Illiterati

Because of the solar eclipse, I was looking forward to today. It’s been decades since I’ve seen one this close to totality. Last night, I remembered one of my dreams of childhood was to be in the path of this very eclipse. Alas, that went the way of other childhood dreams, but I was still somewhat excited. Who am I kidding? I was stoked.

Then I saw the missing bookcase. A long time ago, the company had a small lending library. Over time, various reference books joined the collection, along with a special 50th Anniversary picture book about the industry. To this were added various fiction books by well known authors; not my taste but others liked them. All of these were gone.

Didn’t think much about it. They don’t tell us anything at the company anymore; they could be looking at merger or a sell out, for all I know. When you don’t tell your workers what’s going on, rumors will fly, especially when workers leave and are not replaced.

Then I learned that some books had vanished. Knowing how the place works, I decided to check the dumpster out back. Yep, that’s where I found the missing books. All, that is, except the 50th Anniversary book. Maybe they put it on an end table in the lobby. Maybe.

I’m not too proud to dumpster dive, and have done so more than once. At one time, that was how I furnished my office, Today was no different. With the assistance of a coworker, I salvaged the books. We quickly found good homes for them, and yes, some ended up with me.

These were all reference books, and some were perfect for hopeful writers like myself. At lunch, I took them to my vehicle when I went to the dollar store to pick up some index cards to make pinhole projectors for the eclipse.

Now, of course we didn’t – and couldn’t – shut down. But we could, as work allowed, run outside for a minute or two. The cashier mentioned the eclipse and I told her how the index cards were for pinhole projectors. I don’t think she’d ever heard of them, and she made the comment that she would be safe inside.

Safe? If you didn’t look at it, you were safe, and if you had real solar filters and followed the instructions, you were safe as well. This morning, some at work had joked about going home and hiding under the bed, because schools were dismissing and one was keeping children inside until it was over. It got to the point where a local TV station was reporting about people worrying that animals would go blind during the eclipse.

Feel free to face palm.

We did enjoy the eclipse, even though we could only see a minute or so every now and then. I used and shared my solar filter, and used the pinhole projector, then realized how to rig a better projector, and that was fun. I observed how evening insects began to sing and the temperature dropped, and, in those scant few minutes, generally had a ball.

Meanwhile, at the nearest school, they had the children on lock-down, lest they be exposed to the eclipse.

Feel free to face palm again.

As luck would have it, on the way home from work I stopped at a convenience store for a soft drink and a snack, and ended up behind a teacher. The cashier immediately started a conversation about the eclipse, and the teacher made several comments about being inside with the children, and I bit my tongue several times. Finally, I could stand it no more, and asked “Why didn’t you use this as a teaching experience?”

“Yeah,” said the cashier.

Well, the teacher hemmed and hawed and never did give us a good answer. She did mumble something about lawsuits. I couldn’t help but to think of how, during a solar eclipse in my youth, schools used this as an opportunity to teach us about the lunar phases and how solar and lunar eclipses take place, and used it to spark an interest in science and for students to learn. We made pinhole projection viewers out of shoe boxes and such, and had field trips and the like. The eclipse was a golden opportunity to have a math and science day, an opportunity that schools today forever lost.

As I drove home with my collection of salvaged books, I couldn’t help but to think the books and fear of the solar eclipse are joined by a common thread. Those books ended up in the dumpster because someone thought they had no value; schools kept children on lock down or sent them home early, and treated the solar eclipse as though it were inclement weather. And what a lot of people got out of it was not a love or appreciation of science or DIY engineering to view it safely, but that it was an inconvenience. Just like those books in the dumpster, someone thought the solar eclipse had no value at all.

That’s disturbing. Not everyone likes reading or astronomy, just as not everyone like football or NASCAR. That’s life. Different strokes for different folks. And yet, though a reference book might not be someone’s first choice of reading material, and while someone may not be impressed with a solar or lunar eclipse, they can still appreciate the value. The same with those fiction books I salvaged; the same way someone up the chain of teaching command saw no value in nurturing an interest in the sciences. The retired teachers in my family would have had a conniption over that, though their hands would have been just as tied by those who thought it was unimportant, or were afraid someone might sue (what happened to release forms?). Both are part and parcel of the same thing.

What this says about the declining appreciation of knowledge and learning is obvious. Ironically, in our push to provide our children with education that they may have a better life, we are forgetting the value of knowledge itself, of the shear joy of learning something new, or in applying what we know to make an entirely new thing. When learning and knowledge and even reading are seen as something only to fulfill state mandates, as something only for the classroom, never to be touched again once a diploma is safe in hand, the very light of knowledge and learning itself grows dim, and is eventually snuffed out.

Hyperbole, you say? Then why were their people who were afraid to venture out during the solar eclipse, who feared animals would go blind? Why did a news anchor insist it was necessary to wear solar filters anytime someone was outside, except for driving? Why would anyone even think about throwing perfectly good books away, never considering someone would want them? This is what’s happening around us right now.

What, pray tell, will happen when the children of today are grown, when we hand them the keys of the world and they possess the credentials of knowledge, but not a sense of its value? If our generation will throw books into a dumpster, will theirs burn them? Will these kids, who schools were so fearful of exposing to an eclipse, fail to grasp science to the point that they embrace some modern superstition? Today, schools closed or kept children inside; will theirs hand out talismans to protect them from “evil darkening of the sun?”

Perhaps not. But all those years ago, when we made pinhole viewers to watch a solar eclipse and in the process gained an appreciation, if not love, for science and engineering, we never dreamed someone would throw books away, or that our children’s or grandchildren’s schools would keep them inside, or dismiss entirely.

What I do know is that we are raising an illiterari. And the worst – and saddest – thing is that they don’t realize it at all.

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