For three of the most interesting and stimulating years of my life, I was a professional step father to dozens of baby monkeys. I was working my way through my last two years of undergraduate studies and a three semester Master’s Degree. I was the weekend supervisor of the infant monkey nursery at one of the most renowned medical schools in the world. My hours were 12 noon to midnight every Saturday and Sunday. Despite the lack of any free time on weekends, I loved that job. It paid well enough, it came with health insurance, the monkeys were very interesting and over the one hundred and fifty or so weekends that I worked there I got to . listen to one of my great heroes speak dozens of times. After eleven PM I would begin the clean-up process. There were baby bottles to wash and data records to compile. These activities would keep me in the lab office. It so happened that on Sunday nights at eleven, one of the local college radio stations, ran a program that originated from Wayne State University in Detroit. It turned out that they had produced only a dozen or so programs for the series and because it was on in an undesirable time slot, the station repeated them over and over. Three of the programs in that rotation changed my life in a fundamental way.
These three were actually half hour segments made from an antique ninety minute recording of a speech that a man named Charles F. Kettering had given at some commemoration or dedication ceremony toward the end of his career. Kettering was, by then, one of the few surviving members of a generation of entrepreneurs and inventors that quite literally changed the conditions of human life during the early decades of the last century. Kettering was responsible for scores of inventions that changed people’s lives and expectations. Among his inventions were; the electric cash register, the diesel locomotive engine, the electric starter for the automobile, safety glass and ( what is probably the most profoundly influential of them all) the discovery of Freon gas for refrigeration and air-conditioning.
This great technologist spoke not of knowing things, shaping industry and wielding power but of how to help people’s minds to grow how to empower them to solve problems by understanding themselves and the world around them.
He told the story of his first job as a recent college graduate. He was schoolmaster in a turn-of-the-century, one room school house. One of his youngest pupils was a first grader who had already had a difficult experience in school. Although she was obviously bright and could already read at a high level for her age, she could only do it with the book held upside down. Her previous teacher had insisted that she learn to read the “right way” and refused to let her read upside down. Luckily, she kept reading and only learned to hate and fear the teacher.
When Kettering took over the school, he sized the situation up in the same way he approached all of the other problems that he would later solve in mechanics, chemistry and electronics. First he undertook to understand the whole problem. It turned out that the little girl had spent many hours in the care of her grandmother who was unable to hold the little girl on her lap and read to her in a more standard way so she would read to her by placing a book on a stool in between two chairs that faced each other and would read to her as the girl looked on upside down. Kettering knew from this that the girl was smart and motivated and could adapt to any condition. He hit on a plan that worked perfectly- with no emotional damage or condemnation of the child. He borrowed a music stand from someone in the community and placed her book upside down (rotated 180 degrees) in front of her. Then next day, Kettering turned the music stand’s holder 5 degrees clockwise. Every Monday after that he would turn it an additional 5 degrees. As the school year progressed, the girl found herself reading at 175 degrees out of the usual then 170 then 165 etc… By the end of the year she was reading just the way everyone else was and Kettering had done it without making her feel as though she was different, strange or wrong. He honored her as an individual at the same time he was correcting her because he understand the problem deeply enough that the solution became obvious. This was an example, he said, of “letting the problem be the boss”. Later in his life this slogan would be his watchword; he posted the exhortation “Let the Problem be the Boss” on the wall of his laboratory.
The trouble that most people get into when they run into a problem they have never experienced before, he explained is that they immediately try to solve it using what they already know. The more educated and “expert” the person, the greater is that tendency. Kettering advanced the idea that true solutions to problems come not from trying to fit every problem to the answers you already know but from meeting the problem on its own ground and letting it teach you what you need to know to understand it and solve it. Once, Kettering said, you “let the problem be the boss” and not try to bend it to fit your small view of the world, you begin to grow in power and ability.
I was captivated listening to Kettering talk because he had clarity of expression that perfectly reflected the genius of his insight. He made you feel as though his understanding was your understanding. Somehow I felt that this very practical man was so clear and so pragmatic that he paradoxically was talking in a perfectly spiritual and transcendent way about these quintessentially down to earth matters. He offered a glimpse into the core of our relationship with the real world and because of this he was seeing too into very fiber of the order of the universe.
