Goody Jones is your archetypal Ozark grandmother. She’s observed a great deal about humanity in her lifetime, and, although life did not afford her the luxury of college, let alone a doctoral degree, she has always believed that “God gave us brains to use” and has never let hers be idle. Early in life she learned to skeptical about beliefs that seemed not to be backed up by facts, and the modern technology of interlibrary loans enabled her, by making careful choices, to become well-informed in several areas she considered important. These days, of course, the Internet has enabled her to become even better informed.
One day recently, she commented to me, and I quote:
The propensity to believe and propagate malicious gossip is inversely proportional to the intelligence quotient.
Then she said, “That’s to make it sound real academic. What I mean, of course, is that it’s stupid people who badmouth other people, just repeating whatever they’ve heard, not bothering to find out the facts or even check with the person they’re talking about.”
“Why do you suppose some people behave that way” I asked her.
She stared off at the trees for a moment, then said, “I think it amounts to envy. The pattern is usually to badmouth a person who’s done something even a little out of the ordinary, and the more extraordinary the accomplishment, the meaner the criticism is going to be. Like, there’s not an awful lot of people around here I talk with about what I’ve read. Most people think you’re showing off if you mention you’ve read a book.”
“It’s worse if you’ve written one,” I said. “Andrew Greeley says in his autobiography that when you have a successful book, expect to be attacked. I know about that.”
“I think it comes from the attitude you see among people who don’t dare believe anything but what everyone around them believes. If a child starts to have original ideas or show any creativity, that sort of parent will say, ‘Who do you think you are?’ or ‘Do you think you’re better than everyone else?’ It’s rotten parenting to tear down a child’s self-esteem like that—but that’s why the world’s full of alcoholics and other addicts.”
“But why do you suppose some people are afraid to think for themselves and question the status quo?”
“Because of low self-esteem. They’ve been so torn down they can’t believe they have the right to find out the truth for themselves, to go wherever the facts lead them. They’re afraid to believe that everyone they know could be flat-out wrong about everything important.”
“So they repeat the cycle . . . “
“Yes, it’s really just another sort of child abuse. It’s not human nature. It could be changed, no matter how difficult that looks.”
“If people knew they could change, or could even want to change . . .”
“Yes!” she said. “They have to become teachable, in order to want to change. But that’s not going to happen as long as they belong to churches that tell them they can’t question any of what the pastor preaches, or believe they have to leave government to the expertise of the politicians, or their health to the expertise of doctors.”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I don’t have any answers, just questions. But I know they don’t have any answers either.”
Goody set me off thinking again about the problem of unteachability—and it occurred to me that music provides an example of that problem.
Once in a while, when I go into the kitchen, where my sister-in-law, who lives with us, has the radio set to a “Golden Oldies” station, but I’m having a more curmudgeonly day than usual, I want to tune to a classical station. One bit of dialogue has been:
“I really would rather listen to adult music right now.”
“Adults listen to a lot more than classical music,” she objects.
“Yes, adults can easily listen to children’s music,” I agree, “but the reverse is not true”—not true primarily because of laziness, which Scott Peck characterized as how entropy manifests in human behavior, and as the fundamental flaw in our makeup.
“Classical” music was quite popular in its time. Music was scarce enough that it was all treasured and appreciated. With the phonograph and radio, music proliferated, but it also became specialized and cheapened. Even in the 1950s, the “Hit Parade” always included many varieties of songs that are now never played together on the same station or channel.
The pattern I have observed is that very many people imprint on the music that is current while they endure and sometimes survive the crucible of middle school and high school, and then they listen to that music, and only that music, for the rest of their lives. They never make an effort to understand the idiom of any music that is not instantly obvious to their ears, especially not “classical” music. The musicians they are addicted to often continue to play that same music. I think it sad to see men in their 60s still playing only the songs they wrote forty years ago. I am sad they have done nothing more with their lives, at least, nothing visible, although I greatly respect the ones who, like Bono, are real grownups and have used their wealth to benefit society.
Thus music symbolizes the greater problem, the plague of unteachability that paralyzes people, that makes improvements in society close to impossible, that leads to the tearing down of children’s self-esteem and repetition of the cycle. The plague is that some people simply stop learning anything new, sometimes right after high school, sometimes later. They do not want the world to change in any way; all change is viewed as negative. They resent and attack anyone who confronts them with information that does not fit into their fixed worldview; they “shoot the messenger” and, as Scott Peck emphasized, thus cause much of the evil in the world. That fixity makes them feel safe, but it also makes them vulnerable to the lies of politicians. Perhaps that is why people vote against their own interests, by voting for Republicans, who promise to prevent any change at all, even while brazenly accepting bribes and corrupting our socioeconomic system to benefit the greedy and selfish even more.
I cannot propose a general solution. I think the problem is ameliorated as one person at a time becomes more enlightened. Some have the blessing of being alcoholics, who then have the choice between becoming teachable or dying. As I’ve heard said around the tables, “There’s nothing like the threat of death to make a man reasonable.”