I often wonder why smart people are frequently admonished for “failing to reach” less-smart people — as if society owes the less smart a dumbing down of the smart stuff. One particularly controversial example of the prevailing pressure to dumb down is evident in parts of the debate around the “national language”. Tagalugin mo na lang kasi e! (“Spare us the English and say it in Tagalog instead!”), as the all-too-familiar reproach goes. Never mind that much of humanity’s useful knowledge is articulated in English, German, French, Chinese, Japanese, and other languages spoken by societies with deep and extensive track records of achievement; Filipinos would rather sit around and whine about not seeing enough learning material articulated in Tagalog.
A similar kind of thinking is in the concept of making learning “fun”. Businesses are making a killing selling software and DVDs that present the maths and sciences in play or entertainment form. As the thinking there goes, kids can have fun even without realising that they are learning something. Sounds like a good concept at first glance. But reality has a way of hitting hard come crunch time. Many of us will find out later in life that learning the kinds of stuff that earn us the big bucks isn’t always fun. In fact, more often than not it isn’t. Learning the detail within a field of knowldege and specialising in a sought-after trade or expertise requires dedication, discipline, and concentration. And ability to concentrate is what sets apart the adult mind from the infantile mind. A person with an adult mind pulls herself together to concentrate on acquiring a useful skill. A person with an infantile mind, on the other hand, merely sits around waiting for information to come to her in a form that is readily digestible.
An environment fertile for growth in learning
So, here is what is real: The onus really is on the less smart to step up and take the initiative to gain access to the kinds of stuff smart and successful people occupy their minds with. Whether the means to that access be in the form of improved proficiency in the lingua franca used in the exchange and sharing of world-class knowledge, or in the application of a more critical mind when evaluating issues and options, the fact is those means are skills that can be learned.
I think there already is in place today a far greater number of initiatives involving smart people taking an effort to share their knowledge, than initiatives on the part of dumb people taking the effort to acquire knowledge for themselves. Worse, dumb people are constantly assured that they can be forgiven for their taste for Wowowee-type foods for thought.
Indeed, smart people already apply a monumental effort to push their views into the mainstream (though they may struggle a bit in the effort to dumb much of it down). Do we see a commensurate effort on the part of dumb people to pull the same information into their sphere of thinking? You can’t sow seeds on barren soil and expect a bumper crop. Thus calls for smart Filipinos to “come home” and apply their brains for the greater glory of country come across as merely quaint:
MANILA, Philippines—Senator Edgardo Angara is urging Filipino scholars abroad to return to the Philippines and share what they learned to help improve the country’s academic and industrial sectors.
At the same time, he called on the national government to help local agencies involved in education to provide “venues where they can put their expertise to good use” in the Philippines.
Angara, who heads the Congressional Committee on Science, Technology and Engineering (COMSTE), expressed concern that Filipino scholars abroad do not return to the country after completing overseas studies.
Bringing in more Filipino experts in research and development fields, including in information technology, will enhance the country’s scientific infrastructure.
If even ordinary folk who espouse simple values such as waiting for one’s turn in a queue or disposing of one’s trash properly are regarded like village idiots by the majority, it is highly doubtful that rocket scientists, nuclear physicists, computer engineers, and marine biologists will find fertile ground for their ideas in the landscape of Philippine society. This collective intellectual bankruptcy is a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed before we can even hope to attract and retain real world-class talent. For now we remain largely mired in a national “debate” that is “droll and unintelligent, focused on the trivial or the irrelevant“; one where “logic and common sense take the backseat to political arguments and the views of the poorly-educated”.
Perhaps it is this false populism ingrained by a perverse flavour of democracy and Catholicism that we have applied to ourselves that we need to learn to see past.
Celebrating the successful rather than coddling the “victims”
As a student at the Ateneo, I got bombarded with that ubiquitous tagline — “come down from the hill” (as it happens, also the title of the Alma Mater song of our school). I remember once mumbling to a friend of mine while we pumped our fists in the air (as tradition dictates) as we sang the Alma Mater song: “I think I like the view better from the top of the hill”.
The reality is we learn more from stories about successful people than from losers. Stories of the lives of successful people are more interesting and inspiring than stories about the lives of losers. If that weren’t the case, then biographies about inhabitants of trailer parks and squatter areas would be making the bestseller lists alongside biographies of Andy Grove, Steven Jobs, Bill Gates, and Donald Trump.
