Forget About It!

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.




We Just Don’t Know

Like many of you, I suspect, the reality of last Tuesday’s election is slowly sinking in — along with fits of depression. But I have discovered that much of the depression I have experienced is due to imagined scenarios. When it comes down to it, the only things we really know for certain about Donald Trump is that we don’t know much of anything.

Oh, to be sure, he put much, if not all, of himself “out there” during the campaign and it was an ugly spectacle indeed. But we also saw him lie and prevaricate and leap from one position to another as those who doubted him had the audacity to question him. As I have said to one of my favorite bloggers, pinning the man down is like nailing Jello to the wall. There’s simply not much substance there and it is truly impossible to know for sure where he will be standing at the next moment.

Much of my depression, I have come to realize, results from imagined scenarios based on the things he has said and done the past few months. Most of these scenarios are deeply worrisome and I need not mention what they are for the purposes of this post. But I will say that I have worried most about the fact that so many people wanted this man for our president — not a majority, recall, but still a great many people. A great many of them, I suspect simply wanted change, any change. And, as Garrison Keillor recently said in a most eloquent essay, those voters wanted change and they are going to get it. I suspect most of them aren’t going to be happy with the changes. They ignore the obvious fact that all change is not necessarily for the better. But there will be change. That is perhaps the only certainty.

Many others voted for Trump because they “hated” Hillary, even though they knew her not. Many were sincere in their fear of a liberal appointment to the Supreme Court who would uphold the Roe v Wade decision that has made abortion legal. Their faith, which I am not really in a position to question, didn’t allow them to vote for a liberal candidate and they saw Donald Trump as their only viable choice. I have read a blog post or two defending this position and I do believe those people were sincere. From my point of view this seems a bit narrow, since there are so many other huge problems facing all of us, but, again, it is not my place to question.

There are those, many I suspect, who saw Trump as the answer to their prayers, a man who would empower them and make possible the realization of their basest hopes for White Supremacy and the elimination of “foreigners” from this land. There is no question that he hit a responsive chord in the bigoted hearts of a great many people and that is deeply disturbing. But, again, we don’t really know what the consequences of having turned over those particular rocks will be.

We know the man does not favor “big government” and the regulation of greed among those whose lives are devoted to accumulating more wealth than they could possibly spend in their lifetimes. And we know a few other things that are equally disturbing to those of us who care about the planet and struggle to make sure it survives the human onslaught. But, again, we can only imagine how this will turn out in the coming years.

And that is my point. The blend of imaginings and speculation with what we think we know about this man is the basis for most of our fears. And, as we have told ourselves throughout this campaign, fear is based on ignorance. We pointed our collective finger at those on the other side whose hatred is based on their fears, but we must recall that our own ignorance about the future and our fears about what this man will actually do once he takes office is based on just that, speculation and imaginings.

So I will try to find some solace in the fact that I don’t really know what this man will do in the next few months or years and even try to find some solace in the thought that he will almost certainly prove himself totally incompetent and alienate most, if not all, of Congress in the coming months and will not long thereafter face impeachment. I regard this as at least as  likely as any of my other imaginings and it is the one that promises me the most hope.

Ignorance and Fear

Socrates famously said the ignorance brings about evil in the world. He put it otherwise. He said knowledge invariably leads to goodness. I stress the obverse, but in either form he was a bit off the mark, it seems to me. I would say that ignorance leads to fear which quite often leads to violence. It is not ignorance, per se, that leads to what Socrates would call “evil.” It leads there through fear. And we are learning all we need to know about fear these days, thanks to the media, prodded by the frenzied right-wing, who have discovered that fear is an excellent way to control the population, to reject any attempts to control the sale of guns, and get such things as increased defense spending in Congress.

In a previous blog I quoted the Hanlon’s Razor that tells us “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.” This is a profound adage, if you think about it. It is indeed stupidity that leads to the fear that, in turn, leads to violence. Think about it. Imagine you are in a dark house alone and you hear something drop in the kitchen. You immediately are afraid and you reach for a poker (if you are near the fireplace) or a make-shift weapon of some kind. Then you find out it was the cat who knocked over the sugar bowl and you breathe easier. Your heart stops racing and you calm down. But think about the direct and immediate connection between your ignorance of the cause of the noise and the fear you feel as a direct result of your ignorance. And one can expand on these examples endlessly and continue to imagine what might happen if you had a real weapon, say a hand gun or an automatic rifle in the drawer next to you. You might have shot the poor cat! Or your nephew. Or a neighbor who was watching television in his living room next door. Absurd, you say? Not really. It simply explains how so many violent acts are committed each day by frightened people who shoot first and think later. I say again, ignorance leads to fear which leads to violence. Not always, to be sure. But often.

And when we consider the widespread ignorance in this country fed by the fear-mongers who feed off it, we might want to pause and reflect. Consider, for example, the self-appointed guardians of our southern boundaries who are armed and ready to protect us from the hated immigrants, children though they be, who (they think) will their jobs away and cripple our economy. I have blogged about this, as I have about their conviction that theirs is a right guaranteed by the Constitution to carry those weapons and be ever-prepared to use them — even though (as I have noted in past blogs) the Bill of Rights guarantees the militia the right to carry weapons, not frightened and stupid thugs. But because many choose to read the Constitution through glasses tinted by fear and suspicion, their right is insisted upon even though it is a fiction.

As F.D.R. said long ago: we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Indeed. And its first cousin, stupidity.

Eliot’s Wisdom

As mentioned in an earlier blog, I am re-reading Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, in which I have found much to reflect upon. In point of fact, I found this brief epigraph to Chapter 21 especially noteworthy and decided to pass it along by way of giving those who are unfamiliar with this remarkable woman’s insightful novels a taste of what they are missing. It deals with the power of ignorance and, like so much of what Eliot has to say, is a very timely comment indeed.

“It is a common sentence that Knowledge is power; but who hath duly considered or set forth the power of Ignorance? Knowledge slowly builds up what Ignorance in an hour pulls down. Knowledge, through patient and frugal centuries, enlarges discovery and makes a record of it; Ignorance, wanting its day’s dinner, lights a fire with the record and gives it a flavor to its own roast with the burnt souls of many generations. Knowledge, instructing the sense, refining and multiplying needs, transforms itself into skill and makes life various with a new six days’ work; comes Ignorance drunk on the seventh, with a firkin of oil and a match and an easy ‘Let there not be’ — and the many-colored creation is shrivelled up in blackness. Of a truth, Knowledge is power, but it is a power reined by scruple, having a conscience of what must be and what may be; whereas Ignorance is a blind giant who, let him but wax unbound, would make it a sport to seize the pillars that hold up the long-wrought fabric of human good and turn all the places of joy dark as a buried Babylon. And looking at life parcel-wise, in the growth of a single lot, who having a practiced vision may not see that ignorance of the true bond between events, and a false conceit of means whereby sequences may be compelled — like that falsity of eyesight which overlooks the gradation of distance, seeing that which is far off as if it were within a step or a grasp — precipitates the mistaken soul on destruction.”

We talk so much about the failure of the schools and read best-sellers like Idiot America by Charles Pierce and The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein that make abundantly clear how lively the “blind giant” is among us. And yet we fail to acknowledge what Eliot points out in this passage: the “pillars that hold up the fabric of human good” (not to mention the planet itself) are seriously threatened while we watch the latest TV show or catch up with our friends on their Facebook page. We may not know quite what to do about the current state of things, but the first step in any attempt to put the blind giant to rest is to pay attention and not pretend that if we ignore them, problems will go away by themselves.