Saturday, December 26, 2009

worth reading

intro to Richard Dawkins's new book


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"Imagine that you are a teacher of Roman history and the Latin language, anxious to impart your enthusiasm for the ancient world- for the elegiacs of Ovid and the odes of Horace, the sinewy economy of Latin grammar as exhibited in the oratory of Cicero, the strategic niceties of the Punis Wars, the generalship of Julius Ceasar, and the voluptious excesses of the later emperors. That's a big undertaking, and it takes time, concentration, dedication. Yet you find your precious time continually preyed upon, and your class's attention distracted, by a baying pack of ignoramuses who with strong political and especially financial support, scurry about tirelessly attempting to persuade your unfortunate pupils that the Romans never existed. There never was a Roman Empire. The entire world came into existence only just beyond living memory. Spanish, Italian, French, Portugese: all these langauges and their constituent dialects sprang spontaneously and separately into being and owe nothing to any predecessor such as Latin. Instead of devoting your full attention to the noble vocation of classical scholar and teacher, you are forced to divert your time and energy to a reargaurd defense of the proposition that the Romans existed at all: a defense against an exhibition of ignorant prejudice that would make you weep if you weren't too busy fighting it.

If my fantasy of the Latin teacher seems too wayward, here's a more realistic example. Imagine you are a teacher of more recent history, and your lessons on twentieth cetnruy Europe are boycotted, heckled, or otherwise disrupted by well-organized, well-financed, and politically muscular groups of Holocaust-deniers. Unlike my hypothetical Rome deniers, Holocaust deniers really exist. They are vocal, superficially plausible, and adept at seeming learned. They are supported by the president of at least one currently powerful staTe, and they include at least one bishop of the ROman Catholic Church. Imagine that, as a teacher of European history, you are continually faced with belligernet demands to "teach the controversay" and to give "equal time" to the "alternative theory" that the Holocaust never happened but was invented by a bunch of Zionist fabricators. Fashionably relativist intellectuals chime in to insist that there is no absolute truth: whether the Holocuast happened is a matter of personal belief; all points of view are equally valid and should be equally "respected".

The plight of many science teachers today is not less dire. When they attempt to expound the central and guiding principle of biology; when they honestly place the living world in its historical context- which means evolutionl when they explore and explain the very nature of life itself, they are harried and stymied, hassled and bullied, even threatened with the loss of their jobs...

Richard Dawkins (taken from Free Inquiry magazine, December 2009)

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1 comment:

Adam said...

quite surprising that he would an entire book on the Barnum and Baily Circus, but I'm happy he found some time to throw in rad quotes like that (in between passages about elephants)