In the past hundred years, we have seen science and technology change to a degree and quantity that no one could have imagined. At the beginning of the 20th century, time and space were still thought to be absolute. Atoms were still hypothetical to most people, including most scientists. The electric light was new and the telephone, the telegraph and newspaper were most sophisticated pieces of information technology available.
Today the level of knowledge and technology increases at a geometric rate. There is more discovered every year than anyone can learn in a lifetime and so much of this information is becoming more readily available to anyone with a library card or an internet connection. We are bombarded by more media than a generation ago would have even imagined. I personally carry a quarter to a third of a terabyte of information with me in my bag to work to every day including almost my entire music collection, hundreds of books and research papers, thousands of photographs and all kinds of computer source code and documentation. You would think we'd be pretty smart, awash in all this information. You would think our culture and our education would be so much more advanced than it was a hundred years ago. You would think we would have a level of enlightenment and knowledge that would impress and amaze our forefathers. But would they really be impressed at us, or our gadgets? Would they be amazed at our erudition and capabilities, or the fact that we can watch 500 different channels of television? We, as a society, know orders of magnitude more than our ancestors of only a hundred years ago, but are we, as individuals, any smarter? Looking at our education system, and the results of it, I'm not so sure I would say so.
Take a book written from a hundred years ago. Most of the time you will see far more complex use of language, with extensive use of appositives and parentheticals, that actually can take much effort to parse, leave alone comprehend. Now being hard to read doesn't necessarily make something better, and maybe we are just better at communicating clearly these days, but I have found the these older texts are often really that much better. Compare "The Wind in the Willows" or even "Winnie the Pooh" to anything written for kids in the last 50 years... I think our use of language is deteriorating significantly. It is said that J.R.R. Tolkien considered his book "The Hobbit" to be appropriate for a six-year-old to read. Nowadays, it would probably be considered appropriate for middle school, or later. Compare the speeches of Presidents Bush or Clinton to those of, say, Kennedy, Churchill or Lincoln. You will find that even when modern speeches are succinct and inspiring, as some of Bush's have been, or long and detailed, as most of Clinton's were, that the eloquence and beauty of orations from past generations simply do not exist any more. If you look at the school work required of even a eighth-grader from a century ago, it rivals that of a high-school graduate or even college undergraduate today. Yes, there was more emphasis on rote memorization, something of which I am certainly no big fan, but that alone does not explain the difference of what we expected of our children four generations ago, to what we expect today.
The very existence of widespread grammar and spelling errors (e.g., loose/lose, would of/would have, pluralizing with apostrophes) demonstrates to me that most people don't read very much if at all, because the best way to learn the language is to be exposed to numerous good examples of it. Now good spelling is not always correlated with being well-read; one of the smartest and most well-read people that I know (more well-read than I) is a horrible speller. But when I see people claiming that they get all the useful information they need from sites like Digg
and have no need for books, I can only conclude that those kinds of people are doomed to communicate at a highly illiterate level in perpetuity. Even if you were to read extensively from common magazines and newspapers, you will not be exposed to anything more than a very fundamental (i.e., 6th grade) level of proficiency with the language.
I've been recently reading a book of lectures given by Max Planck in the early 1900's. While the scientific content the first couple lectures isn't above anything a typical high-schooler could (or should) be able to understand, I found the level of sophistication of his language to be surprisingly high, and yet I get the feeling that this was typical in that context for 100 years ago. Maybe we are just better at speaking succinctly... I think that is in some part true... but mostly I think we are simply losing our ability to express ourselves as well as our forefathers, that we lack much of their skill to communicate nuance and abstraction.
I have spent (or perhaps wasted) a significant amount of time communicating online in the past 15 years, and while much of it has been informative, insightful, or otherwise rewarding I have found that the biggest problem in having a debate is often not making points and backing them up, but getting people to simply understand what you are saying, and not what they think you are saying, as we have a habit of instantly categorizing opinions into one of a small number of narrow, stereotypical mindsets because this is the kind of "debate" to which we are most often exposed. Whether on television, the radio or the internet, what passes for real discussion is often empty rhetoric, prejudice or just downright misrepresentation, and true debate, based on facts, employed with logic, is almost non-existent. Even a presidential candidate debate, which, one would think, would be one of the most serious and thorough discussions of policy and philosophy, often amounts to little more than simultaneous campaign speeches, with each candidate stating his positions in oversimplified "sound bites" with which the audience is almost certainly familiar to the point of boredom, pausing only occasionally to take an ad hominem swipe at his opponents, if he even acknowledges them (or in the case of one recent candidate, to simply criticize his opponent in broad, unspecific terms to the near exclusion of saying anything meaningful about how he would be any better).
A good recent example is the Pope's recent speech
that caused such a stir, to put it mildly. Now plenty of folks use any excuse imaginable to attack the Pope, and I doubt few if any of the people reacting with anger or violence even read (or in many cases, even could
read) His Holiness' speech in its context
and entirety. However, I cannot imagine that anyone with the capacity and will to actually understand what was said would respond with any criticism the like of which we've heard over the past few weeks. I found myself wishing for a thorough grounding in philosophy because I knew I was missing many of the implications of the Holy Father's words. My degree in Computer Science has done almost nothing to prepare me to consider the significance of Hellenistic thought and its relation and importance to modern faith.
Does it matter? It should, but public perception, as ignorant as it may be, ends up having a much stronger effect regardless of whether it is based on fact or not, and those people, civic, religious leaders or anyone with an opinion, who have something nontrivial to say will suffer, as do we all, from a society that is indifferent, or even hostile, to in-depth communication or a use of language beyond that of a small child. At this point, we are not only victims of our own willful ignorance, but even more so by those individuals who will take advantage of our collective lack of knowledge to misrepresent history. Our short memories and lack of learning have already turned political discourse into an exercise in distortion and illogic that would be entirely at home in George Orwell's "1984".
You may have noticed that His Holiness expressed his sorrow
for how his speech was received, not what he said. Far from being the usual weaselly apology of a politician who is only sorry he was caught, Pope Benedict correctly expressed the fact that the people who were angry did not, in fact, understand what he was trying to say. Could he have prevented this misunderstanding? Probably, but the strong reactions against his speech were a symptom of exactly what he was trying to say, thus proving his point: Too many people do not rely on reason, but rather let passions drive their lives, whether in faith, politics or even posting on some Internet forum.
As this situation has shown, it is vitally important in religion, politics and any other aspect of public or private discourse, that we attempt to move beyond the party mottos, catchy bumper-sticker philosophy and clever one-liners. We must attempt to create real dialog, and not just engage in parallel volleys of name-calling or knee-jerk reactions. Unfortunately, this requires a thorough understanding and consideration of both one's own beliefs and the beliefs of one's counterparts, and this, I'm afraid, is something that we all too often find to be too much trouble, and not worth the time and effort required.