10/14/2013 03:03 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Time of Exponential Ignorance

The silly political season of August has given way to an October of exponential ignorance. We can thank the colossally embarrassing dysfunction of the U.S. Congress -- especially the extremist beholden Republican led House of Representatives for this sobering turn of events. It is not an exaggeration to say that the pervasive incompetence, breath-taking stupidity, limitless ignorance and feckless timidity of most Republican representatives have brought us to the brick of self-induced social and economic catastrophe. In an utterly surreal atmosphere the House Republicans have shut down the Federal Government and threaten to default on the U.S. debt. Although these destructive political positions may be retracted before the shutdown ruins thousands of lives and a default brings on an economic Armageddon, I wonder what this egregious episode of political theater suggests about the future of our society.

As a citizen I am certainly concerned about the immediate impacts of these radical and previously unimaginable Republican negotiating tactics. As a social scientist and educator who has long thought about the whys and wherefores of social life, I wonder if there is a social and cultural source that nourishes our current political dysfunction. Why have we slipped into a state of political craziness?

It used to be that the so-called "best and brightest" gravitated toward public service. They felt obliged to extend their expertise and collective wisdom -- sometimes at great personal and economic cost -- to promote the public good. They believed in a social contract. It used to be that many of our public servants earned our respect. Many of them demonstrated serious knowledge about the ways of the world. Many of them put service to country above pursuit of individual wealth or ideological purity. Although there may be members of the current Congress whose thoughts and actions conform to this ideal model, most of them, I'm afraid, seem shortsighted, mean-spirited, narrow-minded and shockingly ignorant.

Consider these examples that reflect the ignorance of Congress.

--Let's shut down the Federal Government and default on the U.S. debt in order to kill the funding for the Affordable Care Act, which is already the law of the land, upheld by the Supreme Court. We will do anything to get rid of it no matter the social and economic consequences. This move, to put it blandly, makes no sense.

--Let's cut $40 billion from the food stamp program. Based on slender anecdotal evidence that there is fraud in the food stamp program, why not gut the system? Here's an example of this logic. One Congressman from Oklahoma saw a well-dressed physically fit couple using a food stamp card at Northern Virginia supermarket. Based upon this observation and other similar kinds of examples, he and his fellow Republican Congressmen voted cut a program in which the vast majority of recipients are not able-bodied adults, but poor children, the elderly and the disabled. That's a morally compromised weak argument, which, would get a failing grade in one of my classes. Even so, that bill passed the House of Representatives.

--Let's eviscerate federal funding for science. There is no shortage of Republican Members of the House and the Senate who have said that climate change is hoax. They don't trust the results of decades of scientific research that suggests that climate change is the result of human activity -- the burning of fossil fuels. They look beyond these inconvenient results to argue for the elimination the Environmental Protection Agency. They do support efforts to promote unfettered expansion of domestic energy production -- no matter the environmental ramifications.

--Let's make sure that there is no financial regulation of Big Business, which, in the orthodox conservative view, stifles business expansion and kills jobs. This belief is maintained even though lax regulation of financial markets led directly to the financial meltdown of 2008. Here there is a willful disregard of evidence--or an incapacity to understand it-- that challenges the premises of demonstrability ineffective ideas like supply side economics.

--Let's adopt a Social Darwinist orientation to society. Social Darwinism, which led to scientific racism in the 19th and 20th Centuries, is the erroneous social extension of Darwin's theory of natural selection. In Social Darwinism the "biology" of race becomes the explanation of social and economic difference. In Social Darwinism an extreme form of individualism can also become possible. We work hard and look out for our family and no one else. In this view, which is reminiscent of Representative Paul Ryan's favorite author, Ayn Rand, the rich are better than the poor and because the rich have worked hard and the poor are indolent, the rich carry no social obligation to help the poor. The poor, then, are responsible for their own misery. In the universe of Social Darwinism there is no social contract, let alone consideration of the common good. Considering the frequency and consistency of ugly campaign and town hall comments made about Islam, race, and presidential birth certificates, it becomes clear that a shocking percentage of Americans -- and their congressional representatives -- would be comfortable living in a society that values Social Darwinism.

This brief set of examples from recent political discourse suggests that the issue of political dysfunction is more than a matter of gerrymandering or politics-as-usual in Washington D.C.. It is part of a broader trend that has led us into an abyss of exponential ignorance.

From my vantage as a university educator, I am sometimes shocked at the ignorance of my hard-working students. Given the social climate in which they've been raised and the inadequately funded institutions that educated them, they tend to be ill-informed about current events. They usually know little of life outside of their insulated communities. Perhaps more disturbing, they often have trouble crafting an argument or making sense of an essay. Their speech tends toward the inarticulate. Their writing is often tangled and confusing. Although they may graduate with a degree, most them remain at best partially educated. If this is a typical level of knowledge for many of our college graduates, what can we say about the educational level of the voting public?

It's not a pretty picture, but it goes a long way toward explaining the dysfunction of the U.S. Congress. It is, after all, a majority of voters in a multitude of states and districts that has elected to Congress climate deniers, creationists, Social Darwinists and believers in supply side economics. These same folks like the idea of cutting funds for education and eliminating the Department of Education.

As I've stated in previous blogs about ignorance, we need a sea change in our attitude about education and the cultivation of young minds. We need to appreciate our teachers, pay them well for the vital service they provide, and prioritize teaching -- rather than sports, administration and on-line courses -- in our primary, secondary and post-secondary schools.

Political dysfunction in Washington underscores a broader social dysfunction that is enabled by exponentially expanding ignorance. A good way to fight back is by teaching our kids to read widely, write clearly, and think critically -- the foundation of any viable democracy.