This essay conforms to the methods recommended by the United States Army Manual on how to teach. You tell people what you're going to tell them. Then you tell them. Then you tell them what you told them.
I will first discuss honorable behavior, especially in peacetime.
I will then comment on the information revolution---the astonishing fact that human beings can actually know what they're talking about, in case they want to try it.
From there I will go on to recommend to all young people everywhere that their hero be Ignaz Semmelweis. You may laugh at such a name for a hero, but you will become most respectful, I promise you, when I tell you how and why he died.
First, honor. I have always wanted to be honorable. You want to be honorable, too, I am sure. Anyway, a lot of the talk about honor in the past has had to do with behavior on the battlefield. An honorable man holds his country's flag high, even though he is as full of arrows as Sebastian. An honorable little drummer boy drums and drums until he has his little head blown off. General Haig should really be the one to talk about that sort of honor. I was only a corporal.
Modern weapons, of course, have made that sort of honor even scarier than it used to be. A person in control of missiles and nuclear warheads could behave so honorably as to get everybody killed. The whole planet could become like the head of the brave little drummer boy, rolling off into a ditch somewhere.
So I will limit my discussion to honorable behavior in peacetime situations. In peacetime, if someone insults you or a loved one, it is honorable to beat his brains out with a jackhandle.
Excuse me, that was a joke. In peacetime, it is honorable to tell the truth to those who deserve to hear it.
So I now give you my word of honor that it is a courageous and honorable and beautiful thing to seek education, to get possession of solid information which, properly understood and put to use, can save us as a species.
All the solid information we have now becomes very tiresome from time to time. Too much! Too much! Let me tell you again: it is almost all brand-new.
This is the information revolution I promised to tell you about. We have taken it very badly so far. Information seems to be getting in the way all the time. Human beings have had to guess about almost everything for the past million years or so. Our most enthralling and sometimes terrifying guessers are the leading characters in our history books. Should I name two of them? Aristotle and Hitler---one good guesser and one bad one.
The masses of humanity, having no solid information, have had little choice but to believe this guesser or that one. Russians who didn't think much of the guesses of Ivan the Terrible, for example, were likely to have their hats nailed to their heads.
Let us acknowledge, though, that persuasive guessers, even Ivan the Terrible, now a hero in the Soviet Union, have given us courage to endure extraordinary ordeals which we had no way of understanding---crop failures, wars, plagues, the eruptions of volcanoes, babies born dead. The important thing is that somebody gave us the illusion that we were in control of our destiny.
Those of you who would like to become prosperous, I will tell you what to do: drown a mouse in the tears
a blind man when the moon is full. What the heck, it's worth a try. Those of you who are worried about
another world war, or about the meltdown of a nuclear reactor, or whatever: have a virgin kiss a sprig of
freshly picked parsley and leave it on the doorstep of a fool. It's worth a try.
Or, if you don't have any parsley, you might try praying and having faith that our leaders understand perfectly how it is that things work, what is truly going on.
Persuasive guessing has been at the core of leadership for so long, for all of human experience so far, that it is wholly unsurprising that must of the leaders on this planet, in spite of all the solid information that is suddenly ours, want the guessing to go on. It is now their turn to guess and guess and be listened to.
You know why I think research funds in this country have been so severely curtailed? (We now spend less on research than any other industrialized nation.) It isn't in order to balance the stupid budget. It is in order to keep new truths from getting in the way of politicians all the time. It is intolerable to politicians, so melodious with their guesses, that ordinary citizens, having been to a public library, can say, with absolute authority, "You're wrong."
Some of the loudest, most proudly ignorant guessing in the world is going on in Washington, D.C., today. Our leaders are sick of all the solid information that has been dumped on humanity by research and scholarship and investigative reporting. They think that the whole country is sick of it---and they could be right. It isn't the gold standard they want to put us back on. They want something even more basic than that. They want to put us back on the snake-oil standard again.
Loaded pistols are good for people unless they're in prisons or lunatic asylums. That's correct. Millions spent on public health are inflationary. That's correct. Billions spent on weapons will bring inflation down. That's correct. Dictatorships of the right are much closer to American ideals than dictatorships of the left. That's correct. The more hydrogen bomb warheads we have, all set to go off at a moment's notice, the safer humanity is, the better the world our grandchildren will inherit. That's correct. Industrial wastes, and especially those which are radioactive, hardly ever hurt anybody, so everybody should shut up about them. That's correct. Industries should be allowed to do whatever they want to do---bribe, wreck the environment just a little, fix prices, screw dumb customers, put a stop to competition, and raid the treasury in case they go broke. That's correct. That's free enterprise. That's correct. The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn't be poor, so their children should pay the consequences. That's correct. The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its people. That's correct. The free market is an automatic system of justice. That's correct.
What good is an education? The boisterous guessers are still in charge, the haters of information. And the guessers are almost all highly educated people! Think of that.
If you make use of the vast fund of knowledge now available to educated persons, you are going to be lonesome as hell. The guessers outnumber you---and now I have to guess---about 10 to one.
What I can give you to cling to is a poor thing, actually---not much better than nothing, maybe worse than nothing. It is the idea of a truly modern hero. It is the bare bones of the life of Ignaz Semmelweis.
My hero is Ignaz Semmelweis. He was born in Budapest in 1818, and he lived for 47 years. He became an obstetrician, which should make him modern hero enough. He devoted his life to the health of babies and mothers. We could use more heroes like that. There is damn little caring for mothers or babies or old people or anybody physically or economically weak these days.
I have told you how new all this information we have is. It is so new that Louis Pasteur's idea that many diseases are caused by germs is only about 120 years old.
Ignaz Semmelweis also believed that germs could cause disease. He was horrified when he went to work for a maternity hospital in Vienna to find that one mother in 10 was dying of childbed fever there. They were poor people. Rich people still had their babies at home.
Semmelweis observed hospital routines and began to suspect that doctors were bringing the infection to the patients. He noticed that the doctors often went directly from dissecting corpses in the morgue to examining mothers in the maternity ward. He suggested, as an experiment, that the doctors wash their hands before touching the mothers. What could be more insulting? How dare he make such a suggestion to his social superiors? He was a nobody, you realize.
But all that dying went on and on and Semmelweis, having so far less sense about how to get along with others in this world than you anti I would have, kept asking colleagues to wash their hands. They at last agreed to do it, in a spirit of lampoonery, of satire, of scorn. How they must have lathered and lathered and scrubbed and scrubbed.
The dying stopped.
Imagine that: the dying stopped. He saved all those lives. Subsequently, it might be said that he has saved millions of lives---including, quite possibly, yours and mine.
What thanks did Semmelweis get from the leaders of his profession and Viennese society---guessers all? He was forced out of the hospital and out of Austria itself, whose people he had served so well. He finished his career in a provincial hospital in Hungary. There he gave up on humanity and on knowledge, and on himself. One day in the dissecting room, he took the blade of a scalpel with which he had been cutting up a corpse, and he stuck it on purpose into the palm of his hand. He died, as he knew he would, of blood poisoning soon afterward.
The guessers had had all the power. They had won again. Germs indeed!
The guessers revealed something else about themselves, too, which we should duly note: they aren't realty interested in saving lives. What matters to them is being listened to, as, however ignorantly, their guessing goes on and on.
Kurt Vonnegut' s most recent novel is Jailbird. This essay is adapted from a commencement speech he gave last May (1981) at Southampton College of Long Island University in New York.