May 1999

Birds have feathers, chickens don't




My sister's friend was speaking to her young son, and somehow the subject of chickens and feathers came up. The boy said, "But chickens don't have feathers."

The mother looked at her son in disbelief and repeated dumbly, "Chickens don't have feathers?"

"No, they don't," he insisted, "but sometimes they have crispy skins."

* * * * * * * * * *

This reminded me of one of those "Laughter is the best medicine" space fillers in Readers' Digest, which I must have read in a doctor's waiting room or some such utterly bland place, desperate for stimulation. A mother, trying to teach her son, asked the boy, "Where do eggs come from?"

And the reply? "From the supermarket!"

Kindergarten boys can be adorable. But how does one react when we meet a mid-teenager -- and this really occurred in Singapore -- who thinks Beethoven is a dog? Or a similarly-aged girl from a premier school here who when asked who Darwin was, replied, "The dolphin!" (Now which movie did that come from?)

At the rate we are going, Picasso will soon be just a car and Pasteur in future may be a fashion line.

* * * * * * * * * *

We know what the problem is in all these examples. The kid had only his immediate experience to draw on. He knew nothing of the world outside his lived life. Schooling is supposed to correct that. It is supposed to widen his horizons, so that he can appreciate and benefit from knowledge and experiences gained by other people, other times, other places and other scales of observation, from the astronomical to the microscopic. Clearly, at least one premier girls' school in Singapore is failing at that task, and one mother had better take her boy to a farm or a zoo.

We may like to think that humans are intelligent, but we too often forget that intelligence is nothing without knowledge, experience and wisdom. Intelligence alone merely bubbles into hubris; it must be lanced every now and then with perspective.

Knowing about Darwin, Beethoven, Picasso and Pasteur gives us that perspective. It reminds us that our knowledge and sensibilities are always imperfect. Each one of them in his day revolutionarised thought and knowledge, and what had been taken for granted for generations, be it in biology, medicine or the aesthetics of art and music, were overturned in a blink of an eye.

We are supposed to realise from their examples how fragile and tentative our own knowledge and beliefs may be. We are supposed to learn from them how important it is to keep on reexamining our axioms. Humility is the antidote to the hubris of intelligence.

I say, "we are supposed to", but if we look around, there is not much evidence of that. Too many adults rely only upon their lived experience and operate just within their own social and cultural millieus, unable to see their own shortcomings. They know only their own feelings, their hurt and their pride. Their references are merely the social systems and values they got from their parents and the community in which they live. Everything else is fair game for prejudice and bigotry. They are right and everybody else is wrong. Half a century after Hitler, we still have genocide in Europe.

Perhaps genocide is not a good example. Quite often it is at the command of a ruthless leader, controlling all the levers of power. Then I shall give you a more murderous example than the mass graves of the Balkans: every year 40,000 Americans are fatally gunned down by Americans. Everywhere else in the world, there is an obvious correlation between strict gun control and violence. Murder and homicide rates in all countries with strict gun control are a fraction of American rates. It is just incredible to non-Americans like me how the United States can be so paralysed in this regard, how a country so proud of its democracy is proving how badly served it is by that democracy.

Democracy ultimately depends on an educated and thinking electorate. When a hundred million Americans think that (a) having firearms in private hands will deter crime, despite the experience of all other major countries around the world, and (b) that the two-centuries old constitution (written in the days of slaves, frontier bandits and burning witches at the stake) makes it somehow a hallowed right, which no amount of empirical evidence or reason can question, then something is gravely wrong about the human intellect. It is bad enough that so many people place so much faith in such shallow beliefs, it is worse when for all the dying and grief, so few care to reexamine their self-inflicted blindness.

What right have we to laugh at children who think chickens have no feathers, when we insist that guns do not kill?

Yawning Bread 





  1. 18 June 1999: I just head it on the news tonight. To reduce gun violence in US schools, the American Congress has voted that schools should pin up the Ten Commandments for all to read!