I looked forward to these programs and must have heard each one of them a half dozen times. I read as much as I could find about Kettering in the library too. I took him and his philosophies to heart and he became one of my life’s heroes.
He was also an anti-authoritarian of the purest and most constructive kind. Another story he told was about an earlier speech he had given before an august assembly of academics. They had gathered to honor Kettering, Edison and a few others of the great inventors of that time. Kettering told how he had gotten up and explained to the academics that the kind of education they prized and awarded advanced degrees for was the antithesis of the kind of training that was needed to produce more innovators like the ones gathered there for honors. He related how his group of engineers had been struggling to find the right gas to serve as a refrigerant for a cooling system that GM had commissioned him to develop. They worked by their own methods for a long time with little success. Then Kettering took things into his own hands and told them to pack their things for a working retreat. Once there he had them draw a graph of all the molecular formulae they had tried so far on the wall. The graph included the composition and the properties of each gas. As they filled in the graph, it became apparent that there was one spot where all the properties of the other molecules seemed to converge to point toward the most efficient refrigerant. Kettering pointed this spot out and was immediately told by one of his slide rule wielding engineers that they had suspected that there was a molecule that would fit there for some time but that they had not tried to produce it because according to their calculations, the characteristics of the molecule would be unstable and it would not be tractable for use. Kettering insisted that they try and Freon gas was discovered. Freon served for many decades as the best refrigerant known. It made possible food preservation and shipping as we know it as well as air-conditioning and many medical and scientific research techniques that have saved and enriched uncounted lives.
Kettering ended this tale by saying that after that, he would often call meetings at which slide rules were strictly forbidden and that he insisted on re-training all engineers with advanced degrees who came to work for him.
Kettering was driven by problem solving and it is understanding- not knowledge that solves problems. He, like Newton and Einstein, knew that there was more to this Universe than any human can know or understand. As Kettering put it in his plain and firm way, “Knowing is not understanding. There is a great difference between knowing and understanding: you can know a lot about something and not really understand it.” His approach to problems was to encounter a problem without preconceptions and to let the problem teach him to both know and understand it. In this way the problem becomes its own solution. Or as Kettering said, “The only difference between a problem and a solution is that people understand the solution.”
In thinking about it, I have finally realized that this quinessentialy pragmatic man, whose purity of thought and purpose transformed the world around him has arrived at the same place as Milan Kundera- a man whose angle of approach could not be more different, although his transformative effect can be comparable. The crystalline intellect of the born inventor and engineer and the senitive, intuitive artist/novelist whose soul was forged between the freedom of his art and the totalitarian society he was born and raised in have intersected and their message to us is simple but vital. Recall with me the quote of Kundera’s that I used in my post about the Mainstream Media.
“The word "kitsch" describes the attitude of those who want to please the greatest number, at any cost. To please, one must confirm what everyone wants to hear, put oneself at the service of received ideas. Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears of compassion for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel…Given the imperative necessity to please and thereby gain the attention of the greatest number, the aesthetic of the mass media is inevitably that of kitsch; and as mass media come to embrace and infiltrate more and more of our life, kitsch becomes our everyday aesthetic and moral code.” The Art of the Novel, Jerusalem Address: The Novel and Europe, Milan Kundera, 1986, Harper & RowThere is a vital intersection between the thinking of these two great but utterly different thinkers and it lies in what Kettering described as knowing without understanding and what Kundera calls “received ideas”. These “received ideas” that Kundera writes about, are simply the preconceptions by which we explain the world to ourselves. They do not constitute real understanding they are merely a superficial knowledge, a set of ideas which the great numbers of our fellows accept uncritically. They are the intellectual cocoon within which we shelter ourselves from dangers real and imagined, where we reassure ourselves of our goodness and anesthetize our anxieties. The extent to which we accept the complete verity of these received ideas is the exact measure of our indulgence in kitsch, that desire to enlist the sympathetic emotions of the “greatest number”.
