January 2, 2007

What Am I Optimistic About?¹

Growing up.

I am optimistic that each new generation of our species will be influenced and educated by increasingly progressive parents. Not only the biological parents, but also the adopted parents — the aunts and uncles, the grandparents, the teachers, and just about every adult that the child interacts with when growing up. By progressive, I mean a willingness to encourage a curious child to ask why and how. A willingness to be skeptical about the received wisdom, and admit that, "I don't know". Growing up will then be... well, growing up!

What Richard Dawkins has said about the children's programmed-in gullibility to trust and follow adults, had been poetically affirmed by Rabindranath Tagore, nearly a century ago in his Crescent Moon:

I know not how he chose you from the crowd, came to your door, and grasped your hand to ask his way.

He will follow you, laughing and talking, and not a doubt in his heart.

Keep his trust, lead him straight and bless him.

When John challenges his parents with, "Why must I share my toys with Jane?", I am optimistic that they won't shut him up with, "Because we told you so!". If Virginia asked, "How come Santa's sleigh can fly, but not my wagon?", I am optimistic that the future parents will have the courage to dispel the myth of the flying sleigh, once and forever from her mind. I am optimistic that no child of the future will feel the need to ask, "Why can't Tom marry Dick or Harry?". I am optimistic that when asked for evidence, the child will be given evidence, and not orders. I am optimistic that the children of the future will know more than the children of the present who know more than the children of the past.

To paraphrase Ambrose Bierce's quip on cynicism, my optimism is founded, not on what ought to be, but on what is. Science has informed us that our children are capable of comprehending a lot more than what our parents thought we were. Research has shown that children started learning to separate fact from fiction, sometime between the age of 3 and 5. Seven and eleven year old children are less gullible than what Dawkins may give them credit for.

Informed parents increasingly prefer reason to rod. And, science is on their side. It tells them that increased level of verbal interaction with their child, "may enhance the growth of neural connections in the brain, and with it the child’s cognitive development". To illustrate this, here's an anecdote from Richard Feynman's autobiographical, "Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman":

It was the kind of thing my father would have talked about: "What makes it [a wind-up toy] go? Everything goes because the sun is shining." And then we would have fun discussing it:

"No, the toy goes because the spring is wound up," I would say.

"How did the spring get wound up?" he would ask.

"I wound it up."

"And how did you get moving?"

"From eating."

"And food grows only because the sun is shining. So it's because the sun is shining that all these things are moving." That would get the concept across that motion is simply the transformation of the sun's power.

I am optimistic that every child of the future will grow up with a father — or a mother — like Feynman's father.

Nothing that I have written diminishes the importance of winning the battle for the young minds that is raging today between the forces of knowledge and ignorance. With nature on our side, I am optimistic, that the victory will be ours. A day will surely dawn when no parent will fail to let a child awake in Tagore's heaven on earth, "where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way".

1A response to the Edge Annual Question for 2007, What are you optimistic about? Why?

  1. I loved this post.. .I hope you don't mind me linking it up to my blog .... I could never have put so much thought and research into it. and as a mother who has quit her job to stay at home and bring up my children, I find great strength in such writing.

  2. Hello Rational Fool.

    I agree to every word written there.

    I have read you on one another occasion too. ANd even find your comments in Usha's blog very interesting.

    YOu are a one rational writer here, amazingly i see very few like you here.



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