I have blogged in the past about our country’s anti-intellectualism which is glaringly obvious and has been commented upon by numerous others. I refer to our increasing determination to deny the higher purpose of the human mind, its capacity to achieve order, inclusiveness, and coherence. Our country was founded by practical people who were busy building lives in a new country. Following those early years we seem to have attracted a great many people, with notable exceptions, who were convinced that such things as education were esoteric and not really worth the time or attention they received in Europe, for example. Following those early years, we have seen increasingly pragmatic people who have narrowed their focus on the here and now and such things as the making of profits. Today, as I have noted on numerous occasions, we have reduced everything to the business model, including religion and education. The human mind now simply calculates profit and loss — or checks out social media.
There were exceptions, as noted, and one of those exceptions was Thomas Jefferson who in his Notes on the State of Virginia proposed a system of public education for all (boys) that would be capped off by several years at his university where the very best and brightest would be given the best possible classical education then available.
Interestingly, even in the three primary grades of his proposed public education, Jefferson did not stress such things as reading, writing, and figuring. He thought those things were a given — all kids learned them at home. In the very early years he advocated more substantive subject matters, such as history. The memories of young children were to be
“. . .stored with the most useful facts of Greek, Roman, European, and American history. . . .History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge the future; it will avail them of the experiences of other times and actions; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men.”
Jefferson was clearly in the minority, since history has never been the strong suit of American schools and by the time of the intellectual rebellion in the 1960s of the last century history was rejected by student radicals as “irrelevant.” It has now been removed from the basic core requirements of the majority of American colleges and universities and many high schools as well. Henry Ford thought it “bunk,” a sentiment taken up by Huxley in his Brave New World in which his citizens were nothing more than ignorant pleasure-seekers. Young American men captured in Korea during that “police action” were easily programmed to take anti-American half-truths as the whole truth because they were ignorant of their own history. Moreover, many of those who teach, even today, insist that the teaching of such things as “facts” is a waste of time when, indeed, facts are the building blocks of thought and like it or not they must be learned if thinking is to take place. Without those blocks thinking and speaking are merely gobble-de-gook — as we can tell by reading or listening to our Fearless Leader. And history is the subject best able to prepare the young to be “judges of the actions and designs of men.”
Santayana famously said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and we have seen how true that is. But in Jefferson’s program outlined above there are other elements that also deserve to be considered. For one thing, he is advocating what might be called a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest rise, like cream, to the top. Borrowing from Plato, he thought the preservation of our Republic depended on this. Education was the key. The Republic, if it was to be successful must attract the best and brightest to the halls of power to make the important decisions regarding the correct path the country should follow. We have no idea how that might have worked because we have never really committed ourselves to the education of all citizens as Jefferson would have us do. Job training, yes. Education, no. And our anti-intellectual sentiments lead a great many people to regard a liberal education, for example, as “elitist,” a citadel of social privilege, if you will. In fact, a liberal education is one that would provide the very best possible foundation for anyone with a mind to make important decisions and be aware of the forces that operate around them — forces that threaten to imprison them in chains of bias and ignorance and overwhelm them with such things as “alternative facts.”
We pay a huge price for our ignorance, not only of the past which we blindly ignore, but also of such things as science and mathematics which enable us to better understand the world around us and make sense of things. Jefferson’s was a pipe-dream, many would say, though he rested his hopes for the future of his beloved Republic on that base. And my dream of a liberal education for all — which owes its origin to such thinkers as Jefferson and Plato, among others — is also a pipe dream. I have kicked this poor, dead horse so many times my foot is numb (and the damned horse simply will not budge). But we might do well to recall that one of the founders of this nation who had high hopes for a free country of free minds once outlined a program for maintaining freedom in the years to come. And in ignoring his admonition to educate (not train) all citizens we may well have made ourselves a bed of thorns upon which we now must sleep. If we can.
An interesting essay Hugh, and as always thought provoking. Reflecting on the comment that cream rises to the top, my father would relate how going into his first metallurgy lesson, the lecturer gazed at the top row of serried seats and uttered the immortal words “Gentlemen, in metallurgy, the scum always rises to the top”.
The scum also rises!
Hugh, this is a good piece — a good reminder that we have to continue to teach our students about history, about seeing patterns and behaviors in history so we can recognize them again today. (Right now, I think there are a lot of adults who could use the remedial lessons, too: so many of the blind Trump followers are willfully ignorant — or just ignorant — of conditions that led up to 1933 in Germany and the 12 years of Nazi rule. And the Trump people also are blind to the continual historic evidence that the periods when Americans chose isolationism, anti-immigrant policies, protectionism have always failed this country’s best interests and landed on the wrong side of history. More simply, that kind of attitude and its policies have always failed. Always.)
History is a subject we can’t let slip away from our schools, whether its basic facts everyone should know (like the contents of the Constitution, as well as key dates, figures,etc.) to an understanding of its deeper meanings. You’re absolutely right that we suffer when that does not happen.
… On U.S. prisoners in North Korea, I’m not sure it was their ignorance of their own history that led them to be easily programmed. Only a small portion of the 4,000 U.S. POWs actually did show public signs of cracking, but it came after intense, and immense “brainwashing” by the North Koreans. Not physical torture, but extreme mental duress: isolation for long, long periods, food and sleep deprivation, the threat of death and torture. They were then fed a stream of propaganda they could no longer fend off either mentally or physically. It’s probable that even the most-educated person with deep-rooted understanding of history would have cracked in those conditions.
On the Korea prisoners: a large part of the “brain washing” process was to feed those young men misinformation scattered with half-truths about America (child labor, etc.) and the men had no historical knowledge with which to fend off the misinformation and were thus more easily turned. Documents found after the war stressed the fact that “Americans are ignorant of their own history.” It was true then and it is even moreso now. Good comment, as usual, Dana. Thanks.
P.S. The better educated men (i.e., officers usually) were kept separate and dealt with differently. Most interesting is the fact that there were NO attempts at escape during the entire “war.” And this despite the fact that the POW camps were relatively open — as compared with the Japanese camps during WW II.