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Our Lizard-Brain Politics | The Nation

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Diary of a Mad Law Professor

Our Lizard-Brain Politics

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Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's uses his hands to make a point during the first presidential debate with President Barack Obama, at the University of Denver, Wednesday, October 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

My cabdriver grew chatty when I asked him to take me crosstown to Columbia. “Do you work there?” he asked. “How much do students pay to attend?” He wanted to know because “in my country, all education is free. I didn’t have to pay to go to university.” I didn’t ask him where he came from, but it could have been any number of places: Norway, Barbados, Brazil, Cuba, Malta, Scotland, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Trinidad and Tobago, Hungary…

About the Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

Also by the Author

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He was driving a cab to earn money while he pursues graduate work and was upset by a conversation he’d had with earlier passengers. It was the day after the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, and they had praised him for his English and his “articulateness” about politics. But when he mentioned the fact that his higher education had been free, one of them sneered, “So how much was that worth, now that you’re driving a cab in America?”

He wondered aloud at the disdain, flummoxed by the assumption that the value of his education would be understood only in terms of the job he held. His words made me think about a significant shift in American cultural assumptions over the last few decades. Education has become much more of a commodity, with an ever tightening correlation between how much you pay and how knowledgeable you’re thought to be. This feeds a dangerous turn in our attitude toward universal education. “College isn’t for everybody” is an increasingly common political mantra. And if colleges and graduate schools can’t prove an immediate “value added” in boosting one’s salary, then all that learning isn’t “worth the investment.”

My cabbie was on a roll: “Education is not a luxury. It is a necessity for survival, like water and bread and roads and democracy. How can you be part of this world without education?” By now, we had arrived at Columbia’s wrought-iron gates. I paid him, and as I schlepped my bags to the sidewalk, he stuck his head out the window and left me with this zinger: “How can one truly be free if responding to things only with the amygdala?”

Ah yes, the amygdala. The little cluster of basal ganglia that regulates emotional response, sense memory, mood. It was quite an evocative reference, particularly after a presidential debate where a great deal of time had clearly been spent coaching Mitt Romney in the precise vocal intonations and hand gestures of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, millions of dollars’ worth of media punditry was expended not on evaluating the candidates’ empirical claims, but on haruspication of the public’s response to the tilt of heads, the glint in eyes, the twitch of whiskers. The virtual absence of prefrontal cortical activity in post-debate analyses should remind us that without critical thinking, we are not much more than that little nub of neurons that constitutes the lizard’s entire brain.

Critical thinking is the most valuable product of a good education. It allows us to negotiate the world using both the executive functions of our prefrontal lobes as well as the emotional intelligence of our limbic system. A psychologist friend says it’s akin to the power of metaphor: being able to understand comparisons at a deep level means we must be neither hyper-scientistically literal nor awash in one’s feelings, but able to make creative connections among different experiences, languages and worlds. “It’s a process of becoming, of being tried, tested and true,” he says.

But while some of us are worried about the primal pulsings of amygdalae, Republican Representative Paul Broun, a medical doctor who serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, is vigorously denouncing “evolution, embryology, big bang theory” as “lies straight from the pit of hell.” Similarly, Republican Representative Todd Akin, an engineer who serves on the same committee, is infamous for his comments questioning the possibility of pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.” It’s tempting to dismiss these statements as simply nonsensical or ignorant, but a truly thoughtful and critical response must uncover all the faulty structures of knowledge that must sustain such belief systems.

“Our political discourse reminds me of The Velveteen Rabbit,” says my friend the psychologist. “It’s about concepts that sometimes come alive by being true.” Come again? I asked him, baffled. And then he read me a passage from that enduring story, in which there is a tension in the nursery between two toy rabbits, one stiff and freshly store-bought, “all white plush with real glass eyes,” and the other, a thoughtful, well-worn existentialist.

“What is REAL?” the Velveteen Rabbit asks.

“You become,” ventures one of the older, wiser toys. “It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily…or who have to be carefully kept. Generally by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby…. But once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

Over here in the land of the Real, politics is not a game of charades, and the empiricism of the claims makes a difference in our lives. I suppose it all comes down to how you define “truth,” to say nothing of education. The bottom line in this election—indeed, what’s literally on the line—is a civil, secular system of governance in which the ability to profit from one’s ideas has always been fueled by a generosity of education. It’s this fundamental notion that has underwritten our civic commitment to public libraries, public schools and universities, public research facilities, public health institutions, affirmative action, the First Amendment, public broadcasting and, yes, even Big Bird.

Also in this week’s issue, Sherle R. Schwenninger writes that instead of addressing the real problems, Obama and Romney are focusing on deficit reduction.

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