March 14, 2014

Recently, I caught up with a friend who works in health insurance. Let's call him John.
Last October, he explained, as the Affordable Care Act's exchanges opened, John spent a lot of time speaking with those seeking insurance.
What he related was shocking. It wasn't his opinion of the law. Its adoption rates. Nor the details.
What hit me like a cold breeze were the perceptions of those signing up. The dazzling lack of awareness. Not of the law. Most remain ignorant in that regard. It was the lack of basic knowledge. And common sense.
The point, he explained, was that he had to spend so much time not on the program's intrinsics, but on basic terms and principles. For instance, words like subsidies. Deductibles. Premiums. As if John was speaking a foreign language.
Realizing that most people are not wordsmiths, I can't help but believe that these are terms with which the average adult in the 1960s would have been familiar.
Go ahead. Chastise my insensitivity.
Yet, what I found unsettling was the larger idea. That so many Americans are ignorant in regards to basic principles, ideas, concepts and themes. In other words, if an idea is not within the vernacular of our popular entertainment outlets, with which we spend so much of our time, then we're often ignorant to their existences, let alone their definitions.
Consider the anecdotal evidence:

-A recent Pew Survey found that 41 percent of Americans could not name the vice president.
-55 percent of Americans believe that Christianity was written into the constitution.
-30 percent of Americans could not recall the year of the 9/11 attacks.
-49 percent of young Americans could not find New York on a map.
-25 percent of Americans could not name the country from which we won our independence.
-30 percent did not know what the Holocaust was.
-And 20 percent believe that the sun revolves around the earth.

