Twelve Things I Wish They Taught in School

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Twelve Things I Wish They Taught in School -- Carl Sagan, Literary Cavalcade, 1985

Baloney detection. Fallacies in argumentation are everywhere: in the schools, in the mass media, in the pronouncements of our and other governments. Sometimes the error is unconscious, because the people making it don’t know even the idea of a logical fallacy. Other times, it’s intentional. For example, a personal attack on someone is not a criticism of his or her argument. This is one of about a dozen common errors of logic and rhetoric. It’s called ad hominem (“to the man,” instead of “to the issue”). Learn these categories of error. Together, they’re a baloney detection kit. They have names like “straw man”, “excluded middle,” “non sequitur,” and even “post hoc ergo propter hoc.” A baloney detector helps tell us when we’re being lied to. If you’re after the truth, it’s usually a good thing to separate out the baloney first. (High school algebra and Euclidian geometry, incidentally, provide important insights into what constitutes compelling evidence.)

Pick a difficult thing and learn it well. Socrates said this was one of the greatest of human joys, and it is. While you learn a little bit about many subjects, make sure you learn a great deal about one or two. It hardly matters what the subject is, as long as it deeply interests you, and you place it in its broader human context. After you teach yourself one subject, you become much more confident about your ability to teach yourself another. You gradually find you’ve acquired a key skill. The world is changing so rapidly that you must continue to teach yourself throughout your life. But don’t get trapped by the first subject that interests you, or the first thing you find yourself good at. The world is full of wonders, and some of them we don’t discover until we’re all grown up. Most of them, sadly, we never discover.

Don’t be afraid to ask “dumb” questions. Many apparently naïve inquiries – like why grass is green, or why the Sun is round, or why we need 55,000 nuclear weapons in the world – are really deep questions. The answers can be a gateway to real insights. It’s also important to know, as well as you can, what it is that you don’t know, and asking questions is the way. To ask “dumb” questions requires courage on the part of the asker and knowledge and patience on the part of the answerer. And don’t confine your learning to schoolwork. Discuss ideas in depth with friends. It’s much braver to ask questions even when there’s a prospect of ridicule than to suppress your questions and become deadened to the world around you.

Listen carefully. Many conversations are a kind of competition that rarely leads to discovery on either side. When people are talking, don’t spend the time thinking about what you’re going to say next. Instead, try to understand what they’re saying, what experience informs their remarks, and what you can learn from or about them. Older people have grown up in a world very different from yours, one you may not know very well. They, and people from other parts of the country and from other nations, have important perspectives that can enrich your life.

Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody’s understanding is incomplete. Be open to corrections, and learn to correct your own mistakes. The only embarrassment is in not learning from your mistakes. (Governments almost never admit mistakes. What can we learn from this fact?)

Know your planet. It’s the only one we have. Learn how it works. We’re changing the atmosphere, the surface, the waters of the Earth, often for some short-term advantage when the long-term implications are unknown. Especially in a democracy, the citizens should have at least something to say about the direction in which we’re going. If we don’t understand the issues, we abandon the future.

Science and technology. You can’t know your planet unless you know something about science and technology. School science courses, I remember, concentrated on the trivia of science, leaving the major insights almost untouched. The great discoveries in modern science are also great discoveries of the human spirit. For example, Copernicus showed that – far from the Earth being the center of the universe, about which the Sun, the Moon, the planets and the stars revolved in clockwork homage – the Earth is just one of many small worlds. This is a deflation of our pretensions to be sure, but also the opening up to our view of a vast and awesome universe. Every high school graduate should have some notion of the insights of Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Freud and Einstein. (Einstein’s special theory of relativity, far from being obscure and exceptionally difficult, can be understood in its basics with no more than first year algebra, and the notion of a rowboat in a river going upstream and downstream.)

Nuclear war. This is the most immediate and most dangerous threat to our species and our world. Learn enough about nuclear weapons, their delivery systems and nuclear strategy to be able to enter intelligently into what promises to be a continuing worldwide debate, and to work to resolve the growing crisis. If you can make a contribution to this subject, you will have done something for all generations that are and ever will be.

Don’t spend your life watching TV. You know what I’m talking about.

Culture. Gain some exposure to the great works of literature, art and music. If such a work is hundreds or thousands of years old and is still admired, there is probably something to it. Like all deep experiences, it may take a little work on your part to discover what all the fuss is about. But once you make the effort, your life has changed; you’ve acquired a source of enjoyment and excitement for the rest of your days. In a world as tightly connected as ours is, don’t restrict your attention to American or Western culture. Learn how and what people elsewhere think. Learn something of their history, their religions, their viewpoints.

Politics. A basic tenet of American democracy, and one of the principles on which the nation was founded, is the protection and encouragement of unpopular beliefs. (Think again about Copernicus.) No nation, sect or political party has a monopoly on the truth. So consider unpopular views and see if any of them make sense to you. Why, exactly, are they unpopular? Are there deficiencies in the conventional wisdom? Learn something about practical politics. Involve yourself in a local political campaign. Understand how political power is used. There are many evils – chattel slavery, say, or smallpox – that were overcome worldwide, through the combination of new insights and political power. Understanding these advances can help us to deal with other evils in our time.

Compassion. Many people believe that we live in an extraordinarily selfish time. But there is a hollowness, a loneliness that comes from living only for yourself. Humans are capable of great mutual compassion, love and tenderness. These feelings, however, need encouragement to grow.

Look at the delight a one- or two-year-old takes in learning, and you see how powerful is the human will to learn. Our passion to understand the universe and our compassion for others jointly provide the chief hope of the human species.