Too stupid to be educated


deaf_dumb_blindIf you attend a University lecture there is an expectation that you are both willing and able to learn. You may of course encounter ideas that are challenging and perhaps find difficult to grasp, so when that happens the right thing to do is to simply get up and walk out because ignorance and stupidity must be preserved at all costs … right?

You know the right answer of course, but apparently some are so deeply ensnared by irrational beliefs that they find wallowing in superstition and ignorance to be the best option.

Yes really …

Professor Sue Blackmore delivered a lecture on memes at the “Oxford Royale Academy” as part of their hosting of groups of several hundred 17-18 year-olds for two weeks of classes for their ‘Oxford experience’. During this talk hundreds opted to walk out.

Her expectation was wholly reasonable …

I’d fondly assumed, the epitome of somewhere I could speak freely and fully, and expect people to listen and then argue and disagree if they wished to. 

What actually happened was appalling …

Then I arrived at religion. I pointed out that religions demand lots of resources (I showed them pictures of a church, a Hindu temple, a Jewish menorah and Muslim pilgrims on Hajj); they pose threats to health (I showed people ‘purifying their souls’ by wading in the stinking germ-laden Ganges) and make people do strange things (I showed rows of Muslims bent over with their heads on the floor). I hadn’t gone far with this before five or six young men got up and began to walk out. They had a good distance to go across the large hall, so I said ‘Excuse me, would you mind telling me why you are leaving?’ There was a long silence until one said, ‘You are offending us. We will not listen,’

.. and it got even worse …

Then I read from the Koran “those that have faith and do good works, Allah will admit them to gardens watered by running streams … pearls and bracelets of gold.” “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. They shall be lashed with rods of iron.” More walked out. By the time I arrived at a slide calling religions (Richard’s fault!) ‘Viruses of the mind’, the lecture hall was looking rather empty.

… and even worse ..

By the time I moved on to showing Internet memes and viral videos more than half the audience was gone.

Some even hung about outside to tell her how offended they were …

Outside, some young Muslims were waiting for me. I was angrily told that I’d made them feel ignorant.

Hey, welcome to reality guys, you are not only wallowing in ignorance but you also appear to be committed to staying there. Clearly the “Oxford Experience” has demonstrated that education is just not for you and that superstition and a belief in magic is your preferred choice in life … good luck with that.

It was not all bad, for those that stayed it was a very positive experience …

There were good questions from those who remained and even more from a little group who gathered round afterwards, a few sceptical ones challenging some brave believers who had dared remain.

Half may indeed have left and demonstrated that they were utterly incapable of coping with challenging ideas, but the other half stayed. There are always choices – when faced with new ideas, ones that might indeed challenge all your beliefs and assumptions, you need to learn to face them head on, debate, argue, grasp where the idea is coming from and what evidence there is for it. You might still reject it, but at least you can agree to disagree and should be capable of articulating why you take that stance and backing that up with evidence and reason. If instead you can’t do that, or don’t know how to do that, and your only strategy is to run away, then whatever education you have received has utterly failed you.

Education should never simply be about absorbing information without any actual understanding, but rather needs to not only teach people how to learn, but to also install within them a passion to learn. Religion does the complete opposite, it instills within people a passion to remain ignorant, and so an emotional and cultural investment in a belief often negates the entire process of learning.

Ignorance is something that need not in any way be an embarrassment. Nobody knows everything, and so all of us to one degree or another are ignorant about rather a lot of things, and many also embrace ideas or beliefs that are simply wrong because we have accepted things as true that are not actually true at all. Being open minded means that you have a curiosity that drives you to learn new things along with a willingness to be potentially wrong and an ability to change your mind when presented with new information.

In other words ignorance is correctable and can be a positive thing to experience because it can motivate us to learn. However, when ignorance is protected by a religious belief, then it become a Shakespearean tragedy, and so we ended up with the drama that played out in that lecture hall in Oxford last sunday.

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