What a bewildering post-logical world we live in, where a dimwit like Trump can become President of the United States, and where a demagogue like Farage can induce just over half of the British electorate to stampede off a cliff, dragging the other half with them — and us too.
But of course, such absurdities would never have been possible without the active collusion of the Press, and a general dumbing down of society.
In Britain, it was the likes of the Daily Mail, the Express and the Sun, repeating empty slogans that were swallowed by just enough voters to swing the Brexit referendum while in America it was Fox News, likewise repeating hollow certainties often enough to make them fact.
Britain voted for Brexit in part because of Boris Johnson’s nonsense about straight bananas just as Americans voted for Trump to make America great again, but what do these events have in common?
It seems to me that the unifying factor is an absolute absence of critical thinking on the part of the electorate. A complete inability to look at what is being presented and examine it in a rational, calm way.
I don’t know. Perhaps people are unable to understand how the media works. Perhaps the internet has made us more stupid, and here I hold my hand up since I’m as bad as the rest. The internet has drastically narrowed the gap between my attention span and that of my goldfish.
At the same time, though, we need to fundamentally examine our capacity to see through nonsense, to recognise it for what it is, yet this is not a skill our education system has ever offered Irish children, even though it’s a skill as vital as walking, talking or eating.
We need to look hard at our country where rational questioning is seen as something dangerous, something almost subversive, something to be suppressed.
Next time you go to see a medical specialist or a lawyer, will you ask yourself if this person deserves €250 just to shake hands with you? You probably won’t and neither will I.
If your government decides to give €34 billion of your money to bail out bank investors who have already insured against their gambling losses, what will you do?
If you’re told that the State will get no money from the Corrib gas field because it probably won’t produce much gas, and then it magically turns out to be a real winner, what will you say?
If your child asks you to help with some maths problem, you might work through the logical steps to the solution explaining clearly what you’re doing, but it’s no good. It doesn’t matter that you arrived at the right answer. It wouldn’t matter if you had a Nobel prize in astrophysics because that’s not the way the teacher does it.
We’ve all been there.
It speaks of a culture that fears innovative, logical, critical thinking and instead rewards rote learning. Cookery-book mathematics instead of insight and effective problem-solving, but of course, the teacher is a product of the same numbing, unimaginative process that is now trying to blunt the intelligence of your child, so what hope do we have?
From the very beginning, our school system is based on authority instead of collaboration. In the very best of our primary schools, teachers and parents are partners, but in the majority you, as a parent, are forced to address some barely-post-adolescent junior teacher as Miss this or Mister that.
This is wrong, and it doesn’t stop there. For generation upon generation, Irish people have been force-fed a diet of facile, childish nonsense, and encouraged to be passive. Not to question nor to challenge the authority of anyone in an official office, even if that individual turned out to be some puffed-up mayor with no authority, no budget and no staff. That’s Ireland. That’s how we ended up with the horrors of the industrial schools and how our poorer people ended up huddled in dispensaries at the mercy of overbearing medical overlords, as the people of Limerick did for generations. Nobody dared to ask hard questions.
That’s why we meekly accepted the debacle of the Mother and Child Scheme.
Because the capacity to ask hard questions has been systematically driven out of our psyche by this authoritarian little State we created for ourselves, to be replaced by our private creation myth as a bunch of jolly, story-telling free thinkers.
In reality, we Irish can barely string two sentences together when asked to stand up in front of an audience unless we’re rehearsed within an inch of our lives like Enda Kenny, and then we come across as stiff, wooden and boring. We mumble, we mutter and we stare at our shoes.
Speaking is another form of thinking. It’s a way of shaping ideas, turning them, considering them from all angles, kneading them and moulding them until we fully understand what it was we intended to express. I remember years ago reading some clever old fellow who said that words are the very stuff of thought, and I think he was right. Without words, abstract thinking is difficult.
In this country, we need to encourage our children to speak fluently and yet we consistently fail to do so.
Why? Because that would give them power, and power is the last thing we want to give to ordinary people.
Years ago, I visited various Scandinavian countries in the course of my work, and I was profoundly impressed with the way they explained how they worked.
The outstanding word was Possibility.
If this doesn’t work, we design it so that we have the possibility to …
They always had a plan B and a plan C. They had no qualms about acknowledging that humans are fallible, and they planned accordingly, unlike our people, who devise a method of working and stick with it even when it has patently failed. And that’s the difference between Scandinavia and Ireland.
How do we change all this?
We need to break this pattern but it isn’t enough to start teaching infants to think independently. We need to confront the habits in ourselves of sloppy thinking, of failing to ask hard questions and of passive-aggressive resentment instead of open, honest, genuine challenge to the kind of certainties people would force on us.
There’s only one kind of thinking: the rational kind, where you look at the evidence and see if it stacks up.
Isn’t it about time we started teaching our children how to do this at the earliest stages of their education? Isn’t it about time we devoted significant classroom hours to critical thinking? Isn’t it time we cleared out the clutter of our primary school curriculum and used that space instead to prepare our children for responsible, intelligent engagement in society as participating citizens?
Imagine raising a generation of children who are able to recognise nonsense for what it is.
That would surely be a new Ireland.
Are we mature enough for it?