Theatre of Learning (Short Version)

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Theatre of Learning (Short Version)

To heck with moon rocks, there’s Luke Skywalker

by Ray Deonandan

July 13, 2001

This article was published in The Ottawa Citizen newspaper on May 9, 2002. A longer version is also available, under the title, The Theatre of Learning. The author retains all rights to both versions.

Subhead: Cousteau is gone. Sagan is gone. We’ve reached the ‘end of science.’ What’s a PhD to do these days?

Image: portrait of Stephen Hawking. Caption: The Thinker: British physicist Stephen Hawking, who hit the best-seller lists with his book A Brief History of Time and has even portrayed himself on an episode of The Simpsons, is the last of the popular scientists.

A recent trip to the Smithsonian reminded me of the glories to which museums can aspire. The Smithsonian truly is a wonder. Its very existence, its free admission and its crowdedness are heartwarming. That so many people would visit a museum warmly reminds me that science, history and learning are still valued in the world.

However, a disturbing observation shook me from my self-satisfied reverie, filling me once more with concern for our society’s long-term educational wherewithal.

The Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum boasts many treasures, including mock-ups of lunar landers and space shuttles, and the original Spirit of St. Louis, preserved decades after Lindbergh’s death.

Providing a nucleus around which papier-mache models and space-suited mannequins seemed to orbit was an actual moon rock, brought to Earth by one of the Apollo missions of the early 1970s. Apollo moon rocks are rare enough, but this one was special: It was exposed to the air and made available for visitors to touch, caress and poeticize. This was an incredible sight: one of humanity’s priceless artifacts presented for all to see and feel. It represented a culmination of millennia of human dreams: We can all now touch the moon.

Most Apollo moon rocks remain sealed in depressurized units filled with inert gases. That this one was exposed to the Washington air and to the touch of the people was indicative of the democratic tradition, and its resulting affluence, which made the Apollo missions possible.

Yet no one seemed to care.

The line-ups for the model aircraft were quite long. The dense clusters of people occupied with mannequins and hand-drawn lunar landscapes were loud and engaged. But I remained alone with an actual moon rock for half an hour, frustratingly cognizant of its glowing veracity in this menagerie of fraudulence.

Of course, a rock is not as much fun as something that looks like a big toy. It is children’s duty to seek multicolored things upon which they can climb. But the inability of an entire generation of adults to appreciate the intrinsic value and enormous financial cost of that one rock was saddening.

I fear this is a reflection of the West’s growing obsession with the theatrical in place of the demonstrable. As we increasingly glorify actors and entertainers more so than thinkers and leaders, we are drawn more to renditions of history than to history itself.

We are a society that learns its history from Hollywood versions of events rather than from factual accounts. In a given week of A&E Biography, one learns the life stories of four contemporary entertainers and one truly historical figure. Prior to the current war, entertainers would often equal or surpass actual analysts on political talk shows.

In an episode of The Simpsons, a science-fiction convention brings out characters from Star Wars, The X-Files and Star Trek, and one real-life astronaut, Neil Armstrong. Guess whose exhibit is the least popular? “People,” Armstrong’s publicist shouts, “this man has actually been to outer space!” But no one cares because Mark Hamill is waving his fake light saber.

If a major motion picture were made about the Apollo 11 moon landing, the actor who plays Neil Armstrong would draw a bigger crowd than would Neil Armstrong himself.

The forces of entertainment have done a splendid job of popularizing some historical and scientific events that would otherwise be difficult to make meaningful to a distrustful generation struggling to see the relevance of much of the orthodoxy. But those same forces now threaten to usurp the truth, and to draw the communal imagination away from the glories of the real thing.


Ray Deonandan is an owner of The Podium and a widely published author. His personal website can be found at www.deonandan.com