Monday, July 25, 2005

Critical Lessons

A few days after writing about the duplicity of the New York Times, I recalled a salient paragraph by Jorge Luis Borges:

In the third article, "Free Thought and Official Propaganda," [Bertrand Russell] suggests that elementary schools should teach the art of reading newspapers with incredulity. That Socratic discipline would be useful, I believe. Very few of the persons I know have any acquaintance with it. They let themselves be deceived by typographical or syntactical tricks. They think that an event has occurred because it is printed in large black letters. They do not wish to understand that the statement "All the aggressor's attempts to advance beyond B have failed miserably" is merely a euphemistic way to admit the loss of B. What is even worse, they practice a kind of magic: they believe that to express any fear is to collaborate with the enemy. Russell proposes that the State endeavor to immunize its citizens against such deception and trickery. For example, he suggests that school children should study Moniteur bulletins, which were ostensibly triumphant, to learn about Napoléon's last defeats. A typical assignment would be to read about the history of the wars with France in English textbooks, and then to rewrite that history from the French viewpoint.

Great idea, don't you think? (Russell was often a great thinker, but like too many modern intellectuals he failed to apply his own critical stance to his own ideas: the proverbial "liberal" double standard.)

The only exception I take to this paragraph is the idea that the State will educate its people to think critically. You might as well put the fox in charge of the henhouse. The last thing in the State's interest is an educated citizenry (such a people might know enough to check its expansion and the erosion of their own liberties!). It is much more realistic that the people themselves to organize such efforts—and it is truly the genius of the American people (as opposed to the British or the Argentines) to organize themselves into such intermediate institutions.

Jorge Luis Borges, "Two Books," Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, Ruth L.C. Sims, trans. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), 131.

Perhaps of interest: Personal Exemption

Personal Note: My recently acquired job requires me to move in the next few weeks. On top of that I'll be away at a meeting later this week. Posts will be in frequent. Might I suggest looking back at some of my earlier posts during this period? Writing about perenniel themes has the advantage of not losing currency with time.


Natalie said...

Nice. Ever read Dorothy Sayer's Lost Tools of Learning? Here's a link to her article, which was written just after WWII:
Sayers was keenly aware of how susceptible so many people were to Nazi (and I'm sure other) propaganda. Here's a sample paragraph to whet the appetite:
"Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?"

Amanda Witt said...

Best wishes for your move and new job!

Lawrence Gage said...

Thanks, Natalie! Thanks, Amanda!