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by on January 13, 2020


By Marco M. Pardi

…all men are created equal.” The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence.

All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents.” John F. Kennedy. 6 June 1963.

All comments are welcome and will receive a response.

Although I’ve had college classes in the subject, I make no pretense to be a political scientist. I am merely a participant-observer of the human condition. But surely every reader of this column can discern a distinct difference in the two statements rendered above. I have always viewed the first statement as well meaning but dreadfully naive. The second statement, although rather soft, provokes us to consider what is meant by “talent”. Does that mean capacity, as in the capacity for critical thinking? Or are we to sidetrack ourselves toward discussions of child prodigies such as Mozart and others like him?

In a time when we, the species Homo sapiens, face decisions which will decide whether we perish or prosper we must honestly and critically examine the predicate upon which we empower people to make those decisions. We are long past the ethic of, If you screw up a place, just move. We are in the corner and the paint is not just wet, it’s rising.

What are these decisions mentioned above? Let’s start with Climate Change, gaining speed and momentum like an oil tanker train and needing many miles of track before it can stop and then reverse. How about an essentially Fascist regime in the White House in an era when most Americans seem unable to identify Fascism even as it speaks lies to them through their ubiquitous sources of “news”? Or what about the regime developed Tax Code revisions which favor the Kleptocrats while scheming to pay for it through cuts to Social Security, MediCare, MediCaid, the Public School System, and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program? We could also discuss the current attacks on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Then there is the Man/Baby in the White House who seeks to deflect attention from his impeachment by assassinating a very highly placed figure in a foreign and hostile government. (Interestingly, the film 1917 is now playing. Perhaps a tiny few in the audience will remember that WWI was started with the assassination of one man – Archduke Ferdinand). Are these good for a start? Actually, I’m sure they are since the readers of this column demonstrate they think deeply and critically. Can we say that of every person who is entitled to vote?

As I’ve written of previously, I differentiate “smart” and “intelligent”. And again, I caution against the facile trap of conjuring a stereotypic image of a “dumb person” with a “smart person”. All physicians are smart; they have learned what was needed to graduate from medical school and pass the Boards. Not all physicians are intelligent. That is, not all of them are able to take the information they have learned and generate new knowledge. At the other end of the social scale I knew a retired train engineer (he drove them; he did not design them) who left school after third grade to do what he could to financially help his family. Despite his almost total hearing loss we spent many hours discussing a wide array of current events and the insights afforded us by history. How did we do that? In every spare moment he developed his reading skills and voraciously read all the serious literature he could get his very dirt stained hands on. Many of my physician friends would have been lost at “Hello”.

As an author I have been watching an accelerating trend since the 1970’s: serious readership has been markedly declining at an ever faster pace. Daily newspapers are going out of business almost as quickly as restaurants. Independent bookstores are disappearing. Even network television news programs are in dramatic decline, losing viewers to other media outlets which, in many cases, are nothing more than propaganda organs. Lets look at these trends.

The research organization STATISTA tracks reading trends in the United States. The collated findings of several national surveys indicate the following:

“ On average, Americans aged 20 to 34 spend a mere 0.11 hours reading daily, which amounts to less than seven minutes per day. Although the time spent reading increases in the older generations, the general trend is worrying – an overall average of only 0.28 hours spent reading per day. Despite these stunning numbers, there are also some positive things to note: As of 2018, 74 percent of adults stated that they have read at least one book in the past year, and additionally, Americans continue to spend around 110 U.S. dollars per year on reading.” 

Average annual expenditure on reading per customer in the U.S.: 108 USD. Share of U. S. adults who have read at least one book in the past year: 72%. Average Daily Time Spent Reading in the U.S.: 15.6 minutes.”

While the figures above give us little to no insight into the types of books read, perhaps the figures on magazines will do so:

Entertainment and TV: 7.11%

Science, Nature or Medicine: 3.61%

Political: 2.77%

Scholarly: 1.01%”

Is it any wonder a television “reality” show host, producer of insipid beauty contests, and purveyor of “conspiracy theories” was elected as President of the United States of America? I was not at all surprised.

One of the more puzzling recent developments is the push to lower the voting age to 16. Some point to Greta Thunberg, the Swede who, at the age of 15, captured the world’s attention with her brilliant indictment of Climate Deniers. Yet, many say she is an exception. I think the claim she is an exception is an American bias. During the 22 years I taught at various universities and colleges I consistently found that students whose K-12 education was European, British, or Scandinavian based were far better able to understand and discuss the nuances and ramifications of world events, especially world politics. Perhaps American schools seek to produce smart students, able to remember and repeat what they have been taught while other systems seek to produce intelligent students able to understand, extrapolate, and build on what they have learned.