A fascination with the morbid and the tragic also seems to occupy the psyche of the Filipino. The political “debate” of the last two decades is pretty much hinged on a collective gratitude and hallowing of heroes. There is a constant reminder to be “vigilant” lest the “fragile” democracy supposedly made possible by the “sacrifices” of said heroes be undermined by the forces of darkness; never mind that much of the onus on making this “democracy” work now falls on the ability of the electorate to raise the standards they apply to evaluating their politicians.
Unfortunately the Philippines has become renowned for taking two generous steps backwards for every arm length it gains clawing forward. The top feudal clan at the moment — the Aquinos — has built an entire value proposition to the electorate on the basis of pedigree and melodrama — apparently the kinds of hooks that our utak tilapia culture continues to predispose many to bite onto. Blogger Rom makes a particularly spot-on observation on how the Aquino clan continues to milk a family tragedy for every drop of political equity it is worth:
There must be some sort of psychological parasitism going on here, where [the Aquino] women seem unable to speak of the death of their mother [former Philippine President Corazon Aquino] in terms of anything other than being orphaned and all the melodrama that entails; and where they cannot seem to relate to each other except as weepy members of a support group.
I echo Rom’s sentiment that for those of us who apply a bit more perspective around these things, such posturing merely highlights the real heroes in my book — those who’ve suffered similar tragedies, and grieved in private with grace and dignity.
Focus on simplifying ideas rather than simplifying messages
Having said all that, it must be pointed out that there, in all ironies, is a constant, virtually industrialised effort to dumb down information for mass consumption. It’s a highly specialised field in the sciences of persuasion called brand marketing. The brightest and most creative minds on the planet have elevated one part of it to a fine art — advertising — and the other part to an industrial science — brand management.
The recent history of brand marketing as a distinct field is a story of progressively increasing abstraction and simplification of the way messages are conveyed over modern channels of mass communication — to the point where substance is made irrelevant in favour of sensual appeal. Yet its principles trace their roots to antiquity. Organised religion, for one, derives its power from the coating of gloss and symbolism it paints over, say, Holy Scripture (as well as a range of disparate historical events and characters) and the complex of rituals and protocol it built upon it which it then exercises absolute governance over. Reduction of an entire belief framework into an abstraction — embodied in a symbol or icon — has the effect of intensely focusing its emotional appeal. The singular reverence humanity had exhibited for symbols — the crucifix, swastika, hammer-and-sickle, and, yes, the yellow ribbon — demonstrates how that focused emotion almost takes on a life distinct from the original substance of what these symbols had represented.
So in the same way that McDonalds had reduced eating to low-nutrition-value packaged deals, information critical to our future fortunes is now delivered to us in low-intellectual-value iconography propped up by vacuous catchphrases.
Simplifying a message is easy when there is no substance to condense to begin with.
Compare that to the monumental achievements of men who found the underlying order in complex phenomena such as gravity and motion. Newton, for one, related mass and rate of change of motion to explain natural “forces”, and Einstein extended this to include objects’ relative positions in time and space; in the process, coming up with a better (less mystical) explanation for gravity among other things. Whereas the tyrannies of religion and superstition simplified the explanation of such phenomena by coming up with dumbed down messages, men like Newton and Einstein made the explanation of such phenomena more transparent, coherent, and empowering for those who invested the time to understand these explanations.
Make work, not war
Turning the solution to an ill-understood issue or challenge into a “war” or a “fight” of some sort is a traditional favourite of the masters of dumbing down (recall The Crusades).
Take our regard for “addressing” the issue of poverty in our society. I observe much initiative to create an “awareness” of it. However, if seeing eight-year-old children knocking at your car window while stopped at the light on an intersection ain’t enough “awareness” already, what’s the point in creating even more “awareness” when even such an in-your-face sight that greets us in our daily commute fails to inspire?
There is a lot of the What but none of the How. Reducing poverty is not a “fight”. It is about work — smart work. Dumb work yields temporary solutions, while smart work yields sustainable solutions.
Fights have been proven by history to be dumb. Whenever we use the word “fight”, “laban”, or whatever else other forms of platitudes romanticists like to dish out, it elicits off-the-hip reactions. Bunot sa pitaka, buying a fundraising shirt, waving a fist, and the favourite of geniuses: rallying. Those “laban” and “fight” calls whether in the context of patalsikin-na-now-na politics, “wars” against “corruption”, or “fight poverty” campaigns simply beg a simple question:
“How exactly?” is a HARD question, because answering that question requires thinking — not just Filipino standards of thinking but WORLD-CLASS standards of thinking. An effort to reduce poverty often takes decades and even generations and as such requires a long-term outlook. “Fights” and “labans” are not underpinned by long-term outlook or thinking because they are primarily appeals to emotion.
Indeed, I once asserted that ‘Awareness’ of poverty is just a fashion statement for many of us…
It is interesting the way messages that aim to make one “aware” about the “plight” of the poor proliferate. In many countries, such awareness does not come at much of an effort as it is an in-your-face reality of daily life. But with affluence comes the insidious effects of our Christianic upbringing on a diet of doctrine and dogma that demonises the wealthy. Contrary to popularly-held notions and stereotypes, it seems it is the wealthy who have a bigger problem with poverty than those who are poor. Pity the rich as they are saddled with a pre-occupation with being “aware” of poverty and have a bigger need to be seen to be “giving back their share”.
Giving back their share. But of course. That’s the fashionable position to espouse.
…just like the current pedigree campaign of the Aquino family has become a fashion statement for people too lazy to think. Making a spectacle to demonstrate some form of productive action is easy. But true productivity is often the result of quiet achievement, thus…
When one leads a life of quiet achievement grounded on doing things properly, one is entitled to be free from the scrutiny and admonitions to be a bit more “aware” of the “less fortunate” coming from those who fancy themselves as some sort of “hero” of the poor and oppressed. There is absolute merit in calling for a change in our self-righteous penchant for calling one another to heroic and extraordinary deeds and instead find value in the collective effect of each individual doing their ordinary jobs properly and quietly.
Popular “heroes” fought disaster. The real unrecognised heroes, on the other hand, are those who worked smart to prevent them. Are there real heroes in Philippine society? The eminent blogger Abe Margallo apparently begs to differ, instead espousing form over substance:
Like GMA, Noynoy may have been pushed into the vicissitudes of power ahead of his time. But his youth informed by the martyrdom of his father which tormented the entire nation and his political career forged by an enduring devotion to democratic values bequeathed to him by his mother, and in the face of his relatively unblemished political career, it would be unwarranted for anyone to claim that, his radical reformative-bent notwithstanding, the commitment of Noynoy to democracy, liberty and social justice is only formal rather than substantive.
If we manage to cut through the verbose pomposity, we find that Margallo basically attempts to discredit those who make a critical evaluation of Aquino’s ability to govern and encourage a deference to his family’s pedigree. To give credit to Margallo, he is consistent with his go-with-your-gut proposition:
Are we better off if we simply hearken to our innermost gut instead of being framed by professional charlatans out there? After all, it’s not always the case that our choice of leaders would in the end be the perfect embodiment of all the causes dearest to our heart.
Indeed, your gut tells you to “fight” but then when your brain takes over to implement the order, it finds that it’s got nothing to work with.
The better way
Having shed light into the dumbness that continues to prevail in the Philippine National “Debate” I make some better propositions (hopefully ones that will eventually erase the immense damage done to our national psyche by “experts” such as Abe Margallo and his gang).
If we find that we struggle to come up with a plan better than one that involves a “fight” then let’s take up the matter with our politicians who supposedly possesss the intelligence and expertise to apply executive skills to the problem.
Let’s not get too caught up with gut reactions and too beholden to slogans, glossy posters, t-shirts, and websites that promise everything but offer nothing.
And let’s not lap up all this horsemanure about “giving up something” for the poor. Why give up something that you studied and worked hard to acquire. Instead, let’s take a more mature philosophy towards finding sustainable approaches to reducing (NOT “fighting”) poverty:
Instead of “giving up” something, let’s use what we already have more productively.
Giving up stuff is EASY. Finding better ways to use stuff is HARD and takes BRAINS. And it is always our approach of taking the easy way that keeps us chronically mired in that “poverty” everybody seems to be calling “fights” against.
Hopefully that irony does not yet again fly over everybody’s heads.
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The reader shall note the following terms-of-use and disclaimers applicable to the consumption of this blog post.
1.0. Definition of terms
Smart people — people who exhibit a willingness or potential to apply sound thought processes in the evaluation of issues/options and in responding to challenges they face.
Dumb people — people who lack initiative or will to apply sound thought processes in the evaluation of issues/options and in responding to challenges they face.
Successful people — people who have fulfilled their aspirations according to their personal definitions of success.
Losers — people who have failed to fulfill their aspirations according to their personal definitions of success.
Given the above definition of terms to be applied in the use of certain words within the scope of this article, any adverse emotional response on the part of the reader elicited by said use will not be regarded by the author as relevant to actual points that comprise the message the author wishes to purposely convey in this blog post.