According to a report published by the National Center for Educational Statistics we have improved literacy to nearly 100% in the US. This is a great improvement from 1920, a hundred years ago, when, although high overall, literacy was lowest among non-whites, and the poor. This is still true globally, where education rates can be tied to economic status. But we are witnessing a generation where more people are able to read and write; and, more information is available right now to the average person than at any time in history. Only 30 years ago the best source of information was the library. Back in 1920 perhaps the best of only source, depending on geography, was the local newspaper. Radio broadcasts would not be around for a few years. And few people had access to a telephone.
Now we have more information at our fingertips (literally) than any generation before. But it seems we are no better informed than our parents or grandparents. The facts we accessed through reference material in the library was authoritative, but it was sometimes inaccurate. Good research demands multiple sources, citing different media, periodicals and books. Nowadays people tend to just believe a single source of data. Few of us bother to fact check. Some even dispute that when confronted by the truth, assuming there is some to be compiled. For instance, I see ads for decongestants that “won’t make you drowsy.” The fact is that some decongestants are actually stimulants. It is the antihistamine class of drugs that potentially cause drowsiness. That doesn’t stop manufacturers from underlining this property to convince people to buy their product. And uninformed consumers will assume that product is different from all the others, even though they all have the same ingredients.
Truth is a tricky thing. There might be one version that is valid for some, while another truth works for another, which does not entirely invalidate the assertions made, but certainly calls them into question. Being better informed never hurts, unless it serves to torment us. The familiar aphorism, “ignorance is bliss” comes to mind. Sure, there are some things I wish I had never known, like TSA’s dismal track record, or my (former) favorite restaurants’ health inspections. But imagine a world with no food safety laws. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. Travel a little bit within the US, or outside it, and you will see for yourselves.
Most of the misinformation out there is hearsay. “They say you have to wait 30 minutes after you eat before you can go swimming.” Remember that one? Old wives’ tales and urban legends have been with us since our early ancestors developed language. It’s probably ingrained in us to believe what we are told, especially by an authoritative figure like a parent or a teacher. Oh, how they were wrong! It’s not their fault, unless you can blame anyone for not being a skeptic. People just pass on what they think they know, sometimes with disastrous results. In one case, the explorer named Christopher Columbus was under some impression he was arriving in India, not understanding the scale of the planet; and when he arrived in the Caribbean and encountered the indigenous peoples there, he called them “Indians”. The appellation unfortunately has lasted these 527 years, not to mention the catastrophic destruction of their culture, language, and the people themselves.
Ignorance is indeed not bliss. It is criminal to willingly remain clueless in some circumstances. I am not suggesting that being ignorant of events and facts equates to complicity. But nowadays we are all held to a higher standard when it comes to being involved. There are now laws around the country that allow bystanders to be prosecuted if they refuse to help if, for instance, someone is being assaulted. And now passengers are tasked with being the eyes and ears of public transportation, but that’s just being a good citizen, some would say.
A few days ago I received an Amber Alert on my mobile, and (after reviewing the message and checking the news) I remembered the case of Amber Hagerman, who was abducted from her neighborhood in January of 1996 in Arlington, Texas. Her body was found a few days later. No suspects have yet been named. As a result of this case, which played out on local, then national media, the US government enacted federal programs, like the National Sex Offender Registry, and the Amber and Silver Alert (for missing seniors, mostly) Systems. Now anyone with a mobile device can be alerted of a potential kidnapping, and it’s possible that someone could have information that would prevent another tragedy like the Amber Hagerman case. When in the right hands, information is the best weapon against evil.
It’s hard to believe that anyone would willingly refuse to help someone in need. But I know they exist. I’ve seen them. I may know some of their names. If information can be a weapon, this could be the worst kind, the tool of the assassin. We need to remember not to use information against people, even though some deserve it. In the meantime, I plan to stay alert, paying attention to my surroundings, reading the news, being informed, and watching out for everyone else (in case someone runs a red light). I hope someone would do the same for me.