Tonight, a political rant, but this time I’m going after many of my fellow liberals: I’m against the expulsion of University of Oklahoma students involved in the recent racist video. I’m not defending these guys. (And I think the closing of their frat house is another matter; one could make a case for it based on nondiscrimination laws.)
What I’m talking about is the expression of ideas, good or bad. There’s an important reason to support free speech as a principle, and not just when we agree with the content, and this reason is amply illustrated by history: Once people get used to prohibiting speech they find offensive, they soon ban the defense of many good ideas and the criticism of many bad ones.
Speech codes have no place at a university. Aside from libel and threats of violence, the only rule should be, “If you say it, you will be called upon to defend it.” Open prejudice is its own worst enemy.
“Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.”
All but a tiny minority of writers are little known and poorly paid — and this was certainly true of Henry during his lifetime. But it can be said that while kings and presidents come and go, in the long run it is ideas that change the world… and books are an efficient vehicle for ideas.
But can’t you hear a bit of self-congratulation here? OK, we writers may be broke and unknown, but never mind that — we’re a natural and irresistible aristocracy!
On the other hand, what’s the point of writing at all unless you think you can change the world just a little bit, even by giving one other person a good idea they hadn’t thought of before?
“A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; — not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden
Is the written word really “nearest to life itself” among the arts? What about music or the visual arts? What about drama, or dance, or cinema? It seems to me that there are many things near to life that are difficult to express in words, but which artists capture through other media. And such expressions don’t just translate into any language, but transcend language and require no translation at all.
“Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed…”
We have begun a brief chapter entitled “Reading,” and here we find that Thoreau, the man who said he’d never received worthy advice from older people in Concord, has considerably higher regard for certain old-timers from Greece and Rome. Continue reading →
Here’s another way of looking at the role of education. The author is thinking of schools but I have something broader in mind. More about that below. First, here are the opening paragraphs of “Unplugged Schools” by Lowell Monke, which appeared in the September/October 2007 issue of Orion:
“Educators say the darndest things. Consider this from a high school social studies teacher who told me, ‘Kids don’t read anymore. The only way I can teach them anything is by showing them videos.’ Or this from a middle school principal who defended serving children junk food every day by telling me, ‘That’s what they’re used to eating. They won’t eat it if it doesn’t taste like fast food.’
“Aside from their stunning capitulation of adult responsibility, these comments illustrate what has become a common disregard for one of schooling’s most important tasks: to compensate for, rather than intensify, society’s excesses.
“I first encountered the idea of the compensatory role of schools in 1970, while preparing to become a teacher. In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner argued that one of the roles of schools in a free society is to serve as a cultural thermostat — to take the temperature of the culture, determine where the culture is over- and underheated, and then gear instruction to compensate for those extremes. If a culture becomes too enamored with competition, schools would emphasize cooperation; if it overemphasizes individuality, schools would emphasize community responsibility; if it allows poor children to go hungry, schools would (and do) develop lunch and breakfast programs to feed them; and so on.” Continue reading →
Nearly half of this blog’s readers live in countries other than the United States. Maybe you’re one of those and you’ve heard of the recent self-inflicted shutdown and near-default of the US federal government (as an attempt by Republicans to block a new law that expands health care coverage among this country’s fifty million uninsured). You may be wondering, “Are Americans out of their minds?” or, “How did the United States become the world’s most powerful country when so much of what it does seems so… dumb?”
As an American, I’ll try to sort things out for you (a very American thing to do). I mostly avoid politics on this blog, but since I deal a lot with curiosity and learning, I want to say something about the large number of my fellow citizens who seem to lack curiosity and avoid learning. I’m going to make some sweeping generalizations below — bear in mind that they don’t apply to all Americans all the time, but these things are common enough to get us in trouble: Continue reading →