Column Date 2007-01-21

The ignorance of the common man. Like me.

I used to worry about whether our kids are learning anything in school. Now, I think it’s time to worry about the rest of us.

It seems to me that, after years of education, most of us are actually quite ignorant – particularly about the world around us and how it works.

Take basic science, for instance. It’s clear that almost everything I learned in school is wrong.

Were you taught, as I was, that the inside of an atom was like a tiny solar system? That the nucleus in the center of the atom was like our sun? And the electrons whirling around the nucleus were like the planets in orbit around the sun (including Pluto, which we
all thought was a planet back then)?

Sorry, but none of that is true any more. It seems that electrons don’t move around in orbits, they’re actually part of shells that surround the nucleus. And an electron can jump back and forth, from one shell to the next shell.

That would be like the Earth and Mars deciding to switch places all of a sudden. Which is like looking up one day and finding an extra moon in the sky. And a big red planet between us and the sun.

We were also taught that nothing – absolutely nothing – travels faster than the speed of light. It’s one of the basic laws of the universe.

Well, not exactly. Now it seems that some atomic particles can suddenly disappear from one place and instantaneously re-appear someplace else, even miles away. The particle just blinks out of existence in one place and blinks into existence in another. We’ve gone way beyond the speed of light here.

Then there’s my brain. I was taught that the one inviolable rule about the brain was that you were stuck with the brain you had when you reached, say, twenty-one. You could never, ever grow more brain cells or create more neurons.

Wrong. Brains, it turns out, are smarter than we thought -- they are completely capable of growing new neurons as long as we live.

And you heavy drinkers out there who were told that drinking destroys your brain cells – well, yes, it does. But, when you stop drinking, new studies have shown that the neurons grow right back – and so do lots of new brain cells!

Feeling ignorant yet? And we haven’t even started talking about teaching ordinary people the skills needed to survive in the real world: how to operate your new 8-megapixel digital camera. Or trying to understand the tax code. Or which cell phone company has the best deal. Or Medicare, Part D.

One thing more: Discover magazine recently reported that “physicists at the University of Rochester have coaxed light into moving backward – and, weirdly enough, to do so faster than light itself.”

As far as I’m concerned, that’s the last straw.

I think we should demand that Congress develop an education plan for confused people over the age of twenty-one, like me.

Let’s call it “Leave No Adult Behind.”

©2007 Peter Tannen