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August 8, 2006

They're Not in Kansas Anymore?

Thomas Frank, author of the insightful What's the Matter with Kansas, cautions against too exuberant a celebration of the defeat last week of anti-evolution forces on the Kansas Board of Education:

Could the faction's rank and file simply have given up, grown disgusted with the absurdity that their grand cause has become? Perhaps, but I think it is far too soon to write the obituary for the godly radicals.

Frank emphasizes the ongoing "war against elites...against the professions" -- doctors, lawyers, journalists, educators -- that has helped power this crusade. Of course, such a rebellion against expertise is an old element in the struggle of faith versus reason. In Greece in the 5th century BCE, while the Hippocratics were trying to take the "sacred" and the "divine" out of the practice of medicine, Athenians were constructing a temple for Asclepius, the god of healing, featuring a holy snake with a healing bite.

How can the experts strike back? By showing that they're just folks with their own faith, as has Senator Barack Obama? Or by continuing to stand up for what they do know? The latter strategy, I suspect, triumphed, at least for the moment, in Kansas:

The curriculum changes, coming after years of see-sawing power struggles between moderates and conservatives, drew widespread ridicule and, critics complained, threatened Kansas's high standing in national education circles.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at August 8, 2006 5:35 PM


War against elites in Kansas, maybe. Point granted, and agree it's too early to think that battle is over. But it's too easy to indict the ancient Greeks as part of that continuum in my view. The primary worship site for Asclepius in Epidaurus, e.g., featured an acoutically perfect amphitheater (it still is) for dramatic performance built to merge into the surrounding landscape; there were also 'scientific' treatment centers on the grounds -- and yeah, the shrine housing the snakes, too. In other words, 'medical treatment' drew from art, nature and science, forming a holistic treatment for the sick that merged with religious ritual. That doesn't seem remotely comparable to the reductionist shlock that went down on the Kansas Board of Education, to me at least.

But I'm sure that someone somewhere will use the Perseid meteor showers this weekend as more evidence that we're entering the 'end of days' and that WW 3 and 4 are about to begin...CNN will no doubt cover this live and quote religious zealots as 'expert sources'...no 'striking back,' I'm afraid, in this particular media age?

Posted by: JM at August 8, 2006 10:39 PM

But I fear romanticizing the past -- even the late-fifth-century-BCE Athenian past (which was also a time of military defeat, violent overthrow of the democracy and the conviction of Socrates). The Hippocratics, from what I've been reading, were indeed frustrated by the faith-based absurdities -- snake bites and magic -- of the temple healers. E. R. Dodds, who has probably done the most work on this, quotes something Jacob Burckhardt said about nineteenth-century Europe to characterize the state of belief in fifth- and fourth-century Athens: "Rationalism for the few and magic for the many." Plus ca change...

Posted by: mitch at August 10, 2006 12:12 PM

Appreciate the response, M, and didn't mean to romanticize the past. Talking about life in the capital also bound to be somewhat different than down the coast in a more rural place devoted to a particular god. While I haven't read Dodds (thanks for the reference) I wonder how closely that transition (away from 'magic' and religious belief) is being recorded, say, in something like Aeschylus's _Oresteia_? (& many of the other dramatic works of the period)? in my experience with those texts, at least, the move away from old-style religion toward a more secular society (as well as many other kinds of transitions including the critical ones you noted) is being played out in some very interesting ways...

Posted by: JM at August 10, 2006 1:00 PM

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