This nation, so intent on making all aspects of life easily and equally attainable, has eradicated much of the value we place on thoughtfulness, learning and critical thought.
America, contrary to every intent of the Founding Fathers, continues devolving into a nation of infantile, gratification-seeking spectators. More seriously, these tendencies have led us to increasingly place our faith behind politicians and policies of which we know little. Like children willing to walk anywhere, as long as our hands are being held.
At this rate, we'll end up a Petri dish of simpletons, enabling the white-coated lab techs to do anything they please. So long as we're comfortable.
That which we do prioritize? Phantograms of our own design. Simple, unimportant items to which we've artificially assigned great importance.
A "phantogram" is a type of optical illusion that makes a simple, two-dimensional object appear three dimensional. By distorting the perspective of the viewer, it causes him to see the object as having more depth and substance than really exists. A flat image, for instance, mimics the perspective of a multi-dimensional object when viewed from the intended vantage point.
Accordingly, our hyper-commercialized, consumer-oriented, media-driven, celebrity obsessed society casts a phantogramic perspective on facets of culture that, until recently, were not held in such esteem.
The victim of these national delusions of grandeur? Critical thinking and analysis at the individual level. Because, as a country, we no longer place a premium on critical thinking. Much of that which we once had to think through is served up on a platter by the Federal government. Like a herd of cow led to pasture. We don't question, analyze or protest. We just graze.
Consuming is so much easier than questioning.
The "ready for consumption mentality" provides the recipient with tacit permission to forgo the heavy lifting. Be that physical, emotional or intellectual.
In 2008, Rick Shenkman published a book entitled, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter. Shenkman lays out four primary themes, among others.
First, he demonstrates how ignorant Americans are concerning international events. Second, he shows how little we know about the functioning of our own government. Third, we are usually willing to blindly accept government positions and policies even when a modicum of critical thinking would suggest that they're bad for the nation. And finally, we are easily convinced of most anything by stereotyping, overly simplistic solutions, irrational fears and public relations babble.
Sounds like the average election cycle, right?
When life's responsibilities are laid out before us like a Denny's breakfast buffet, do we dull the ability to consider important aspects of our lives? Further, do we indemnify people against poor decision making, and the risks therein, by relieving them of the need to make such decisions?
What about our schools? Don't they teach critical thinking?
Well, according to Dennis Bartels's article in Scientific American, America's schools are too busy preparing kids for standardized tests to teach such mundane skills as critical thought and analysis (article here).
Sadly, those poor teaching habits extend to the university level.
A recent NYU study underscored the idea that today's university students do not receive the training necessary to develop critical thinking skills.
Over 2,200 students were part of the study. 45% made no improvement in their critical thinking skills during their first two years of college. After four years, 36 percent of students had made no improvements in their critical thinking abilities whatsoever. More here.
I might argue, however, that developing these skills in college is too late. Shouldn't young Americans be taught how to think critically at the elementary, middle and high school levels?
Unfortunately, this is not a cultural priority. In fact, it seems that the American education system is predicated on the very idea of not challenging the system. Not speaking out. Not rocking the boat.
As opposed to training young Americans to digest differing arguments, diagnose the root issues, and make a decision, we train them on how to best prepare for standardized tests. Following those tests, instead of having developed a love of learning, deep thought and critical analysis, students immediately return to their brain candy addictions. Texting. Twitter. Facebook. Instagram. YouTube. Video games. ESPN. Nickelodeon. Netflix. Movies on demand. Sitcoms on DVR.
On that rare occasion when a student is confronted with two minutes down time, what usually escapes their mouths? "Iiii'm booored."
But, they are bored. Because they exist in a world where our media-oriented culture provides entertainment like candy from a Pez dispenser. Readily available for immediate gratification. All day. Every day. Year round.
So, that occasional moment's nothingness? It actually feels like hell.
Imagine a grossly overweight adult. He eats constantly. Then suddenly, he stops. Eats nothing. Two, three hours later? Serious withdraw. Ditto the drug addict. Long-time smoker. Alcoholic. Our kids are constantly consuming a steady diet of low-brow entertainment. When the well runs dry? Withdrawal hurts.
Regrettably, it's not just our children. Adults increasingly default to a myriad means of immediate gratification, as well.
In 2012, Americans spent less time at work, volunteering and cooking. Yet, time spent on leisure activities (mostly TV) jumped to nearly five and a half hours a day.
Politicians seem especially intent on suppressing real critical analysis. On playing to the lowest common denominators.
Elections are won and lost on themes grounded in fear and emotion. Rarely do the major issues, disagreements and debates focus on hard data. Instead, it's divisiveness. Fear mongering. Catering to our basest emotions. Sadly, it works. Slick advertising and communications efforts often carry charismatic candidates with little by way of substance, experience and vision into some of the nation's highest offices.
Increasingly, it appears that we are obsessed with the pointless. With phantograms. In turn, we pay scant attention to the day's most pressing issues.
So, when we are signing up for healthcare insurance, we may require some assistance. A explanation of some of the words.
r, we're buying a home. The mortgage broker asks if we want that adjustable rate mortgage. With money back at closing. Umm, sure, why not?
Perhaps we're considering that timeshare. Cheap vacations? Sounds great. Where do I sign?
Or Best Buy will sell you that huge flat screen. If you'll sign up for their credit card. No money down the first year? Too good to be true!
Many of the routine decisions that our parents and grandparents methodically made? Today, we jump in with little forethought. Then look back upon them as if we were dealing in quantum physics when they don't end well.
But sports?
Ah hell, dude, all day long! Would BW3's stock have risen 80 percent over the last year if Americans didn't love to spend their time sitting around, drinking beer, eating wings, watching sports, and answering trivia questions on TV like,
How many spots did the 1001 Dalmatians have?
Today, we watch sports on weekends, as well as weekday evenings. We watch the pregame. The game. The post-game. Sports Center highlights. Check stats on Follow the chatter on Listen to the sports radio personality in the car. Listen to his podcast later that night. Read his book before bed. Our kids see this. And so, at an age where we just wanted to be Pete Rose, our children wake up to Sports Center. Spend their weeks practicing the three to five sports they play, year round. Spend their weekends traveling far and wide for game after game after game.
In between watching sports, we fill the empty space with celebrity gossip. Reality television. Video games. HBO. Showtime. ESPN. Fox Sports One. Bravo. The Cooking Network. The Hunting Network. The Fishing Network. CSPAN. GEAR TV. Spike. Cartoon Network. Netflix. Play Station. Gameboy. Style Network. Entertainment Tonight. The Real Housewives of Atlanta, New York, Orange County, Beverly Hills, and New Jersey.
We spend more time watching TV personalities perform our hobbies than we do engaging in them ourselves. And I haven't even mentioned sex. Don't have time to. I've got to finish this piece at some point this week!
Need further evidence of our inability to think critically? Our lack of focus on the issues that matter? Our government's inability to contend with much of anything of importance? Allow these uniquely American statistics to gestate within the mind for a bit:
-The average American watches 1,800 hours of television each year. That's five hours a day, 52 weeks per year.
-Nearly 30 percent of Americans have not read a book during the last year. Fifty percent have read one book. One book.
-116 million Americans watched the Super Bowl. That twice the viewership of the presidential debates.
-4 million viewers will catch tonight's episode of The Real Housewives.
-2.1 million Americans married in 2013, yet at least half that number will divorce this year as well, saddling the U.S. with the highest divorce rate in the world by a wide margin.
-The U.S. has the highest rate of diagnoses for mental health disorders. Or, is it that we just have the largest appetite for the prescription drugs that accompany those disorders? Or, have we just gotten into the happen of calling every one of life's challenges, a disorder?
-The debt carried by this year's 167,000 college graduates will amount to over $200,000, more than they will make, in aggregate, over the next decade. That college debt just surpassed $1 trillion. Care to guess our economy's next bubble?
-46 million of the 313 million people living in the United States are on food stamps, including one of every four children.
-The rate of teenage pregnancies in the U.S. is above 22 percent, 8 percentage points above New Zealand which has the second most.
-66 percent of Americans are considered overweight, yet the average American will still drink more than 600 sodas this year.
-The United States has a higher debt per capita than Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain combined.
-48 percent of Americans are considered low income or living in poverty.
-More than 25 million adult Americans live with their parents.
-One of every seven Americans has at least 10 credit cards.
-The United States puts a higher percentage of its population in prison than does any other nation.
-There are more unemployed workers in the United States than there are people living in the entire nation of Greece?
-Less than 65 percent of American men have jobs today, compared to over 80 percent in 1950.
Not a a pretty picture. Not if pride is one of the traits you admire.
If I told you there was a family in your neighborhood that fit a profile befitting most of the aforementioned statistics, how would you imagine that family? Would you envision them as a sharp, critically thinking bunch? Possessing proper priorities? Solid moral fiber? Would you let them watch your kids?
You absolutely would not.
At some point, perhaps we'll recognize our phantograms for what they are - simple uni-dimensional distractions with which to bide a bit of free time.
Maybe we will return to placing a premium on personal knowledge, learning, growth and accountability. Enjoying the pleasure of succeeding independently. Of deferring immediate gratification in pursuit of a long-term goal. Of personally creating something original and unique.
One day, we may place a societal premium on personally experiencing the beauty, danger, tastes, sounds, feelings, highs and lows of this world, as opposed to watching an actor do it for us.
The philosopher Alan Watts said that the reason people want to go on and on is become we live in an impoverished present. Someday, perhaps we'll exchange our phantograms for all of the wealth, beauty and joy the world can offer.
So long as the boredom does not kill you first.

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