George Graham

A Cult of Ignorance Threatens American Society

I did not enjoy school. I hated sitting for what seemed like eons in a stuffy classroom, looking at Mr. Newnham’s bony back while he painstakingly conjugated Latin verbs on the blackboard…

Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant…

Off my mind would go, conjugating the delightful possibilities of real-life amorousness.

Usually, my daydreams would be cut short by a well-aimed piece of chalk bouncing off my noggin. Mr. Newnham must have had eyes in the back of his head, and I bet he practiced chalk throwing when he went home at night.

But looking back on the experience, I am grateful for those teachers and I marvel at their dedication.

In Jamaica, education was revered then, and I bet it’s revered now. It was not as easy to come by there as it is in America, and my mother drummed into me that the privileged few who were lucky enough to go to a secondary school had every reason to be appreciative.

But why was I learning Latin? Common sense told me I would have no use for Latin once I left school.

Of course, my common sense was mistaken. Because so many English words have Latin roots, those dreary classes helped me earn a living as a writer and editor throughout my life.

The moral of this story is that you can’t always trust your “common sense.”

Common sense might lead you to believe that if you take two cannon balls – one bigger than the other – to the top of the Tower of Pisa and drop them over the side at the same time, the big cannon ball would hit the ground first. But a 17th-century scholar named Galileo proved otherwise.  Defying “common sense,” the cannon balls fall at the same speed.

Galileo also proved that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way about, which the Catholic Church decided was heresy because that’s not the way they understood the Bible to describe it.

His “heresy” led to Galileo’s arrest by the Inquisition (illustrated in Cristiano Banti’s painting above). He was forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

I wonder whether this is where America is headed today?

My favorite economist, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, notes in a recent New York Times blog that the conservative movement in America is turning to anti-intellectualism. He refers to a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal that “denounces ‘fancy theories’ and rejects them because they ‘defy common sense’.”

The “fancy theory” Krugman finds himself defending is Keynesian economics, which is considered quite mainstream by most economists.

Click here to read the blog.

But to people like the Wall Street Journal’s editorial writer, it’s a “fancy theory.”

And he has lots of company. Conservative politicians and their followers pooh-pooh “fancy theories” like evolution and global warming. And they denounce scientific research as a waste of money.

American conservatives are turning away from education, mocking the findings of years of study and experimentation. Some candidates are even making a virtue of ignorance, presenting their lack of learning as a qualification for office.

That may be one reason for their attacks on teachers and their slashing of education and research funding.

How long will it be, I wonder, before America welcomes some new form of the Spanish Inquisition?

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for