In the November issue of TIME MAGAZINE, back in old 1960 there appeared an interesting little article. It concerned a little learning and pointed out that about half of the U.S. college students believe that whiskey will kill a fever, and one-third think that an expectant mother can cultivate musical talent in her unborn child by listening to symphonies. One student in three believes that chiropractors are just as competent as physicians, and a smaller group thinks that fish is a brain food. So says New York University’s Dr. H. Frederick Kilander, author of the standard Kilander Health Knowledge Tests, who has been charting the progress of general health education in the United States since 1936.
Dr. Kilander told the American Public Health Association that today’s collegian still tends to cling to an assortment of medical superstitions and that the public at large is even worse informed.
For example, about a third of the public thinks water contains calories and is fattening. About one in five believes that a newborn child’s disfiguration may be caused by the mother’s fright during pregnancy. Nearly half those tested believe that communicable diseases can be biologically inherited. And about half the public still thinks that raw meat such as beefsteak will reduce a swelling or black eye due to a bruise.
It’s sort of interesting, isn’t it? And you’d be surprised at the number of so-called adults who don’t like the idea of a black cat running across their paths, refuse to walk under a ladder, are nervous about the number thirteen, won’t open an umbrella in the house, or believe that tragedies always come in threes. Even in the finest restaurants you’ll still see well-dressed people toss a little salt over their shoulder if they happen to spill some, and people who still knock on wood when they say something they don’t want to come true.
Not one of the items I’ve mentioned is true. It’s all a lot of puerile nonsense believed by people who fight the idea of growing up, or who have spent their lives playing hookey from an education. You might just as well go through life saying “bread and butter” every time you and a companion have something, or someone, pass between you.
The fact of the matter is that a good (too good) percentage of adults are still in their intellectual nonage. They’ve never grown up in the brain’s department, and life to them has never taken on more meaning or interest than a game of jacks, or mumblety peg.
Not growing up mentally has been one of the favorite pastimes of human beings since the dawn of recorded history, and it is unquestionably the one game at which they have been overwhelmingly successful. Human beings have fought truth and wisdom with an implacable consistency seldom found in any other aspect of living. It has always appeared that they believe truth will hurt them or infect them with some fatal and grisly disease. Most of the great enlightened individuals who have appeared from time to time to lead the out of the darkness have been relentlessly hunted down and put to torture, the stake, crucified, or at the very least, ridiculed and driven out of human society. We are gradually moving out of these mental dark ages, but at a speed far slower than the imperceptible movement of a glacier.
The way most people use their minds can be compared to filling a room with space-consuming, but empty, boxes. We still cling, to an astonishing degree, to the absurd superstitions, false rumors and monumental nonsense that for centuries have stood in the way of human enlightenment.