Monday, June 2, 2008

The Age of Endarkenment

I stole the title of this post from an article by Michael Ventura in the Winter 1989 issue of Whole Earth Review. He focused on the lack of rites of passage among adolescence in the modern world, but I'm beginning to think of "endarkenment" as a pretty good description of the growing anti-intellectual attitude in this country in particular. More recently, Susan Jacoby (following in the footsteps of Richard Hofstadter) has described the problem fairly clearly in her new book, The Age of American Unreason.

Of course, predicting the fall of Western civilization at the hands of the unthinking is nothing new. H. L. Mencken and Jonathan Swift, writing about the "boobocracy" and the "Yahoos" respectively were describing earlier manifestations of the phenomenon (then in its nascence, as it turns out) in the previous two centuries. The problem, it appears, is not at all new, but consequences much more dire than those imagined previously now loom darkly. That's because we had only begun to destroy the environment by then, and our demise only seemed imminent.

The promise of the eighteenth century, of the Age of Enlightenment (particularly in Scotland, where they didn't send a bunch of their intellectuals to the guillotine as they did in France during the "sleep of reason"), was fulfilled in the rise of capitalism (thanks to Adam Smith's description of the process in The Wealth of Nations--which should not be read without also reading The Theory of Moral Sentiments) and the scientific and industrial revolutions. The seeds of everything we're living through today were sowed then. I'm pretty sure the guys talking about this stuff over beers with the fellas in Scottish pubs had no idea what would unfold.

If market capitalism had gone no further than the streets of Edinburgh, where folks kept an eye on one another and the "invisible hand" could actually work, maybe things wouldn't have gotten out of hand. But human beings don't seem to be able to think very far ahead, or imagine consequences very well, and so ideas that seem terrific at the time end up going afoul when we don't exercise the imagination we're also born with.

What bothers me is not so much general ignorance; there is simply so much information flooding the culture these days, that it's not surprising that people can't keep up--let alone spend much time wandering around in the past. The real problem is a fundamental lack of curiosity, the absence of wondering--which is where, according to Plato, philosophy begins. How can one become wise (that is--again according to Plato--arrive at a place where you're aware of what you don't know), unless one wonders enough to formulate questions and seek answers?

I'm writing this as I'm watching shenanigans on the Discovery shuttle (STS 124), where gleeful scientists spent part of yesterday turning somersaults and making videos of their activities in preparation for docking with the International Space Station today (where they're going to install a new lab and fix a toilet). None of this would have been possible without the Enlightenment, of course. But what I worry about is whether or not the Endarkenment will threaten future space exploration, one of my abiding interests as a child of the Sputnik era and sometime writer of science fiction.

Science education is also on the decline in this country, as children become less and less well prepared for the maths involved, and as their attention is drawn increasingly away from intellectual activities toward the seductions of popular culture and its various media. In some ways, science itself is making it more difficult to attract kids to basic learning experiences. A recent post on the Science of Battlestar Gallactica blog noted that kids are so used to seeing the enhanced-color shots from the Hubble Space Telescope that they're disappointed by what they can see in backyard telescopes.

But the real culprits are the activities that take them away from time to think--the multiplicity of extracurricular sports and "lessons" of all kinds that occupy every waking moment that's not taken up by watching television or playing video games. Many of us used to be able to get away from the doldrums of schooling and go home to read, or romp with our friends, or just sit and stare out the window, letting our minds wander. Now, however, children's lives are far more orchestrated, perhaps to keep them away from more sordid temptations, and/or to compensate for lack of genuine family interaction in two-income households. Whatever the reason, imagination seems to be suffering, and science is just another "boring" class they have to take in order to pass a "skills" test.

For what it's worth, I advocate the "Only One Thing" rule. Children can participate in one scheduled activity and that's it. Early on, the parent decides (music lessons were our choice; both kids took piano lessons until they couldn't stand it any more). Then the child gets to choose. My son chose orchestra in high school, and my daughter decided to get a job when she was fifteen. They both participated in "Odyssey of the Mind" events as well, but it involved the whole family, so it fell within the spirit of the Rule, and it only lasted a few weeks per year. The rest of the time was devoted to studying when necessary, and to fooling around whenever possible. Both kids had mediocre high school grades, but went on to creative careers. I will, alas, never attend a Nobel Prize award ceremony, but my kids are smart and happy and brimming with imagination.

