Saturday, March 08, 2003

I spent nearly an hour the other day laughing over the letters to the editor in our local newspaper. The Sunday edition featured only letters regarding the war against Iraq, and, this being a generally liberal community, most of them spoke against said war. Now, because I don't know enough about the situation, I choose not to voice a public opinion--I rarely even discuss the topic with sympathetic friends. Yet so many people who know less than I feel compelled to let the world know what they think. Letters to the editor are slightly more proactive than bumper stickers, but still do no good when the writers are uninformed and uninsightful.

One man claimed that he couldn't "seem to come in contact with any rational people who support war against Iraq", to which I politely say, perhaps you ought to remove your head from your posterior. For one thing, people such as this gentleman are so sure they're right that they assume everyone agrees with them, and either ridicule or ignore differing opinions; for another, those who support President Bush are already getting what they want and have no need to squawk to the heavens. Besides, rational "pro-war" (which, incidentally, does NOT equal "anti-peace") advocates apparently are spending some of their time researching the issue instead of blathering on; whereas too many peace protestors care enough to have an opinion but not enough to seek full knowledge of the subject. As C.S. Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters, they have "a grand general idea that [they know] it all and that everything [they happen] to have picked up in casual talk and reading is 'the results of modern investigation'".

Well, I really didn't intend to splatter my personal opinion all over the gentle reader, so I should reiterate that my most troubling concern is the all-too-obvious inability of these people to educate themselves. Public schools have equipped them to know how to read, but do they? If they do, are they truly literate? Literacy is more than "C-A-T spells CAT"--it is comprehension of what has been read, and to read things that challenge and provoke. It is being able to assess and analyze the words, to think about them and compare them to other writings before forming an opinion. Adults who cannot or do not do this are intellectually still children and are not truly citizens. Education does not end with the awarding of a diploma; in fact, as Mortimer Adler posits, education doesn't even occur in schools--only after receiving the skills and inspiration to pursue knowledge can one being to be educated. We educate ourselves, or we do nothing. Unfortunately this is not generally understood except by those who have been fortunate enough to receive a "liberal education" (I use quotation marks to indicate the lack of a better phrase--Adler calls it Paideia).

Paideia is less concerned with test scores and academic results than with shaping free-thinking autodidacts, people who are continually learning and seeking knowledge. Adler claims, quite rightly, that no person can be free unless he has been given the liberty to think and learn, regardless of ability or IQ. It seems to me that this is becoming much too rare, due, sadly, to public education, which allows people to pass through life "with a smattering of mostly useless knowledge and a culture... easily satisfied with cheap tabloids, trite films, and the pulp library of crime" (A.S. Neill, Summerhill). I cannot bring myself to condemn public education qua public education, but in its current state it is beyond useless: it is downright harmful. Didactism creates a herd mentality, and stifles most honest desires for learning; while Paideia certainly is not failproof, I must agree wholeheartedly with Mortimer Adler and say that liberal education is the only way to go.

In writing this lengthy post, I was pleased to realize that the books I've been reading lately (I must quickly say that I mostly disagreed with A.S. Neill, but he did have a few good thoughts) have really started to cohere in my mind and blossom into my own little philosophy. It's still in the works, as I'm sure it always will be, but it's very exciting!

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