Another caveat against the granting of the vote to 16 year old people is the information about the development of the brain itself. But I cannot accept this applies only to Americans. Note the “starting at 16 or 17” in the following:

The front part of the brain, responsible for functions such as complex reasoning, problem-solving, thinking ahead, prioritizing, long-term planning, self evaluation and regulation of emotion, begins to develop in early adolescence with a final developmental push starting at age 16 or 17. It is not that these tasks cannot be done before young adulthood, but rather that it takes more effort and requires practice.” K. Teipel of the State Adolescent Health Resource Center, Konopka Institute, University of Minnesota.

Should I assume, then, that American adolescent brains are “wired” differently? I think not. Rather, I will conclude that the American culture is wired differently. I would like to know if, and to what extent, Teipel’s study sample included subjects from various cultures and educational systems. Unfortunately, I do not have that information but I will venture to suggest that his results were at least in part culturally influenced.

My point here is that until the American culture makes a fundamental shift from trying to produce smart to trying to produce intelligent we will see a rapidly worsening gap between those who have the answers appropriate to yesterday and those who have the competence to negotiate tomorrow. As tomorrow advances upon us with ever increasing speed our “equal opportunity to develop our talents” is rapidly diminishing. We must become sober and serious in the granting of power to affect the course of our journey into the future that our profligate past has brought us.

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  1. Dana permalink

    Marco, I would like to say that I support lowering the voting age to sixteen. This will give high school students the opportunity to become more involved in issues that affect them. Some of these issues include contraception/abortion, gun control, and climate change.

    In fact, I think there are teenagers far more informed, concerned, and able to vote than even their parents might be.


    • Thank you, Dana. While I certainly agree that many young people are better informed than their parents I still have concerns over the Conversion Syndrome. You remember our class discussions of this phenomenon; adolescents are particularly prone to vulnerability to conversion to religious or socio-political movements. The reasons aren’t clear, but churches, cults, and political parties are well aware and they strike hard at youth during these years. You may remember the YAF – Young Americans for Freedom of the Republican Party. It was a transparent copy of Hitler’s Jugend Korps and the Soviet era Young Pioneers. Too young to vote, they were “useful idiots” who were sent door to door with campaign literature, tasked with stuffing and mailing out literature, and frenzied cheerleading at rallies and speeches. The group has been resurrected under a new name but the tactics are the same. The non-American educational systems I cited have had remarkable success at preventing this kind of exploitation, but I doubt we could count on that here.


      • Dana permalink

        You’ve made some excellent points, Marco.

        I’m actually much more concerned with raising the marital age and eliminating child marriage in the U.S. than I am with voting age. Few, if any, politicians seem to include this in their platform, although The Clinton Foundation is trying to make a widely known issue.


        • Thanks, Dana. I agree, and have long campaigned against this practice. This is yet another example of how we must be vigilant about who is empowered to decide.


  2. Mike Stamm permalink

    These days, lowering the US voting age to 16 might actually be a good idea; certainly it’s not as bad as it sounds. While there aren’t all that many well-read and educated 16-year-olds (or those of any other age group, for that matters), at least those that are don’t yet owe allegiance to the almighty dollar and whatever ethical concessions might provide the most of them.

    As for education in the US, I think real education is the dream of most–not all, but (I hope) most–real educators. But it runs head-on into an anti-intellectual streak in American thought (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) that is as old as the country. After all, it wasn’t teachers who demanded that students who can’t meet advancement requirements be advanced anyway; it was parents. It used to be, I think, that insisting that students’ reach exceed their grasp was an acceptable–and effective–principle.

    Couple that with the notion of education-as-industry, with its associated belief of intellectually mechanized efficiency, and it’s a wonder that American schools do as well as they do. The entire American educational structure from kindergarten through at least the BA/BS levels needs to demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. (And while we’re at it, the religious establishment–of any stripe–needs to be stripped of most of its serious social influence. Why not dream big?)

    We may have deferred addressing such issues for far too long, however. Differing people have widely differing beliefs on what works, and the possibility of finding any kind of workable compromise or solution that will satisfy everyone–or anyone–seems remote.

    But we still need to try.


    • Thank you, Mike. As someone whose view of humanity tends to lean toward the Dark Side I share your doubt that we can repair and even reverse the long established anti-intellectualism of this country. And while I’m at it, I would say I reject “college for all” on the grounds that college should not be for all. That severely erodes the quality of a college education.


