Knowledge and the Left
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I have a new friend who while intelligent, self-educating and reasonably conversant has surprising holes in his knowledge of history.
His two companions, one nearly a college graduate, have similar shortcomings in their knowledge of history.
What these shortcomings are is not important. What irks me is that most people of my generation, even out of high school, would have known many of the things these young people did not know before I told them. (I assure my reader that these were matters of objective fact, at least as accepted by all or most historians, not subjective matters of opinion.) While intellectually superior to most people I've known of any generation, their hard knowledge of social science is spottier and less generally complete than it should be even for people their age.
This bothers me, although it doesn't surprise me, because they are after all Americans. While they admit these shortcomings and are eager to amend them (hence, as they tell me, their association with me), I ask myself perplexedly why their general knowledge lacks for certain breadth. I return to the fact that they are, after all, Americans.
Americans are reknown throughout the world for their intellectual shallowness. They have been criticized for their anti-intellectuality throughout their history, and especially lately. Also, their leaders, ever more exploitive, continue to short-circuit every opportunity Americans gain to increase their general knowledge and their sociopolitical awareness. Americans do not like to be criticized on any level, and although their general response to such criticisms depends on outright lies or skewered perspective, as with many things, they remain certain that there is nothing wrong with them, and that they are the most liberated people in the world. It is exceedingly hard to induce Americans to respond to cognitive dissonance with anything but defensive posture or anger, and the problem is getting worse.
For the first time in history, most people know how to read and write. This is a danger to any form of authoritarianism, even the materialistically indulgent sort as we have here in America. Thus, that same materialism and the commercial media that has developed within it become crucial in countering the intellectual autonomy that should be inherent, logically, in widespread literacy.
Yet, my young friends are not so materialistic. They are quite resistant to the typical American mindset and lifestyle. Thus the fault lies not with them but with the media or the education system in their community. (They do all come from the same locality in the northeastern region of this state, Pennsylvania.) They seem eager to seek out information and do have some solid understanding of topics in their range of interest and have gained some impressive field-of-discourse therein. They must of course seek out alternative media to acquire information of interest to Leftists in America, as I have had to do. Thus, I do not fault them nor the media, since the mainstream American media is generally irrelevant to them and they have made their best effort.
Thus the fault is in the education system in their community.
Granted, there's a great deal to know about history, even in a general-knowledge-sense fashion, and there's an unwieldy body of knowledge considered essential to the Leftist-at-large. The Left encompasses many causes, and no one individual can hope to inure him or herself to them all. My young friends have a great deal on their plate if they wish to educate themselves in our lore; yet this is always the truth, as our opponents on the right generally eschew true understanding in multi-perspective history and cultures and prefer to subscribe to a kind of 'received doctrine' as dictated by the media pundits and their Orwellian leaders. For this and many other reasons it's much more challenging to be a Leftist, in America, than Rightwing.
As a former educator who recently left the field, I have always bemoaned the fact that I became a teacher of english instead of history. I might have lasted longer in the field and would have been much happier. I was most successful with my students, including by their account, when I used historical and sociopolitical contexts in my lessons. In retrospect I believe that I indeed did choose the wrong subset of the field when I entered it, and should have been a social studies teacher. One change I would make to the curriculum if I were so empowered would be in my choice of texts.
I have long been enamoured of Howard Zinn's 'A People's History of the United States'. There is a teacher's edition which is abridged and includes questions, but I think a better job could be done to make this into an excellent teacher's tool, and that it needs to be rewritten for young people at every stage of education.
Do not think that I would burdern very young children with things like the fraud of the forefathers and their desire to replace the loyalists in the catbird-seat of power and resource-control. There are many issues that can be discussed with young children with a more honest and progressive approach and a suitable edition of 'A People's History' along with constant pointed comparisons with a 'standard' textbook from one of the corporate publishers would teach children a healthy cynicism for media, authority and in the value of understanding different perspectives.
Particularly in high school, we could prepare our young people to be much more in posession of their sociopolitical faculties and to hold greater command of history from multiple perspectives if we used such an innovative, honest text that seeks not to indoctrinate but to truly educate.
For those who would claim that this creates a Leftwing bias in education, I must point out that the Right has simplified and skewed historical perspective for plenty long enough, and that even the founding fathers, for all of my contempt for them, insisted that people be inculcated with a highly suspicious attitude toward government. Any time the Left finds a voice or makes inroads, the Right wails shrilly that a Leftist 'agenda' is in place. Have we not lived painfully for so long in the shadow of the agenda of the Right? Also remember that the Democratic Party, by world standards, is not particularly 'Left' and is considered right-of-center by the measure of political observers in any other realm. The true Left has been granted very little voice, if any, by the powers-that-be and have borne brutal suppression at worst and malign, stony silence in the halls of power at best.
If America survives its present debacle and what is to come, perhaps people will remember the warnings we gave and the truths we told. America forgot in its reactionary isolationism after World War I that the 'extreme' Left had warned the nation of the true machinations of the Great War and been suppressed with all kinds of authoritarian force and negative, ablative propaganda. I don't expect much from Americans intellectually, but I will be powerfully disappointed if even they do not see the truth after all that is shortly to come.
Forgive me for my digression.
Back to my friends:
Think of what young people could do to return control of America's governance to the people if they had a truly realistic perspective on the history of the nation. I must qualify this statement, of course: Americans have never really had control of their governance, although they generally have always believed they have. As a friend of mine in my Wobbly days said often: "If voting really could change anything, it would be illegal."
For now, I perform a service that my young friends find eminently valuable, and for which they befriended me in the first place: I disseminate knowledge, without dissembling. I bring them knowledge in context, and I can provide them with related information on many topics. To their credit, they have striven to educate themselves powerfully enough that they have sufficient context to understand all of my explanations, and masticate everything that I say to them. That's vastly more than I can say for the majority of my former students and indeed Americans in general. They are not content to simply be indoctrinated but put my statements to the test, with respectable powers of analysis and the knowledge base they have managed to build in themselves with no help from a state that was charged by its founders to seed them with the ability to challenge its authority by providing them a free education and a free press.
I lack the interest in academia to become a scholar like Howard Zinn, but I can still lead new minds into the ranks of consciencious dissenters with the tools that such outstanding thinkers bring me. I am proud to amplify the voice of such a great teacher, who himself makes me a greater teacher than I might otherwise be. This is what is missing from American education. As Mark Twain would say, my young friends did not "let their schooling get in the way of their education," but rather sought to educate themselves in those things that make self-determination most possible. Truly educated people will always do this, but our education system was promised by the founders of this nation to do much more for the autonomy of our young people than it does, or than our government's true masters ever intend it to do.
It is no surprise that the American education system is decreasing the emphasis on social studies in our schools, even in higher education. It is increasingly obvious that the true masters of this government are not interested in producing well-rounded, thinking citizens but managable automatons. Very soon we will probably see the emergence of something not dissimilar to Orwell's 'Newspeak', and Americans will eagerly learn it, in order to become 'free of all those big words we don't really need'.
The battle is on, and while I could no longer fight it in a worthwhile manner in the classroom, I can still fight it in the everyday relation of my life, as long as I continue to interact with other human beings who will listen to me, and as long as I can supply myself with the thoughtful, insightful assistance of great dissenters like Howard Zinn.