February 17, 2009


According to a recent Gallup Poll taken on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, only 32% of those questioned believe in the theory of evolution. 36% of the interviewees still entertain doubts about Darwin?s theory; and the rest of the population has no opinion at all about who evolved from what. The New York Post, from whence I drew this information, urged its readers in an editorial not to worry about the widespread ignorance of Darwin?s accomplishments. The fact that more Americans know about Lincoln, who was also born two hundred years ago, suggests that we?ve put important things first. The civil rights revolution, which Lincoln is imagined to have inspired, is alive and well in Obama?s America, and so Lincoln is more relevant for our times than Darwin.

In point of fact, I?m amazed that 68% of the American public, assuming the poll does reflect national patterns, knows anything about Darwin and his theories concerning the origin and development of life. There is nothing in my experience as an educator (very broadly understood) that would indicate that even 50% of college students would be able to respond knowledgably to the Gallup Poll. Mind you, we?re not asking the public to identify anything as obvious as the hubby of Brittany Spears or the present lover of Ice Cube. The pollsters were asking for their view about something they would have no occasion to learn, unless they had studied and could still remember some biology or had taken a course in modern cultural history. I somehow suspect that most of those who either affirmed or denied Darwin?s theory knew little if anything about what they were being asked. This is not because they are trapped in ancient religious superstition (which intellectuals believe is the case), but because in a mass democratic educational system stressing the moral superiority of the present over the unenlightened past, people are for the most part culturally illiterate.

Why should we think that my students in a Western Civilization course, who know zilch about the Bible and who never heard of Julius Caesar, are better educated about the history of science? Why should we assume that these college customers have studied more about Darwin than Jesus or more about evolutionary theory than the downfall of the Roman Empire? As far as I can tell, they are blissfully ignorant of both, although they have picked up certain names and associations by attending our public institutions for twelve years. My Western Civ. Students, who claimed to be appalled by the Patriot Act, compared the evil George W. Bush to McCarthy and Hitler. But significantly they couldn?t tell me anything about the Patriot Act, and they certainly couldn?t provide many details about the former junior senator from Wisconsin or the German tyrant.

Among the stupidest notions of my invariably parochial, militantly secularist colleagues are the view that our youth should be spared religious or biblical erudition because it fills their minds with non-knowledge, as opposed to scientifically valid theories. It?s as if parts of their brains have been occupied with unprogressive junk; and if only it weren?t there, then these educationally victimized youth would be able to absorb what is scientifically true (for example, multiculturalism). The problem is that ignorant or cognitively deficient students are what they seem to be, whereas students who know about Moses and St. Augustine are also more likely than their classmates to know about Darwin and Newton. Cultural literacy forms a unified whole, in the same way that Georges Clemenceau once stated that ?La Gauche, c?est un bloc.?  And no, I don?t believe that 68% of the American population is sufficiently informed about Darwin to be able to answer the pollster?s question with any degree of honesty.  My skepticism results from the fact my college seniors, who are presumably no worse than most, had absolutely no idea about what languages the Bible was written in. Except for natural scientists, the two educational gaps are usually connected. Cultural illiteracy, like the French Left in 1919, constitutes a consistent whole.

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