I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the recent stunning images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope and released by NASA yesterday and today. The birth of stars, and images portraying gaseous peaks seven light years high, from parts of the universe 7600 light years away? I read the words over and over but the concepts are too big to grasp. But there is more big news. I juxtapose those mindbending ideas over the reality of the fires blazing through Yosemite, threatening the giant sequoias in the Mariposa section. One of two hundred 2000 year old trees, The Grizzly Giant, has been wrapped in a sprinkler system to try to save it from the advancing flames. I get the sequoias better than the universe because I’ve seen them, not in Yosemite, but in Sequoia National Park. The power and majesty of these cathedrals of limbs and leaves changes the way you perceive life and time. That they can be lost, in our fiery planet, while somewhere, a zillion miles away, a remarkable device is recording inexplicable space activity is overwhelming in its enormity.
But today, seemingly like every day in these strange times, I watched the January 6th House Committee hearing about what to me, is the absolute truth, that a modern coup was planned by a ragtag coalition of quasi-militias and hate groups at the behest of Donald Trump in his effort to retain the presidency. Witness after witness who include his family, his lawyers and advisors, stated that there was never any proof to substantiate his claim that the 2020 election was rigged, dirty, illegal. What is remarkable is that this fabrication still has legs in our society. Millions of people believe this lie which has been unilaterally debunked in multiple courts by Trump appointees, judges who have tossed out every phony lawsuit brought to defend this preposterous lie. How can this be? I was alive and watching during Watergate when a similar set of hearings undid the Nixon scams and wound up with the arrests and jailing of his most powerful allies. This is a different country now, not simply because there are deep divisions in the culture as much as there are alternative facts that people fervently believe. As all about them, the reality of powerful threats to democracy, to the basic tenets of our fragile freedoms being undone, from their bodies, to their voting rights and who knows what’s next legally, along with the reality of climate change which will effectively damage their very lives. Like in mass hysteria, the desire to believe that Covid has ended is instead allowing a sneaky virus that could have potentially been squelched multiple mutations ago, to go on its merry way, retooling itself for another surge. All the deaths, the long-haulers, the mass mental fatigue and the uncertainty are set aside for “normal,” whatever that means.
I’ve been trying to make my way through the enormity of it all. Sometimes while out in the world, the air feels like it is palpably vibrating with uncertainty and discomfort. I think lots of people feel uncomfortable, frustrated and depressed. I have my go-to anti-stressors like swimming, gardening or a good book. But the bigger picture is always lurking in the background. Recently I started thinking about my education. I was lucky enough to get one, in decent schools which provided me with a strong foundation from my earliest years. In truth, being a rebellious sort with parents too pre-occupied and inexperienced to notice that my performance as a student started lagging not long after my freshman year in high school, I did well enough to get myself into college. And despite the fact that the social issues of my younger days, like women’s rights, civil rights, the environment and the Vietnam war were more interesting to me than school, I read voraciously and got a solid education under my belt. Mostly I learned to think, to evaluate and to not believe everything I heard or read without analysis. Many of those same issues of my youth are unfortunately still on the table. Have the generations subsequent to mine gotten lost somewhere in that their educational preparation for making sense of the world is inadequate? Does the propensity to learn strictly for a career at the end of schooling, more common these days than it was when I was young, mean that all these huge issues are more than people can manage without retreating into their corners and ignoring the pressure of it all? I don’t know. One of my dearest friends and I have talked frequently about the benefits of a liberal arts education. Is that a thing of the past? Maybe I’m a relic. I looked up some definitions of that type of schooling which evolved over a couple of thousand years. Just to illustrate my point, here’s a sample definition. I think it sounds more practical than esoteric, especially considering this moment in history.
A liberal arts education offers an expansive intellectual grounding in all kinds of humanistic inquiry. By exploring issues, ideas and methods across the humanities and the arts, and the natural and social sciences, you will learn to read critically, write cogently and think broadly. These skills will elevate your conversations in the classroom and strengthen your social and cultural analysis; they will cultivate the tools necessary to allow you to navigate the world’s most complex issues. Princeton University Undergraduate Admissions.
I think those sound like worthy goals but maybe I’m just antiquated.
When I was in elementary school, a certain amount of my time was spent in the library, reading books with a device like this one above, which was attached to my book. Starting at a relatively low rate of speed, a dark screen eventually dropped down over the page, the goal being to read ahead of it. The catch was that you had to retain and comprehend what you’d read, so a short test was given afterwards to make sure you weren’t just fooling around. I really liked this game. By nature, I’m more likely to enjoy competing with myself than with anyone else. Eventually I got so fast that I could easily beat that falling screen unti l it was obsolete for me. I started thinking about this the other day when I was watching “Jeopardy.” That ability to read fast comes in handy when you’re at the end of the question before almost anyone else. Years ago, friends gave Michael and me a computer “Jeopardy” game. He was so frustrated that I was already answering before he was finished reading, that he just hit the answer button immediately, thereby blocking me from answering. Part of our family lore. But speed isn’t the main point here.
The point is that early on in life, I was being taught to think and to think fast. I was expected to retain what I was learning and to apply my knowledge to understanding the world from a broad standpoint. I think that foundation of believing I was capable of thinking my way through what the world put in front of me has helped me survive as a person capable of seeing the big picture, at least the parts within my mental capacity. I’m always looking for connections and comparisons and solutions. What else can you hang on to in these dizzying times? I worry when I see how easy it is to sell lies to people. How does that get fixed? I feel like I’m watching the fall of the Roman Empire. The cataclysm will be televised. Surely there must be something better than this.