“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”
~ Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams (1952-2001) was an English author and script writer who made a significant contribution to UK radio. In 1978, he wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy as a radio comedy, which became a series of five books, spawned a TV series and a feature film.
Adams asserts that humans are a rare species that can actually learn from the experience of others. It is this ability that is the foundation upon which socialization of the young takes place within the family and in the larger society – ostensibly by way of a formal system of education. I spent thirty-five years as an educator, where the curriculum is heavily laden with stories of human experience from the past and the present. This type of study is most formalized within History courses in the belief that if we are not to repeat the follies of the past, we must know the experiences of humans in the past.
All of this makes perfect sense, and students are exposed to both positive and negative examples to either emulate or to avoid. The atrocities of Nazi Germany in the Twentieth Century are utilized to show how intolerance spawns untold tragedy and suffering. The selfless giving to others that characterizes the lives of Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, and many others, both past and present, serves as the best example of living well within our human community.
Adams goes on to say that humans are remarkable for ignoring the lessons of the recent or distant past. We have students who rebel against authority in the schools and in society at large. There are children who willfully repudiate the values, rules and advice of their parents. Violent crime continues; disrespect and thievery seems rampant; and we wonder why so many turn their backs on the wisdom of our own society and that of human civilization over the centuries.
As a teacher, I often felt frustration in my history classroom when some students would declare that studying the past was useless – and boring! How does it prepare them to get a good job? This utilitarian outlook on education, coupled with a growing culture of entitlement, was very discouraging. I often found myself thinking that formal education was wasted on the young! As disappointing as it was in my classroom and in the larger society, I knew that some people are driven more by their own wants and needs than by what is wise or prudent. To be fair, I taught hundreds of students who wanted to learn, and who did their best to assimilate the lessons of the experience of others into their own lives.
I don’t believe there is any simplistic explanation for the discrepancy between those willing to learn and those who are not; but my experience, both inside the classroom and within society as a whole, indicates that personal maturity, or lack thereof, plays a large role. None of us have to look far to find emotional adolescents of all ages who care only for satisfying their own wants and needs.
Emotional immaturity manifests itself in the attitude that I’m the most important person – that no one should encroach upon my plans to please myself. This attitude is bolstered by a sense of personal pride that no one has the right to tell me what to do, or what is right or wrong. Therefore, anyone who challenges this attitude is immediately dismissed as inconsequential. Fear of those who are different is also an ingredient in this emotional and mental mixture, because they are seen as threats, and are often characterized as evil. I am convinced that intolerance of any kind stems from personal immaturity, and will result in discriminatory behaviour.
The culture of entitlement that seems to be more pervasive in society with each passing day, is a by-product of personal immaturity, which is often rebellious in the face of authority. It is also disrespectful. Fifty years ago, the press, radio, and television news reporters were very respectful about the private lives of our politicians – whether they were popular figures or not. Today, there is no such thing as privacy for any public figures or their families. Political leaders and celebrities will find themselves being insulted and vilified at every turn. I opened my Twitter feed this morning to find all kinds of insulting comments about Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau. Social media takes the lead in setting trends about how people should view the world, and that is frightening because there are very few controls about what gets published on the Internet.
There is no easy fix for this problem of personal – and social immaturity. We really don’t understand what causes this to emerge in an individual. To what extent does genetics play a role? My experience has taught me that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot change another person. I believe that my living can influence others to wish to emulate me, so the wisest course of action is to live a life that reflects maturity, moderation and selflessness. I am totally responsible for how I life my life and the example I give to those around me. The inescapable truth is that how I live does now, and always will, make a difference.