“It makes him hard to get along with,” Mrs. Bowman was saying. “But I suppose it’s more important to be good than to be nice.”
“I strongly disagree,” Mr. Magundi interrupted. “Anyone who believes that being nice is the most important thing will exercise every Christian virtue in trying to make things pleasant for the people around him. Anyone who believes that being good trumps being nice is capable of any iniquity for the sake of his own inflexible idea of what’s good. ‘It’s more important to be good than to be nice’ neatly summarizes the beliefs of Pol Pot, of Robespierre, of nearly every terrorist there ever was; and I’m sure that, translated into Latin, it was the official motto of the Spanish Inquisition. All the misery in the world is caused by people hell-bent on being good at all costs.”
“But I don’t hold with the idea that man is just a higher animal,” I was saying.
“I think you’re right,” Mr. Magundi agreed. “Maybe instead of seeing humans as higher animals, we’d be better off thinking of animals as lesser humans. Or maybe ‘lesser’ is the wrong word.”
“So what did you think of the debate, Magundi?” Mr. Bates asked, with an arch of his eyebrows that suggested he thought he might be poking a hornet’s nest.
“I didn’t watch any of the debates,” Mr. Magundi replied, “and I can’t imagine why anyone else would, either. They’re ludicrously artificial performances that tell us nothing about what the candidates really intend to do, and do not simulate the actual activity of governing in any way. We’d learn exactly as much about the candidates if we put them in frilly tutus and made them dance the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker.”
“So I had to have like three years of math in high school to get into college,” Brielle was telling us, “even though I’m getting an art degree. And I have to take more math in college, for, like, an art degree. But I was reading this guy in, like, the New York Times or something, and he was saying nobody should have to do algebra to get into college, cause it’s like keeping out people who would be really smart in other subjects, and most people will never have to do it in real life.”
“I don’t think algebra is the only problem,” Mr. Magundi said. “I think the problem is that, when you come right down to it, all the necessary subjects have been learned, or should have been learned, by sixth grade. By that time, every child who’s gone though school should know how to read, write, and leave a tip at a restaurant. But then what do we do with them? They have to stay in school, because they’re too young to work and too stupid to be trusted at home all day.
“So they end up in high school. But every high-school class is unnecessary for most of the students in it. No one I know who isn’t in a scientific or engineering field uses algebra, and no one I know who isn’t in an academic or literary field uses English Lit. And apparently no one at all uses World History, to judge by the way we keep repeating it. I suppose it may be true that you’re a better person for learning all that algebra. But I might also argue that you would be an even better person if you had spent all that time on developing your artistic skill, which is what you really love, rather than on math classes that you hated, and that taught you things you will never use again after your last math test.
“But I suppose I should keep my mouth shut. If we start questioning whether high-school kids have to learn algebra, pretty soon we’ll start asking whether they have to go to school at all.”
“But they can’t possibly really believe that,” I said. “I know they’re not that stupid. So I think we have to ask, What are their real motives?”
Mr. Magundi shook his head a little sadly. “That’s the thing we always tell ourselves when we’re faced with the unaccountable obtuseness of the other side. We know for a fact that we are right and they are wrong, because we are sure the truth is blindingly obvious. So either they must be so stupid that they can’t think straight, or they must be only pretending to believe what they say they believe for the sake of some hidden motivation. We have hope for the stupid ones, because we may be able to explain the truth to them; but we can only conclude that the intelligent ones are actively evil.
“The existence of God is perfectly obvious to a Christian; the absence of God is perfectly obvious to an atheist. The inferiority of the female is so transparently clear to a fundamentalist Muslim that he knows no intelligent man can deny it; the wickedness of sequestering women is equally clear to an ordinary American. If anyone does deny these obvious truths, therefore, it must be from wicked and selfish motives. And that ought not to be allowed. People who preach falsehood ought to be stopped; they ought to be punished for allowing their wicked selfishness to prevail over truth.
“We get very angry about that kind of deliberate falsehood. And we can never admit to ourselves that it is not deliberate, because the alternative is simply too dreadful to think about: that intelligent people, having examined the very ideas we know to be correct, can come to different conclusions; and that it is possible, however remotely, that some of the very ideas we hold as most fundamentally important and immutably true are false.”