "Does this make sense?" "Is this rational?" "Is this too ridiculous to be real?" And "How can I check it out for myself?"

Choosing not to challenge the information we are given by those supposedly in the know makes us easy targets for lies and misdirection and consequently makes us better sheep (not the good kind of sheep that Jesus was talking about, but the stupid kind who can be led by anyone who says they know the way). If a secret government was really planning a take over (and, no, I don't that's in the works, but being a fan of X-files, I'm always on the lookout, because you never know . . . ) easily led people would make terrific citizens.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is not a one of those conspiracy theories I love to joke about. In truth scares me more than the deficit. Our nation is in trouble. I have met the enemy and it is our own ignorance.


Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

Complicating matters are trial balloons and PR spin. I used to be a reporter on a daily, and a liberal one at that. But I know a little about how government works (as opposed to how it ought to work on paper).

In some of the stories you're citing, the facts are changing AS we are discussing them. NOW it is true (apparently) that Obama will release the speech text on Monday, and the accompanying curriculum (which I *have* seen in its original form) has been amended to be less problematic.

At this point, there seems nothing amiss in Obama's speech. WOULD there have been if no one had spoken out? No one knows.

Maybe he started this speech idea with good intentions and some educators got a little carried away with the idea and made this curriculum. It's entirely possible, but plenty of people dislike and distrust him so much that they are not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The part of the press release that freaked me out personally was the word "historic." It made me wonder what announcement he would make during the speech.

Or maybe it's possible some people "pulled something" to see what they could get away with.

That sort of thing has happened at our public school where, despite being majority Christian, the children occasionally get assignments like, "Pretend you are an ancient Egyptian. Write a prayer to Ra." No one is likely MEANING to ask children to turn from their faith, but it's still a problem. And we still need to call the school, tell the principal this sort of thing is a violation of our religious views, etc. Obviously, however, after years of parents sending their children to school and not protesting the assignment, teachers think YOU the "weird" one for saying something.


Debby said...

You are right Mary. Very good post.

You, Redlefty, Bob, Whitestone, all of you have had some very excellent posts on the state of our nation...

Pencil Writer said...

Ignorance is a huge problem. And you're right. We can't listen to the media biases (did I spell that correctly?) If we study the history of this planet's civilizations, we find a pattern repeating itself over and over, and unfortunately, this grand country of ours has been listing to one side without realising it. I grateful that more citizens are studying history and its connection to our current state of affairs and speaking out for what they believe is right. We all need to study the Constitution. I was amazed at the information my son and I gleaned when we did just that in our homeschool lessons during his "junior high" years.

We have much of value--which I believe needs protecting--that our founding fathers, whom I believe were led by our Creator, to creat a sterling document such as the Constitution of the United States of America. We have been so very blessed to live in a country with the roots planted early by those seeking religious freedom. We must remember to keep truth in the forefront and keep learning and calling those who are elected to represent us to actually do that!

Mary O. Paddock said...

Mrs C, You used to be a reporter? What an interesting change in careers! :)

Hi Debby. Thanks. That's some good company to be in.

PW. You're right about staying focused on the truth. Though it's hard to cut through the nonsense and find it sometimes.