Dunce Macabre: Living in the Age of the Ignoramus

Dunce. Noun. An individual slow at learning. A stupid person.

Reminds me of this cartoonish image of a boy, at once presumed disobedient or lacking in intellect, a bully for the most part, sitting in a corner while wearing a pointy hat resembling the Ku Klux Clan’s. On that hat is painted the word “dunce”.

As a boy, I had my share of being forced to stand in a corner. Hell, not as punishment for being stupid or slow. On the contrary, for being too cocky, thinking I could take on my parents, uncles and aunts, and my elder cousins in adult conversation.

As a child I have been a voracious reader. I never outgrew the habit. It’s safe to say I had more “marbles” than the average kid my age. Furthermore, I loved listening to how adults debate. I would literally sit at their feet and listen until I fell asleep.

I have been told time and again in my youth never to intrude in adult conversation. It’s an unwritten policy in my family. It was only right, I guess, to know my place. Having an eight-year-old comment on martial law atrocities and New Society thieve-onomics may not sit well with some family members who worked for Marcos back then.

What’s more, I couldn’t have probably understood the intricacies of armed revolution, as my rebel father explained it to his “comrades” (although he admitted later on that he wasn’t a communist) even if I tried. I couldn’t understand it today even after 35 years of being a writer and editor.

That’s probably one reason why as a young father, I refused to impose the same rule on my children. I refused to erect the same barrier which stood between me and adults back then. My instructions to my kids were simple: if you have questions, all you have to do is ask, even when I’m in the middle of a conversation with adults. Never for one minute think that you can’t butt in.

You’re my children, thus you’re entitled to my undivided attention.

Early on I taught my children to think, to haul their minds farther and further, higher and deeper, than what they hear from me or others. Questions, I recall saying, are crucial to understanding issues about life and yourselves. To ask a question does not mean you’re an ignoramus; it means you’re willing to learn more than the average person who’d refuse to ask for one reason or another.

And ask they did, to my pride and joy. I remember some of the silliest questions and statements they laid on the table. “Does God have a phone number?” “Does a fish know it’s wet?” “Why impeach the President? If he’s all that bad, maybe we should hang him!” “Papa, why is it that I get the same response when playing a computer game and watching girls in bikini in Baywatch? I get an erection”.

Whoa! And I thought I heard it all.

And watching a condom advertisement which my daughter once saw on primetime TV, she asked, “Papa, can you buy me that toy?”

I took each question in stride, explaining to the best of my ability all the whys, the hows, and wherefores. I gave them all the time and attention I could filch from a life fraught with one deadline after the other.

Thus they grew up not only knowing the right solutions, but the trick to coming up with the right questions. “Kids, unless you’re physically handicapped, in the brain, I mean, there’s no reason for you not to ask questions, not to dig deeper or search further and farther for answers. Never fear to question who or what is in front of you. That includes me.”

I can proudly say that the relationship I built with my children was one of respect—them respecting me, me respecting them. At no time in their young lives (and even today) did they run to someone else for answers. I made good my promise to always be there to answer their queries.

Today, we live in the age of the ignoramus. For me, proof of this comes during the numerous instances where I met people who are scared stiff at the thought of asking questions. Some feel threatened by this act, as if they would end up being perceived as stupid, or sorely lacking in knowledge.

As a recourse, they either stay silent, or worse, blurt out comments where intellect and substance leave much to be desired. Coupled with laziness to learn anything (which I believe is a product of early experiences of rejection or being brushed off), the person then becomes either one of two things: indifferent at the very least, or irresponsible, if not reckless, at best.

This sort of ignoramus, then again, is the least of our problems as a society. What I fear is the one who feigns stupidity for reasons of political expediency and, yes, the legal tender. To rein in the masses through herd mentality by acting as though he or she is one of the herd: this is adding obvious insult to injury. They act stupid because they believe the masses are stupid. It’s a ruse, or better yet, a bait to control more and more those who’d rather choose to be ignorant.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that stupidity is our primary problem as a society. Given the information and data at our fingertips, I am anxious more because of the people’s laziness in claiming and appropriating for themselves what is within arm’s reach.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m way over my head with this one. But I also believe this is the result of being brushed aside as children by parents who should’ve known better. This gave people the flawed impression that our political leaders (standing today as images of our parents and elders in our youth) know all the answers, hence shouldn’t be bothered by our petty questions.

I don’t want to play the social psychiatrist here, but putting feudal considerations at center stage forces me to conclude that we cannot raise our children to avoid authority without reaping the whirlwind. We must, at all cost, teach them to think critically, to avoid fearing authority.

They MUST muster the courage to question it each time their curiosity takes a hold of them. That kind of courage is learned at home.

As parents, we can begin by unlocking the doors we built ‘round ourselves so our children can enter—without fear of being brushed off. We cannot have them fear us without consequence.

The dunce macabre we must avoid, this appalling and despicable practice of thinking that our children are lesser in understanding and knowledge just because they are young. One thing is certain in my experience as a father: to my pride and joy, my kids never failed to surprise me. G







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