One in Four Americans Thinks the Sun Orbits the Earth

This morning I delivered a sermon. ( ! ! ) One of my students honored me with a nomination to be the speaker at Harvard Morning Prayers and I accepted the invite. My comments were on the question of attention, as to what we attend/care. I've copied the script below. Listen to the the recording, here.

[ photo courtesy of Mike Foster ]

One in Four Americans Thinks the Sun Orbits the Earth
Lecture for Harvard Morning Prayers, Appleton Chapel
4 March 2014

This morning's reading comes from the writings of Bernard Stiegler:
"Education is the fruit of the accumulated experience of generations. It develops a patina over time like the pebbles rolling in the current along the riverbed ... Education is … individual memories engendered by individual experiences, ones which, through … developing a patina … have resulted in a collective memory constituted by the attentional forms of knowledge: knowhow, lifeskills, cognitive and theoretical knowledges." (Stiegler 2012: 2)
Stiegler continues, “This is why a philosophy of care assumes a philosophy of attention, especially in our epoch where an ‘attention economy’ dominates” (2012: 1). In my brief remarks, I want to ruminate on the question of attention, as in to what we attend at the heart of a reformed ethics of education.

* * *

Sun sets. Sun rises. It is a fantastic cosmology, that the earth seemingly holds still while the sun moves across the sky. Geocentrism is perhaps one of our more basic humanistic vices -- to assume a stable position amid the destabilizing forces and movements all around us. More than vice, it is a primary observation that marks time, produces habit, and configures the rhythms of work and play. Science asks us to reset these accumulated inscriptions, to more abstractly vision a different model of interaction, to put into motion that which feels stationary and to stabilize that which constitutes the measurement of life itself. Indeed our very simple notions of progress spring forward, dawn to dusk, in series of periodicities of days, months, seasons, and years that we later assemble and call ‘history’. These individual experiences, to witness the sun moving across the sky, become individual memory. We attend to the world in this most basic way, to bear witness to time, to keep hope that the sun will return again -- if only we pay attention.

It is in the context of this practice of attention, to attend to what matters, that I read a recent survey of Americans conducted by the National Science Foundation regarding our knowledge of the relationship between the sun and the earth. Indeed, one in four Americans seems to believe that the sun orbits the earth. Sun rises. Sun sets. Isaiah Bowman, a geographer who in 1905 earned his A.B. here at Harvard, noted that these kinds of observations would continue to linger. In 1934, he wrote as director of the American Geographical Society:
When prejudice is fortified by limited experience it may linger for centuries. There are millions of persons who still believe the earth to be flat because it is not perceptibly curved as one looks at it casually. It is fantastic, a defiance of common sense and a violation of experience to say that the sun does not move across the sky when it so obviously does. It requires wider experience, more general observation … to prove the rotation of the round earth. (Bowman 1934: 20)
More experience, more observation, more knowledge. More attention. Indeed, more care. Education is such a system of care. It is a curiosity then that in around a decade following this statement Bowman would reportedly assure the president of Harvard, Jim Conant, of his decision to close the Geography Department here -- a decision which would change the face of geographic education in north America. To what do we care, to what do we attend, at Harvard?

Ecclesiastes 1, verse 5: “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where
[ photo courtesy of Wendy Guan ]
he arose.” (KJV) 1. 2. 3. 4. The sun stretches slightly further across the sky. And one of  four of you may believe what you see. So, how do we respond to this NSF report on our general knowledge? Do we laugh? Do we lower our heads in shame? This survey will likely motivate science education advocates to take up their microscopes, telescopes, and models, but I would like to take a less obvious rejoinder. For me, this fact about our collective knowledge, that one in four Americans believes the sun orbits the earth, is more an indictment of our collective memory -- and we are all culpable. As the report indicates, science coverage makes up a quite small percentage of traditional media -- less than 2 percent -- so it is perhaps unsurprising that many more of us know the current controversies of Justin Bieber than of the relationship between our planet and the sun.

[ photo courtesy of Jordan Isip ]
We are all culpable, because to what we attend, because to what we pay attention matters and materializes. Education as such a system of care is increasingly in a losing position, as the cultural industry produces information, an enduring resource, while our capacity to pay attention is incredibly finite. Under such a society of the spectacle, Guy Debord writes during the unrest of the 1960s that our very consciousness is targeted, and while religious contemplation was an earliest expression of this targeting, the spectacle now operates to frame to what we pay attention. That one in four Americans believes the sun orbits the earth does not mark the ignorance of our fellow citizens, but instead highlights our collective indulgence in and prioritization of systems that actually cause us not to care. We simply change the channel; we distract ourselves. Sun rises. Sun sets. To what will you pay attention today?

Bowman, Isaiah. 1934. Geography in Relation to the Social Sciences. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Debord, Guy. 1994. The society of the spectacle. New York: Zone Books.
Stiegler, Bernard. 2012. Relational ecology and the digital pharmakon. Culture Machine 13:1-19.


  1. A lovely sermon Matt, with a very apposite conclusion - there remains a desperate need to attend to and to care for education. I hope you deliver it again in other, less grandiose, settings ;-)

    The beginning of your quote is one of my favourite lines from Stiegler, which is rather poetic in the original French: "L’éducation est le fruit de l’expérience accumulée des générations, qui est en quelque sorte patinée par leur temps comme des galets s’arrondissent au fil de l’eau dans un cours dont ils constituent le lit"
    beautifully translated by Patrick Crogan for the issue of Culture Machine.

  2. Fantastic message (and delivery) Matt! Thank you for sharing.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts