The only difference between the opinions of your neighbor and the learned academic being paid to pontificate is often only the aura of worldliness and sophistication that accompanies the latter’s prognostications. I have, in fact, found that some of the smartest people I have ever met are completely lacking any alphabet soup of educational credentials after their names. A lifetime of involvement with a world that extends beyond a seminar room and is involved with the real grit and sweat of life provides a very different—and often far more incisive—perspective on our nation and world.
Certainly, speaking as an educator, I am not denigrating knowledge. However, I have learned during my lifetime that a broader but more general understanding is far preferable to a deeper but narrower one that excludes many of the practical activities of the world. Moreover, if your deep but narrow knowledge is devoted to a topic so arcane and obscure as to beggar all belief, the chances are very good that the realities of daily existence are going to escape and befuddle you.
Hence, we are plagued by the genius PhD who can’t fix a toilet. Knowledge divorced from life experience tends to produce hothouse beliefs, which perhaps explains why “The Greatest Generation” was, in fact, so very great. Hardened and tested in the crucible of a desperate and dangerous world war, they could spare little time for pointless speculations and endless mind games. Clear purpose and tough action leading to a definite and realistic result was what they knew and respected.
At the risk of engaging in my own pointless speculation or mind games without end, I am going to offer an observation: It seems to me that we are today seeing profound educational, cultural, and political divisions spring up between those whom we might call “practitioners” and those “theorists” who loudly and insistently demand that we all conform to their supposedly lofty standards. The mutual incomprehension on both sides of this divide makes communication and reconciliation well-nigh impossible.
The cult that has sprung up around the adolescent environmental activist Greta Thunberg seems the perfect embodiment of this disconnect—and the problems that it can cause.
To her acolytes, Ms. Thunberg is the perfect 16 year old Green Goddess. Unsullied by the inevitable compromises of life, she can be an uncompromising scold regarding our deeply compromised relationship with our natural world. Adults know cows must die to produce the hamburgers that provide the protein we need, trees must be felled to provide lumber and fuel, and holes must be bored into the virgin soil to extract the mineral wealth that makes our modern existences possible. In addition, few adults would, knowing the inherent limitations of teenagers due to their lack of life experience and impulse control, choose to march unquestioningly behind an adolescent. Ms. Thunberg is, however, the perfect leader for those who prefer impassioned theory to messy reality.
Ms. Thunberg’s behavior and demeanor is premised on child logic, which believes all adults are idiots because the young simply do not know how bewilderingly complex adulthood actually is. Many times it is the case that children must grow up and have children themselves before they finally realize adults are a lot smarter than they might first appear. The preponderance of young sages now crowding social media and filming earnest podcasts where they blithely explain the answers to all of our world’s problems must be commended for their passion and high ideals—I hope they carry some portion of these throughout their lives—but they must also be regularly reminded that they have a lot more to learn about how the world actually works.
Unfortunately, excitable and innocent youth can also serve the purposes of adults who realize their political uses as both a symbol and a weapon.
The advocates and politicians who are today pushing children and adolescents to the forefronts of political movements ranging from gun control to reproductive rights are often exploiting those who trust their judgments and purposes. Given that the young are typically anxious to please adults in order to gain approval and validation, the potential for self-serving manipulation is both obvious and worrisome. The recent trend of, for example, public school teachers encouraging students to join them on picket lines during contract negotiations is a head spinning example of adults turning those over whom they have clear influence and control into props for their personal gain—which is both abusive and irresponsible.
Believing passionately is not the same as knowing the truth, and we must remember—no many how many academic degrees we have earned—that our most dearly held beliefs might be flat wrong. This is an extraordinarily difficult concept for many educated adults to navigate; it is, however, nearly impossible for a credulous child or adolescent to fathom. Responsible adults, who might in many instances be somewhat divorced from reality themselves because they are carried away by their own fervent academic certitude, must not abuse the innocent trust of children.
Encouraging those too young to make informed and thoughtful decisions about their beliefs and values to leap into situations where their zeal might be taken advantage of will often expose them to people and situations that could cause trauma and long-term psychological damage. We cannot allow this to continue, and adults must stop stealing the wide-eyed enthusiasm of childhood to suit their own political purposes.