  3. Steve permalink

    As a parent of a thirteen year old and sixteen year old, I have very mixed feelings about a lowered voting age. True, there are many children that are involved and aware, but they are still teens and subject to being ensnared in typical teen social mores or the constant push to excel as appealing prospects for college. I think there are outlets available to any sixteen and seventeen year old that wants to be politically active. There are organizations they can join and there are no laws I’m aware of preventing them from volunteering in campaigns. Yes, it may seem cruel to them to not be able to vote. However, I think if there is a real passion there, the wait only sharpens their resolve. Thunberg proved that being a young teen does not negate your ability to have a voice and their goals don’t have to be as grandiose as hers. There is a lot to be said for working on a local community based level.

    As far as education goes, in my opinion, there seems to be entirely too much emphasis on the appearance of results over practical application of knowledge and understanding. Kids are constantly tested to become better test takers for better test scores. There also is a continuous method of tinkering with curriculum on a micro level based solely on what the latest test results indicate. Many parents I knew were frustrated with the “common core” math techniques developed. When I looked at them I completely understood the thinking behind them. That said, developing a visual deconstruction of the reasons behind column placement when employing multiplication seemed counterintuitive when the rote memorization of basic multiplication problems was pushed to the side to teach it.

    Despite those observations, I feel like our county has afforded our kids a strong education from a great many teachers that care. Those teachers are simply colliding up against a results-on-paper-only system on a daily basis. As always, parents own the greatest responsibility for how aware their kids are, but both parents and (too often their VERY young) children have an adorable pocketful of distraction that connects them with social media sites, alerts, texts, games and emails that constantly barrage you with information real or perceived as important. There is a very good reason why the originators of a great deal of our modern technology allow their children minimal time on the internet.


    • Thank you, Steve. You have introduced several vital issues. As must be obvious, I share your concerns about lowering the voting age. In fact, I do not see a path through the controversy other than devising some sort of competency test – a measure which would be nearly impossible to devise and as impossible to implement.

      Your assessment of parental involvement is telling. I have long questioned the efficacy of home schooling since, to my knowledge, there is no standard by which the parents themselves are judged to be competent. The only test of either the parent/teacher or the student is the outcome of the student. Of course, the same may be said to some degree of our professional teachers.

      But more than the formalized teaching of material, we need far more emphasis on the development of young minds which can understand and expand on the material: the difference between smart and intelligent.


      • Dana permalink

        Marco, my son attended middle and high school with a few adolescents who were home schooled for non-religious reasons. These were high-achieving students who for various reasons did not want to attend public school. Most were still involved in extra-curricular activities and had parents permitted them to be involved in decision-making.

        Today’s homeschooling, if executed properly, has drastically changed. Curriculum may be fully in line with what would be used in a traditional classroom, and much of it is done online.

        Some young people might need accommodations for various reasons, such as being overwhelmed by crowds. As you know I’m an autodidact in some areas, and was forced to be so in high school. I’m definitely not advocating for that. But I’m also not certain with my sensitivities that I would have easily survived public high school. I was already being beaten up and bullied through the sixth grade for reasons not apparent or disclosed to me by the abusers.


        • Thank you, Dana. While looking at the examples you offer it is wise to place them in context. Doing so, we can say your son learned to successfully navigate the system, not succeed because of it. The examples of failure to navigate far outweigh the examples of those who do.


  4. “Hire a teenager while they still know everything.”; need I say more? Yes? Merely reaching a particular age, whether that be 16, 18, 21 or beyond, does not assure us of knowledge, intelligence, or wisdom. A talking bird will echo what it hears repeated often enough, and a lie told often enough sounds like the truth. As you so aptly pointed out, there is no viable way of testing whether a voter of any age has either knowledge (smart) or understanding (intelligent) of the issues and candidates presented to us on polling day. I consider myself to be reasonably intelligent, yet I admit to my limited ability to make the right choices in this oh-so-vital arena of battle; and a battle it has indeed become.

    For the record (and for what it’s worth), I am against lowering the voting age to sixteen. While it is no-doubt true that there are a great many involved and knowledgeable people of that age, I question the wisdom of most to make these vital decisions. Some may simply parrot what their parents (and peers) have to say, while others might see this as an opportunity for rebellion. While a few more years is no guarantee of expanded understanding, perhaps it affords us the opportunity to learn to think for ourselves.


    • Thank you, Rose. Your position is well stated and I agree. I think the complexity of the modern world and the potential effects of poorly based decisions have overtaken the idealist view that everyone should have an equal voice. How we craft a solution, and what form that will take are beyond me for now. I think we will see the glimmerings of Artificial Intelligence, “superior decision making”, encroaching ever deeper into the management and enactment of our human values.


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