“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high schoolIt’s a wonder I can think at all”
----Paul Simon “Kodachrome”
“I’ve discovered later in life that, with the possible exception of basic reading and mathematics, most of what I was taught was most assuredly wrong."
----from "The Quotations of Chairman Joe".
Nineteen years ago I found myself substitute teaching in what is now called a “middle school” (formerly a Junior High) a class in sociology, which had become the format for teaching a combination of sociology, history and government. In the course of the conversation a rather perceptive student opined that he thought that schools were nothing but indoctrination centers. I was a bit taken aback by the observation, but I recalled reading in my history that the French Minister of Education proclaimed at the end of the 19th century, as the state had wrested nearly complete control of education from the church, that “now we will make good nationalists of them”. I found myself unable to mount an effective reply and simply nodded in agreement. It is hard to see it in any other way.
From making ‘good christians’ to making ‘good nationalists’ the educational system is designed to meet the demands of a certain agenda, whatever that agenda may be. It may be parochial, or it may be public, but whatever it’s agenda it is certain to entail the adoption of some belief system leading to the veneration of certain established institutions otherwise known as the “Box”. To think outside the “Box” is to risk heresy, ending in certain chastisement, marginalization or outright banishment. To that end, certain forces are at work to see that the material is presented in an ‘acceptable’ if not official manner. In the United States, agencies like the Texas authorities comb every textbook to see that they meet their preconcieved ideas of what the true history and governance of this country is, reflecting true ‘American’ values. It is like that in every country. And so atrocities, betrayals, chicanery, and outright mendacity are expunged from every textbook leading the young to believe that theirs is a ‘chosen’ lot in life be it Divine Providence or the ‘Manifest Destiny’ of the nation into which one is born.
I first became aware that something may be amiss when I visited the “Farm” in my youth. In previous posts (see “Northwest of Custer” and “Return to Custer”) I have mentioned that visits to my grandparents were seen by the ‘folks’ as much as an opportunity to teach as it was a time of reaquaintence. During one such visit my great Uncle Lionel closely questioned me concerning what they were teaching at my parochial school. I could tell by his body language and the nature of the questioning that he was dismayed if not appalled. It was the complete rejection of Natural History, I would later come to appreciate, as well as the implied war on science that he could not sanction. I returned to school with, I think, a greater peripheral vision but when I answered a ‘science’ question stating that the world was 4 billion years old, I was not only marked down but singled out for reprimand.
And so began my long questioning of what were presented to me as established ‘truth’. I remember the tirades against the forces of ‘evil’ prominent among them were the works of Marx and Nietszche. I began to suspect the interpretation and, when I emerged from my ‘studies’ later in life, the first thing I did was purchase a copy of every work still in print by these two writers I just had to see for myself.
As I suspected, what was presented to me so authoritatively turned out to be a mere characterization of their works, betraying a blinding ignorace of what these people were trying to say. I suspected, even as a boy, that perhaps the truth was more encompassing, now I found myself face to face with the genuine article and it was revealing.
Nietszche in his work “Thus Spake Zarathustra” has the protagonist coming from the mountaintop and dispensing his newly formed observations concerning the human predicament to anyone who will listen. Soon he gathers a group of followers who take his every utterance as nearly Divine Revelation. Zarathustra becomes uneasy, continually protesting that “I have not been understood”. Finally, in exasperation he warns his followers that one should not be about the business of erecting monuments lest one be slain by a falling statue. And so it is. Every writer, every thinker, must be painfully self conscious. Every philosopher or theologian must be continually vigilant lest he be laid waste not only by his opponents but by his very adherents.
Nietsche warned his readers that he was not the answer, but possibly only a steppingstone in the long quest for truth. “To disagree with him and to know why”, as Kaufman his translater would so succinctly and aptly put it, is the real challenge facing every reader. It is the real challenge and the real pleasure in reading any great work. To critique it instead of blindly and submissively accepting or rejecting is the great treasure. By reading such works with such an approach one can engage in a kind of dialogue with the greatest minds of humankind. But alas, that is not how one is taught to read in any school I’m familiar with.
