School For Zealots: Part Two
Copyright © by Len Holman, 4/14/11
A school for zealots, if it exists—and it seems there MUST be a Shangri-la for zealotry in the Himalayas or someplace because we seem to be surrounded by SO many of its graduates—must be offset by something positive, life-giving and life-saving if we are to keep from degenerating into smaller and smaller opinion enclaves, each aggressively antagonistic to the other. If we get to THAT place, then pray that your children or grandchildren live very near a military base for protection of your own small opinion and protection against the possible invasion of some other small opinion-group wielding iPads with murder in their eyes. Pity the people who live near a McDonald’s and who will have only fish fillets and chicken McNuggets to throw at invaders—Halal McNuggets in Muslim communities.
To try to avoid this splintering and bring some sanity to our national life, I suggest we throw out the old school model—all the school models, from secular to religious to just plain strange (the suggestion by a San Francisco legislator that California schools use textbooks which would note the LGBT sexual orientation of people who have contributed to our history is sweet and thoughtful, but none too bright). To combat this pernicious lack of thought, of sloganeering, of complex issues narrowed and dumbed-down to bumper sticker sound bites, we need to actually educate our children so that the next generation will not for a moment tolerate the likes of Michele Bachmann or Jesse Ventura or any Planned Parenthood spokesperson, OIbermann or Limbaugh, WITHOUT considering what they have to say. When I say “considering,” I mean actually thinking about the content of what’s being said, the evidence for it, its reasonableness and whether the content matches what the listener has previously encountered out in the world. “Considered” also means that the listener—who may be a card-carrying, flaming ACLU member—must not reflexively assume all lefty proposals as “good” and any attempts to critique them as “bad.”
Two examples: the aforementioned attempt of a politician to become an educator. Immediately, the gay community applauded, and San Francisco’s liberals did, too (which is just about everyone in the city, except for maybe those people talking to their invisible friends—and I’m not even sure about them), all without much of a second thought—and there are a lot of things not to like about this proposed legislation. And the second example is Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposal for 2012. Liberals and their fellow travelers went off like a teenage boy on prom night, but should anyone be castigated out of hand just for having ideas? Just for bringing the discussion of the nation’s budget into the real world for a change? What happened in both of these cases happens regularly everywhere, in all parts of the globe: people react, they just know what they know, and they don’t examine their preconceptions—but really, they don’t know what they don’t know and not only are they not aware of this fact, they seem not interested in the idea of it.
So, back to the drawing board, and if we are going to institute a new curriculum, a new way of thinking which some already know, but very few actually use, then we’ll have to start with the young. I mean the very young. From the start, no caregiver of a young person must allow their charge to even consider the possibility that the kid is right and everyone else is wrong. There is an old saying in philosophy: “Think you’ve got it right, but know you’ve got it wrong.” As the child grows to adulthood, this simple admonition should be drummed into his or her head at every opportunity. If I were King or God or someone, I would do as the Tea Party would like: abolish the Department of Education, which is more like the Department of Barely Adequate Education, or in the majority case, the Department of Testing Posing As Education —or for the more affluent, the Department of Pretty Good, But Very Expensive, Education. I would put in its place something called the Department of the Examined Life (apologies to Socrates). Its goal would be to make sure every school, rich or poor, large or small, with trees or with graffiti, would have just one goal: teach children to LEARN, by examination of “received wisdom,” by investigation, argumentation, reasoning, and rigorous evaluation. Any opinion expressed by a student would have to have a reason behind it; it would have to have some evidence. The core idea would be that it’s not a contest. There is no winning or losing, just finding as close an approximation to the truth as possible—until more investigation uncovers a different result. All “truths” would be held as tentative, but not as relative. An investigated truth would be true until replaced by a different, better, more verifiable and workable truth. Some ideas considered true would STAY true because they work, they match experience, and they produce consistent and verifiable results.
What about those who find out that some beloved truth of theirs is NOT true? Won’t there be wailing and gnashing of teeth? Yes, no doubt, but after a generation or two, the while whole culture would be a whole culture, no longer unfragmented with millions of claims of truth, millions of lies, distortions, uninformed commentary, and useless and/or foolish claptrap. In another generation, we’d begin to have a flexibly-minded, truth-seeking, skeptical, ready-to-see-another-point-of-view nation. We’d have a nation of truth-seekers which would make Plato, William James, and Skeptics of all ages feel right at home. It would be a new enlightenment, but with this crucial difference: There would be no baseline acceptance of any particular creed, and there would be a willingness to throw out any idea, no matter how cherished, no matter how venerable, that didn’t work or that didn’t make people’s lives better and more secure and happier. The Tea Party is willing to do that, but it really believes it is the Messiah, but even Jesus couldn’t vote for any of them. The Other Side has the same problem. They just absolutely KNOW they hold the Grail of Truth. One would think that, as age and experience accumulates, one would begin to see that black and white are not the colors of the world. My proposed curriculum for living is surely a dream, but if we don’t make some effort—and very soon—we’ll be in inhabiting a nightmare from which we won’t awake.
Return to Bylines