What We’re Capable Of…

A colleague of mine sent around an internet story about John Moffit, a young NFL player, who recently decided to hang up his cleats to pursue his interests in politics and philosophy. It’s not an extraordinary story, but in the comments, I stumbled across an interesting quote from Noam Chomsky — someone that I’ve heard of in name, but whose work I’ve never taken the time to explore.

… When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports…and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief….

I’ve had this same thought on the personal level before. While I don’t spend as much time as I used to watching sports or setting fantasy rosters, I still spend more time than it likely deserves. At any moment, with any person, I could sit down and have a well-structured, thorough, and amicable debate on what two teams will compete in this season’s NBA championship, as I’m sure could many other Americans.

And I can do this, because I’ve put in the time and interest into the subject. The Chomsky quote continues:

There are questions that are hard. There are areas where you need specialized knowledge…But the point is that many things can be understood quite well without a very far-reaching, specialized knowledge. And in fact even a specialized knowledge in these areas is not beyond the reach of people who happen to be interested. … It requires the kind of normal skepticism and willingness to apply one’s analytical skills that almost all people have and that they can exercise. It just happens that they exercise them in analyzing what the New England Patriots ought to do next Sunday instead of questions that really matter for human life, their own included.

I really appreciate this point and I think it’s an idea that most people already understand or could readily believe.

But then, for me, the question then becomes, how do we get more people to expand their interest past the gridiron or the field-house and onto things that “really matter for human life”?

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