All I really want these days is for kids to be able to have the same thing: a life filled with creativity and interest in what's going on around them. The future is theirs, and what I fear today--in the country where the word "intellectual" is a put-down more devastating than "whore" (which I've hear little girls call one another with glee)--is that our generation is stunting their creative development by vilifying actual thinking. When children can watch "educational" television shows that vastly misrepresent evidence and provide spurious interpretations (such as the recent Secrets of the Dead episode on the Minoans), or suggest (uncritically) that "crystal skulls" (which we know are fake) could never have been made by human beings (on the Discovery Channel feature), they grow up thinking that Indiana Jones is a real archaeologist and that stuff he finds is really stored at a secret warehouse and that Roswell isn't just a town in New Mexico.

Until we wake up and realize as a culture that we're putting reason to sleep and creating monsters that our kids are going to have to battle, we're not doing them any favors. We owe them the opportunity to be bored, and to seek avenues of intellectual stimulation that aren't programmed from babyhood. How will they ever understand the natural world if they never see it up close? How will they understand the wonders of advances in scientific technology if they don't look through a basic telescope? How will they ever be able to adjudicate between reason and unreason if they're fed predigested pabulum through a textbook that dumbs ideas down into formulaic "concepts" designed to be spit back on standardized tests?

I admire the mom in New York who gave her kid car fare, phone change, and a map, and sent him out to find his way home. When I was about his age (ten), my parents gave me free rein in a foreign country where I pretty much wandered at will, taking pedicabs to the movies in Taipei, or wandering trails on the mountainside outside the city. I spoke only enough Japanese (I never did learn Chinese) to communicate with the old guys who'd lived through the Japanese occupation, but I knew my address and that's all I needed. I remember being ill-at-ease when my kids were out doing who-knows-what when they were growing up in pre-cellphone America, but I lived through it and so did they.

We do live in dangerous times. But we're probably making them even more dangerous by trying to cocoon our children out of fear, and suffocating them with good intentions. Rather than occupying every second of their time and hovering over them, maybe we could start by throwing away the television set, assigning "media hours" and following the "Only One Thing" rule. If we parents turned out okay, shouldn't we give our kids the opportunity to develop the imagination and the real life skills it's going to take to stave of the forces of Endarkenment?

Image: Francisco de Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Margaret said...

I agree with the "Only One Thing" rule, and luckily for me it is the same thing for both of my girls - horseback riding. They don't just ride, they work at the barn and help younger riders get ready and clean up after lessons. But homework gets done first!
I think you should add "No Disney vacations" to your list. We started taking our kids to historic sites, art museums, nature centers and science museums early on and I think that exposure to new things has made a world of difference.
My children aren't grown, only 13 and 15 right now, but I will be attending award ceremonies for both this month, so I figure I am doing something right.

Owlfarmer said...

I must confess to having not only taken my children to Disneyland (because I had fond teenage memories, having graduated from high school near Anaheim), but having allowed their father to take them to Disneyworld. They still love theme parks, but I hope I managed to counter any ill effects.

Horseback riding is a terrific undertaking from many points of view. My daughter tried it for a bit, but liked the independence that a job gave her, so gave it up. I'm glad yours are sticking with it because horses are fabulous animals and riding one is just about the best thing animals have ever allowed humans to do.

Margaret said...

Funny thing: I saw the other Margaret's comment and thought it was me at first! (I was wondering why I couldn't remember writing it! And then I realized I don't have two kids).

Anyway, great post!! I love the term "Endarkenment." You could have taken credit for it--I don't think I've heard it before! You cover so many important subjects in this post and I found myself nodding my head in agreement with your take on each one of them! I appreciated your more nuanced take on Scotland and the Age of Enlightenment--I think people sometimes forget that just because the Age of Enlightenment led us to where we are now doesn't mean that it was some kind of vast conspiracy.

Great stuff!

GEM said...

Owl - I am going through a major phase of boredom myself. Spend maybe ten minutes 3 times a day on my favourite blogs. The rest of the time i rest my operated-upon eye, whinging in pain. Some good has come of this, however. i woolgather and plot to make the best of my situation, and give myself over to what-if scenarios, thinking about problem-solving for issues of incipient old age, spending time on thankfulness for my full cup of experience and for the fact that neither parents nor educators have eradicated from me a lifelong obsession with questions of "why" and "how" my two sustaining leitmotifs.
Endarkenment is a fine term, and so spot on. G and GEM

Owlfarmer said...

I now appear to be blessed with a plethora of Margarets (only one of them Canadian), as well as a Gem. I haven't quite figured out why the Farm's readership is primarily Canadian, but it may be due to the fact that my initial roots on both sides of the family are from Ontario and Nova Scotia.

I hadn't realized what a nerve I'd strike with "Endarkenment," but should have guessed when it hit me like a small tornado when I read it. It's possible that Ventura himself didn't invent it, but I like to credit those whose work I happily steal.