The dominant kitsch of our age in the west are surely the fetishes of the left. They are the very means by which the left attempts to analyze and solve every problem by fitting them into “what they already know” rather than understanding them on their own terms. Hence, the persistent and obdurate refusal to believe in the threat posed by the bloody and brutal Caliphate Islamists. Because, for instance, they already “know” that multiculturalism is a universal and that according to its dictates “all people are brothers”, they cannot see that this sweet but dangerously mistaken belief is not shared by many other cultures. They also already know that all of humanity are brothers and that if you treat your enemy with dignity and resolve your problems by talking them out there is never any need to have a war. These seem like nice principals but they are deeply flawed and not universally shared, in fact, the Islamists view them as a fatal weakness to be exploited.
The pathetic retreat into these bland (and blind)assertions without testing in reality are what Kettering calls “…a system whereby one may go wrong with confidence”, Kundera calls “nonthought”. Here is Kundera:
“Nonthought. This cannot be translated by “absence of thought”…We cannot say that an absence is aggressive, or that it is spreading. “Nonthought,” on the other hand, describes a reality, a force; I can therefore say, “pervasive nonthought”, the “nonthought of received ideas”; “the mass media’s nonthought”; etc.”
I was watching Bill O’Reilly interview Whoopi Goldberg recently and she said something in the exchange that clarified the whole issue for me. O’Reilly was questioning her on the reluctance that she and other celebrity activists show to support their activist positions with discussions of logic, fact and substance. At one point Goldberg, talking about fellow celebrity Tim Robbins, said, “Well, I think he's very clear that he is not for the war in Iraq. It's not a new stance that he's had. He's also for years been a peace activist. So this can't come as a surprise to anybody.
No. 2, when I take a stance on something, all I can talk to you about it how I feel about it and why. And I don't have to justify it, and you don't have to listen to it. But it is important for everyone to know that they have an opinion and they have a — have a right to express it.”
I was astounded. In one short statement Ms. Goldberg was recorded trying nearly every trick in the left’s version of Kundera’s Kitsch list- she attempts to get away without answering his arguments with clear reasons by playing the “everyone is entitled to their opinion” card, and then claiming that that is “just how she feels” This is a perfect example of leftist nonthought in action.
In our ongoing quest to find ways to reason, alarm, intimidate and ridicule the left and liberal west into full awareness of the challenge and danger that our civilization faces, one of our most valuable resources must be the tradition of pragmatic problem solvers, like Kettering, that have made some of our greatest contributions to the comfort and progress of our species. Another inspiring influence is the experience of those who have lived in other cultures and come to ours with an appreciation that, if we listen to them, makes us realize once again how lucky we are to live in a culture that, though it is not perfect, is the best that humanity has managed thus far and is the only reasonable hope for continued improvement. In this essay I have attempted to pull those two streams together to show that the one thing they exemplify most of all and their clearest difference from the insolent and counter-productive left is an honest desire to understand rather than react emotionally.
Ms Goldberg speaks in half truths with half sentences. We must continue to advocate real understanding. When she says, “everyone is entitled to their opinion” she has omitted the most important part of that assumptive sentence- the other half is “no matter how ill considered and uninformed it may be.” The entitlement to opinion and expression is not a validation of content- in fact, it is a call for responsibility. Equal rights to speak them doesn’t mean all opinions are of equal value it means that they should to be considered and supported rather than merely indulged.
The first recorded declaration of that responsibility in U.S. history came in the fall of 1787 when a woman approached Benjamin Franklin immediately following the concluding session of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and asked “What form of government have you given us?” Franklin replied: "A republic, madam, if you can keep it."
We cannot allow ourselves to be lulled by the easy appeals to emotion and received ideas contained in Ms Goldberg’s typical liberal glibness. No matter how secure we feel we must realize that we have enemies. As the usually non political Kettering said, “The future can be anything we want it to be, providing we have the faith and that we realize that peace, no less than war, requires "blood and sweat and tears."”