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Don’t Know Much About History

October 20, 2015

During my senior year at Harvard College, the faculty debated and ultimately approved a “core curriculum” to replace the World War II-era “general education” curriculum. The general education requirements were few and broad – in addition to the course requirements of their major, undergraduates had to take a course or two each in natural sciences (including math), social sciences, and humanities. By comparison, the core curriculum requirements were specific and numerous – as I recall, an undergraduate had to take courses in 13 specific fields to graduate.

I remember being very glad that I was graduating under “general education” and would not be subject to the “core curriculum.” The core curriculum requirements covered mathematics and specific sciences like biology and physics. My experience suggested that those of us who majored in social sciences and the humanities were relatively well versed in the natural sciences – my own public high school, and I think American high schools generally, do a relatively good job of teaching mathematics and the natural sciences. Before going to college, I had taken courses in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics, and a course called “earth science.” I knew how to balance a chemical equation and how to solve a quadratic equation, how to calculate an object’s acceleration, and how to disprove Zeno’s paradox with calculus. I knew all ten minerals in Moh’s scale of hardness, and I knew the differences between kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, families, genera and species.

The science majors I knew tended to have much narrower focus, and the pre-meds were the worst of the science majors. They had the hard sciences down cold, but all too many of them had not the first clue about philosophy, literature, political science, history, psychology or sociology. As the core curriculum debate progressed, I resented the implicit proposition that I, a social science major, was as ignorant of math and science as the science majors were of social sciences and the humanities.

Ben Carson brings me back to that feeling. Dr. Carson is a highly intelligent, highly educated, highly accomplished man, but his ignorance of social sciences and the humanities is staggering. Carson is so ignorant of slavery that he imagines that Obamacare is its moral equivalent. Carson is so ignorant of Nazism that he compares President Obama to Adolph Hitler and recommends reading Mein Kampf for an understanding of the Obama presidency. Carson is so ignorant of Communism that he compares President Obama’s governing platform to Cuba and the Soviet Union.

There’s a scene in a West Wing episode, when President Bartlett is running for re-election: Josh asks Donna about self-important quotations that Bartlett’s opponent gave from Immanuel Kant and Robert Frost. The Sorkinian dialog shows us that the idiot opponent had quoted the passages without really understanding them. Josh calls the opponent’s campaign a “fortune cookie candidacy,” capable of simple aphorisms but incapable of deep thought. Josh says of Bartlett:

“When the President’s got an embassy surrounded in Haiti, or a keyhole photograph of a heavy water reactor, or any of the fifty life-and-death matters that walk across his desk every day, I don’t know if he’s thinking about Immanuel Kant or not. I doubt it, but if he does, I am comforted at least in my certainty that he is doing his best to reach for all of it and not just the McNuggets. Is it possible we would be willing to require any less of the person sitting in that chair? The low road? I don’t think it is.”

Dr. Benjamin Solomon Carson’s presidential candidacy is a test of whether we, the American electorate, are willing to require more of the president than “just the McNuggets” – whether we will continue to expect our national leaders to have the capacity to engage in deep and meaningful thought.

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