Most of us learned about such topics as the “Age of Reason,” the “Renaissance,” and the “Enlightenment” in high school, or possibly as late as college. What these topics should have taught us, among other things, are the evils that befall civilizations that operate without a proper respect for science or reason. We learned about the sad fate of Copernicus and Galileo. And, for those of us in the United States, we learned, or should have learned, that the fight never ends. Poor Mr. Scopes, the Tennessee school teacher, learned how the simple act of teaching science in a public classroom can lead not only to governmental opposition, but also to threats of personal harm from people he thought were civilized friends.
Having recently retired from professions in law and academia, I am amazed by the extent to which the value of education–especially higher education–is now being questioned by those who ought to know better. During my service as a public university president, I heard legislators utter such comments as the following: “We shouldn’t be spending a dime of our taxpayer money on the liberal arts!” and “If a single class taught in college isn’t directly attached to a job at the other end, then it isn’t worth public support!” (These same legislators, I later learned, would strongly support mandating that universities teach sexual abstinence and the free-enterprise system to all entering freshmen.)
Over the past two decades, we have witnessed the resurgence of “flat-earthers,” a group we thought that Copernicus and Galileo had rendered extinct. We have watched as political debate has degenerated into a form of media-encouraged ad hominem warfare. We have lost the passion for learning that was evidenced by Abraham Lincoln, who learned to read by studying books by the light of a fireplace. We simply have no time for thoughtful, fact-based research; and we certainly have no time to read the type of social scientific research that underlies (or ought to underlie) thoughtful policy proposals.
Lest this come across as just another old fart bemoaning the fact that our civilization is going to hell in a hand basket, I should add that I have always been an optimist and continue to be one. My point is that I since an urgency to the mission of the Spirited Reasoner that was not present in my earlier life. Although I have certainly changed in many ways, I honestly do not believe our society was this hostile to science, higher education, or reasoned debate when I was younger. We can always speculate about the causes for this decline: the movement toward instant gratification? the loss of trust in government engendered by the Vietnam War? the rise in the use of social media technology? the “dumbing down” of our nation’s school curriculum?
Whatever. The causes may be none of these, or they may be combinations of these and other social changes. The causes may even be intertwined and overlapping. The important point is not so much how we got here, but how–having discovered where we now find ourselves–we can take steps to support science and education, including higher education, not only with our tax dollars and private donations, but in our conversations and at the ballot box.