Indeed it gets worse. I am currently near the end of reading Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” I found a complete set of this work at a bookstore in Winder Georgia and had to lay my hands on it. This was another work held up as testament for the need to follow the ‘straight and narrow’. Gibbon, we were told, was one of the truly great historians. He wrote, we were assured, that the reason the Roman Empire fell was that the people no longer followed the true religion and that decadence had finally been the undoing of the great historical experiment. If only the Romans had been faithful to the Church….. I discovered reading this work that my suspicions were well founded for Gibbon wrote no such thing. True enough, the empire fell from within as the people no longer felt it was worth defending against the barbarian hordes and in fact hired the barbarians as mercenaries to defend the empire for them. So it was, to a great degree, a loss of faith but it was a loss of faith in the efficacy of the state, not a religious question. To cast the fall of the Roman Empire as a theological question, stemming from a growing ‘degeneracy’ and loss of a moral compass, is to greatly strain the historical record.
In fact, I was to discover later, that was precisely the theological cunundrum confronting St. Augustine. How could it be that the Empire began to unravel soon after the adoption by the state of Christianity as the state religion. For Christians everywhere this was the great paradox. Augustine did his best to explain it away but Gibbon, I was later to learn, never made the attempt.
So began my introduction with historical criticism creating as it did a lifelong passion for the subject. Entering the public schools I was likewise harranged by my instructors concerning the shortcomings of so-called ‘heresies’. Nietzche never got much attention in the public schools largely because they aren’t fixated with his “god is dead” proclamation, but Marx—considering the “Cold War” at the time—got more extensive, if not less biased treatment. There were classes in Marxist “Dialectical Materialism” and “Historical Determinism” and, of course, his wild prognostications were always fodder for ridicule. We even held a “Communist Classroom” in our “American Problems” class in High School as a way of demonstrating what school may have been like behind the Iron Curtain. We each had to choose a ‘Russian’ name, and sit ramrod staight and salute when called upon. I took the name of Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov a point lost on my peers as well as my instructor.
By reading Marx I discovered many more dimensions. First his historical analysis as to the orgin of modern Capital and his statistical discription of Capitalism in Dickensonian England are worth reading simply because they are so accurate, a point the ‘folks’ back at the farm impressed upon me all those years ago. Of all the criticisms leveled at Marx no one takes umbrage with his economic analysis. Engles has been widely criticised for his methodology, not so Marx who was the better historian and economist. Secondly, there is the Marxist Theory of Alienation, a part of his thinking so far reaching and so penetrating so as to be at the very foundation of his philosphy. The alienation of man, town from country, rich from poor, even from himself lies at the very foundation of the moral—yes moral—outrage that permeates his work. In the eyes of Marx the Capitalist, by appropriating a portion of the fruits of a man’s labor, steals not only his wealth but his personhood. He is expropriating part of the very ‘selfhood’ of the laborer. This is a deeply penetrating part of Communist ideology, as formulated by Marx, but wholly ignored in the treatment of it—if the subject gets any serious attention at all—by our schoolmasters and schoolmarms.
Back in college we were tasked with reading the ‘historical novel’ “The Sotweed Factor” by John Barth. It is an 800 page tome cast in Colonial America (Maryland as I recall) which we had to read for one of our weekly book quizzes. In it the Protagonist teaches school for a short period of time observing that the mark of a good instructor is to always be one chapter ahead of his students. I soon began to suspect that my instructors were running the race only a mere chapter ahead of me.
And so it is. It’s not simply that my instructors in a parochial primary school were passing along theologically driven characterizations, its that none of them, be they private or public, primary or secondary, or even university level had ever read their material in the original (or translations of same). In high school history and government tend to be taught by the coaches of the sports teams, meaning that they majored in physical education in college and minored in the subject at hand. This means that they rarely got much past the required ‘survey’ classes in college, putting them precisely one chapter, more or less, ahead of the class. That’s why Americans have no idea what a Communist is, let alone a Socialist, or Fascist. They have no idea the difference between an authoritarian regime and a dictatorship, let alone between a democracy and a republic. This is why the Teabaggers can characterize our President as a socialist, a communist and a fascist, all in the same sentence. And this is why most Americans don’t know that the words “Capital” or “Free Market” never appear in the founding documents but the word “Regulate” or varients of it, do.