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Dangerous questions for dangerous times

Question of the Day

Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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Forget for a moment the substance of the arguments in defense of Darwin, Intelligent Design and the Bible. These arguments will take care of themselves in real time, by the clock and according to the calendar. No one proves or disproves any of the theories about the origin of our planet.

But how we choose to conduct these debates, the knowledge we bring to the argument, is crucially important. Intellectual revolutions have a way of changing how we think. The way we frame the argument, the idols, gods or the God we celebrate, ultimately informs politics and dictates policy.

You could visit a provocative cyber salon known as The Edge (www.edge.org) to test yourself against the edgiest thinking on these subjects. John Brockman, who likes being described as a "cultural impresario," poses a question every year that would tempt an answer from Dr. Faustus. This year he asks contributors for "dangerous ideas." "The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious," he writes. "What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?"

Answers have arrived from various corners of the intellectual universe, from those men and women who think and write about the concepts floating in the scientific/philosophical stratosphere. Especially prominent are the GRIN technologies -- the genetic, robotic, information and nano processes. Although the divine is dismissed by many (if not most) of these "public intellectuals," He's always the Big Guy upstairs they have to try to knock down. As much as they would like to, these public intellectuals can't ignore Einstein, who insisted that "God doesn't play dice with the world."

Ideas range from insisting that science must destroy religion to calling for a utopian integration of science and religion as the two great sources of knowledge and belief. The majority of the respondents, however, are grounded in more earthly and pragmatic problems, uncovered in dangerous questions. The most dangerous was posed by David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale. "What if people have been growing steadily more ignorant ever since the so-called Information Age began?" he asks. "Suppose an average U.S. voter, college teacher, 5th grade teacher, 5th grade student are each less well-informed today than they were in '95, and were less well-informed then than in '85? Suppose, for that matter, they were less well-informed in '85 than in '65?"

Mark Bauerlein attempts an answer in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, cutting through the hype of the gurus and cheerleaders of technology who promised that the digital era would create a more active, engaged, and knowledgeable citizenry. Analyzing the state of knowledge in civics, history, geography, literature, fine arts and politics, Professor Bauerlein, who teaches English at Emory University, comes to the same conclusion as the fictional professor in Philip Roth's novel, "The Human Stain": "Our students are abysmally ignorant... far and away the dumbest generation in American history."

Students in both the lower grades and at the university may have studied the significant historical facts and figures, but they don't care enough about them to remember which are important and why. When seniors at the top 55 American colleges were tested for their knowledge of history, only 19 percent scored a grade of C or higher. According to "Losing America's Memory," a study published in 2000 by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, only 29 percent knew the meaning of "Reconstruction," only one-third recognized the general at Yorktown, and less than a fourth identified James Madison as the "father of the Constitution."

Comedy shows on television today compete with newspapers and the network news as sources of actual news both foreign and domestic. Whatever you may think of Dan Rather's performance on CBS News, he offered far more real information than "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," a favorite source of news for the kids. We're not talking about lower intelligence or lower I.Q.'s here. We're talking about distractions,thebooming, buzzing, ringing confusion of adolescent electronic toys.

We do not yet have conclusive studies to assess the damage such high-tech stimuli create, but we risk at lethal peril ignoring what's going on. The cacophony makes traditional learning boring. It discourages the kind of late-night sophomore arguments that sharpen reasoning. It reduces face-to-face challenges to the impersonal voices on a screen. It replaces critical thinking with the superficially spontaneous.

So here's my dangerous question: What are we going to do about it?

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