Wednesday, June 03, 2009

An Unfortunate Myth

Contemplate the unfortunate myth of common knowledge in a world that may, indeed, too often seem culturally vapid but is not as common as we too often believe it to be.

Sandra Day O’Connor, surely a wise old woman, once said, and is recently and often quoted as saying, that a wise old man and a wise old woman would come up with the same solution. That simplistic statement, surely no more than a sound bite in some larger context, is wrong because we don’t all have the same experiences and perspectives to begin to base our decisions on.
We need to apply diversity of experience to make the best decisions. That’s neither to support nor to dismiss Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, although I see no reason to not support her nomination in whatever small way that I can. O’Connor’s sound bite, removed from its context, is no better or worse than Sotomayor’s contention, in context, that a Latina could make a better decision than an Anglo male. Sure she could; so could an Anglo male, applying each’s experience and perspective to the issue at hand.

Either sound bite, especially, for some unexplored reason, O’Connor’s, sounds like something a person with more answers than questions, no matter how intelligent, would deliver.

It took me many years to realize that everybody is not just like I am, that everybody does not think like I do, that everybody does not come to the same conclusions that I do. It was, at first, a quiet revelation to myself that slowly blossomed in sunlight.

Houghton Mifflin published E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, way back in 1987. I still agree with the basic premise, cultural literacy, despite the criticism the bestseller got, and despite Hirsch’s assumed and surely best-intended arrogance in the appendix which tried to list (pages 152-215) what literate Americans should know. I would, without a doubt pass his knowledge test, and probably would even make a good grade on it if it were multiple choice. I shudder at how some of Leno’s “Jay Walking” guests would no doubt respond; I can’t believe how ignorant some of those people are, although I am less ignorant only by degrees.

We do, surely, prosper if we are culturally literate. The interesting problem, though, is in knowing what we need to know.

If I were compiling a Hirsch list, I would start with The Golden Rule, which Hirsch includes on his list. It basically tells us that we should treat people like we would like to be treated; it’s a “rule” that too often seems tarnished beyond recognition these days, submerged in some once dusty, now flooded basement in New Orleans. If basements even exist in New Orleans, filled with old knowledge being crushed by the skyscrapers of mirrored-glass trivia.

After The Golden Rule, I would assume a global rather than American approach.

Then, before I began to even try to come up with a meaningful list of what we, as members of a species sometimes trying to understand each other, need to know, I would consider process more important than content. Does content matter? Sure it does. Process matters more. Because process – critical thinking and problem-solving skills – based on The Golden Rule is more likely to force us to think. Problem-solving skills begin with the recognition that a problem exists. Commonly, that’s followed by properly defining the problem, looking at possible solutions, deciding what to do about it, and then doing it and making sure whatever’s done is done right. Critical thinking, according to a Wikipedia summary, involves both logic and broad intellectual criteria including clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, and fairness.

I apologize, in this culturally vapid, sound bite world, for using the word intellectual.