Part of the fun of learning anything is the actual act of learning, of going from a state of ignorance to one of knowledge. We’ve maybe lost sight of that these days as education has become more systematic, more regulated, more legislated, more standardized—in short, more conventional.
I saw it coming: we all did. As much as I was a fan of Barack Obama, I winced every time he spoke about education as if it comprised only science and math. What about the arts? I used to think. Why isn’t poetry important? And Shakespeare? Why isn’t rhetoric as vital as calculus? Why isn’t journalism as valuable as computer science? Why can’t literature and technology coexist?
They can, of course, if we would let them.
In my English classes Friday used to be vocabulary quiz day; and as if the torture of learning twenty new words a week wasn’t bad enough, I often gave my students supplementary lists that were a little more obscure. One of my favorite involved the phobias. Nycto-, ailuro-, phobo-, astra- and more. There are hundreds, many of which we’d never heard of and would probably never need to know, except sometimes the learning itself was fun. (How can anyone be afraid of fear? someone would invariably ask, and we’d be off to FDR.)
One phobia I never included—never heard of—was epistemophobia: the fear of knowledge. I guess I thought it was too theoretical ever to occur. Then came Donald Trump. Then came Scott Pruitt. And here we are, bending under the weight of a band of epistemophobes.
And here I am retracting every snarky comment I ever made about science and math and every occasion when I made up my own answer for what STEM stands for. The arts have been under siege since the Soviet Union launched its first satellite some sixty-odd years ago; now it’s science’s turn, though the attack has limited scope: it appears to be indigenous to America where, in case you haven’t noticed, Scott Pruitt’s EPA has virtually outlawed the acquiring and dissemination of scientific knowledge.
The reason? Fear. Fear of the vast, evangelical, ignorant base that still views Trump as its savior.
Pruitt remains in lockstep. One of his latest assaults disallows policy based on studies that included participants who were assured of confidentiality. Many victims of pollution—water and air—have shared their very personal and heart-wrenching stories only because they were promised anonymity, and these stories have helped to set pollution standards and eliminate toxic elements in rivers and streams, and of course in our atmosphere. From now on, however, only publicly available health data will be valid. Of course fewer people will go public and regulations will diminish further.
In a recent op-ed piece, a former E.P.A. administrator and an air quality expert described it this way: “Mr. Pruitt’s goal is simple: No studies, no data, no rules.”
Many years ago a doctor friend told me that medical schools had begun seeking out history and English majors in hopes that young people with a more diverse education would eventually become better able to interact with patients. They weren’t discounting science—far from it—nor were they contributing to the mistaken stereotype of the asocial lab rat; but they were admitting that the humanities played a key role in our social development also. I never learned if that shift ever played out, but I do believe that a new ignorance—the same one that led us to suck down every spurious Facebook post two years back, to accept unquestionably the rantings of Hannity, Drudge, and the like, and to accept the premise that a lying deviate like Donald Trump fit the mold of President of the United States—has come home to roost.
It started as an ignorance of language: our unwillingness to parse (for example) Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” Great how? And how far back was it great? When it was white? When women knew their place? When child labor was acceptable? When gay people hid from view? When highway signs did not have to be written in Spanish? When abortions were performed in darkened rooms? When the strong could subjugate the weak with impunity? When the Marlboro Man could sell death on television?
Does that last example seem frivolous? It isn’t. What chance do you think we would have, given the current leadership in Washington, that regulations curtailing tobacco sales and advertising could ever be imposed? Who Republican Congress members in 2018 would accept as scientific fact the deleterious effects of cigarette smoke, of lead in drinking water, or asbestos, coal dust, sun exposure? Trump, Pruitt, Zinke (Mr. Offshore Drilling)—they and their cohorts are impugning everything that we know is true. At the Agriculture Department, for instance, staff members are encouraged to use terms like “weather extremes” instead of “climate change,” as if giving something an anodyne title will diminish the threat.
The simple acquiring of knowledge—something on which Americans have prided themselves since the country’s inception—has become a threat. Trump assails community colleges and the administration fails to forgive student loans. School budgets are slashed and a bungling billionaire serves as our education secretary. Newspapers are the enemy and television makes policy.
Our country has successfully built defenses against attacks of all kinds for 250 years, but we never prepared for this one: we never thought it was possible that, in an enlightened country, enlightenment would become the enemy.
There is, among those hundreds—maybe thousands—of fears, one called tyrannophobia, but before you go claiming to suffer from it, remember: phobias are irrational fears: the ones we have as we watch our country diminish, are far too reasonable.