Thoughts on Laudato si', Part 8: We Need a Solution to Mental Pollution

July 29, 2015

In the ancient is wisdom, and in length of days prudence.

—Job 12:12

Once I took a college level course on Plato, wherein we read The Republic. One day, before class, we students were standing outside of the classroom, and some began to complain of the burdens being imposed on us by the professor. I remember the incident, because it was one of those rare moments when something occurred to me that should have been obvious all along. I can’t vouch for my level of articulation as I expressed the epiphany, but it went something like this: “Only in the American system of education can something like reading Plato’s Republic be reduced to drudgery.”  

I’m not certain how those who heard me reacted to my remark, or even if I was speaking in intelligible English. But it was the genesis of a new inner disturbance, to go along with my other inner disturbances, that I carried around in my usual ineffective manner of not knowing what to do about it. As for the truth of the observation (or delusion if it is not true), I cannot cite a poll or social “science” study to back it up. Still, it seems plain that we have a lot of Americans going to school who somehow wind up not being educated.

I hope the reader will forgive the autobiographical details in this particular article, if I explain that what I hope qualify as observations on this topic come from personal experience rather than any in-depth study. I’m not sure how one could study it. Still, when it comes to the subject of education, I have this expertise: I spent many years being educated in the American system. And even though much of my grade school years were spent in school hallways, having tried the patience of my teachers to the breaking point, or, later, in vice-principals’ offices, either for the same reason, or due to some pugilistic exploit, I might have acquired sufficient experience to make some pertinent comments. Indeed, I may be able to render some opinions that would be difficult to find elsewhere, since my relationship with my education, with notable exceptions, was not a happy one.  

With such a background I am compelled to ask: what was it that created in me such an abhorrence of school? There were many character flaws cooperating to make my educational experience a dismal one, to be sure, and being an advocate of personal responsibility I am loathe to blame systemic failures for those of my own. But I cannot help but notice, in hindsight, that most of my fellow students seemed to share the same abhorrence, with this difference: they cooperated with what they detested, the same attitude I eventually took on in my final years of education.

How is it possible, this abhorrence of learning? Curiosity is a characteristic of the young of many species, and human beings are the most curious animals of all. It would seem to follow that young human beings would possess a curiosity beyond measure. But so many of us discover our curiosity only years after detoxing from the American educational experience. 

One wonders how it can be denied that the grading system displaces curiosity with a kind of performance anxiety, and learning with grade achievement, though many will deny it. One also wonders how a system with grade achievement, rather than learning, as the objective cannot be expected to incentivize cheating. While learning is a natural process for children, grade achievement is not. Rather it is a lazy way for educators to evaluate student progress, especially when education is directed toward the memorization of data rather than development of the thinking process.

Still, that isn’t even half of the problem. Poverty has known adverse effects on the ability of children to learn, and, to that extent, solving the problem of education is also solving the problem of poverty. But there are also environmental factors that affect children of all economic backgrounds.

There is a phenomenon, which every parent is aware of, that we might call “The Candy Effect.” The sweetness of candy, pastries, or soft drinks is a classic source of temptation for children. It is common for them to prefer such food items to more healthful foods. Thus, when a dessert is to be had after a meal, a parent is forced to make finishing the meal a prerequisite for having the dessert.

Now desserts, in moderation, are not particularly harmful, though desserts to the exclusion of other foods would be. But there are some things to which The Candy Effect draws our children that are always harmful. These things come through television, radio, and music media, which, in their best form, set forth examples of, and encouragement toward, shallowness, triviality, and banality. In their worst form they serve as inspiration for irreverence, callousness, and immorality, and The Candy Effect makes these things superficially more interesting than things worthy to be in an educational curriculum, and sometimes contain content disparaging of such worthy things. Thus we hear anecdotes of children knowing the names of celebrities, but not presidents, or the locations of countries.

In Laudato si’, Pope Francis tells us that “media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload.” [1] The answer, he says, is that efforts “need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches.” 

We have freedom of speech in the United States, and purveyors of the unwholesome will resort to that principle as a defense to the dissemination of “mental pollution.” But the First Amendment came into being to prevent government from restricting political, social, or religious debate, things that are useful and necessary in a republican system. It was not so that corporations could acquire wealth selling immorality and stupidity to our children. We must find a way to implement the efforts suggested by the Holy Father, or the price could be the degradation of our very humanity.

Jack Quirk