Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.
Thomas Jefferson, 1778
Our nation was founded on the idea that power is vested in the people and ceded, judiciously and with severe limits, to government, in order to provide leadership and management effectively. It was clear to the Founders that the right to self-governance came with the responsibility to be knowledgeable about the issues of the day. Ignorance left people susceptible to superstition, prejudice, and the charisma of charlatans. Ignorance would steer the people straight back into tyranny. But the founders argued about whether the “people at large” could really be trusted to be sufficiently knowledgeable; some wanted to limit the right to vote to the literate and/or the people who owned property; most were happy to limit it to Caucasians; all of them agreed to limit it to men.
Where are we, 238 years after Jefferson wrote the words above? We are a nation that provides universal, compulsory education to the age of 17 or 18—unheard of in Jefferson’s time. We are a nation that is trying, in fits and starts, to provide an equitable education to all children, regardless of race, class, or religion—also unheard of. Literacy is not a luxury for the leisure class; in fact, we are awash in reading material, from chick-lit and thrillers sold in airports to blogposts and news articles and emails and text messages read on tablets and Smart Phones. We can access the news of the day at any hour of the day, from our handheld devices, in our cars, and on multiple television channels available on multiple kinds of screens. We are, in fact, drowning in information.
But are we knowledgeable? Can all the information available to us protect us from tyranny? I think it can, but I’m not sure it does.
The Transcendentalists, authors like Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman, were firm believers in discarding the masterpieces of old and creating new works of art, new ways of seeing and thinking that were uniquely American and did not rely on ancient authority. They demanded that we think for ourselves, rely on ourselves, and break old patters of thought. I think they would have applauded the ways in which we’ve challenged the gatekeepers of old, who filtered what could or couldn’t be published and seen by the public. Everyone has a voice now; everyone can be heard. But I have a feeling they would have been horrified by the end result, because what we’re saying to each other is often vile and ignorant. When you get rid of the gatekeeper and the filter, a lot of garbage gets through.
This has been written about quite a lot, in books like True Enough and How Do We Know What Isn’t So? It’s been talked about for almost two decades, even spawning the word “truthiness” back in 2005. Everyone has an opinion and everyone has a set of facts and figures, drawn from…somewhere…to back them up. All points of view seem equally true and valid; all points of view are argued equally passionately. All that matters is which side you’re on, which point of view you decide to listen to.
If we’re going to make important decisions, then it’s up to us to assess the validity of the information we hear. If we just select our favorite TV authority and believe everything they say, we’re not really self-reliant or self-governing. In fact, we run the risk of being slaves or stooges, without ever quite realizing it. We have to pay attention to the fact that each of us lives in an information bubble and echo-chamber, and we have to take steps to force ourselves out of those bubbles to hear new information and opinions, and figure out what’s real and true.
The first step is relatively easy; it’s just a matter of will. We have to make the decision to seek out alternative or contrary points of view. But the assessment and evaluation is trickier, and this is where education becomes important. We have to make sure our schools are doing more than delivering information to children. We don’t need schools solely or primarily for that anymore. Kids can learn about Topic X in any place and at any time. But is that something worth knowing? Is it true? We need schools to teach the skills of analysis, assessment, and evaluation—and we can’t wait until high school or college.
Let’s start here: in a world where everyone has an opinion and voices it loudly, how do we know whether the opinion or point of view we’re starting with is even right? How do we know whether our deeply held beliefs are true, or if they’re based on misconceptions and biases? This step, all by itself, is intensely difficult, and something people tend not to do if they don’t have to. It can be deeply troubling and upsetting. So I ask you: when was the last time you deliberately and consciously challenged your beliefs (political, cultural, religious, economic, aesthetic) to see if they were valid and worthy? How did you go about it? What was your process? What different information or perspectives did you bring into your life? How did you make sure you weren’t’ simply dismissing those points of view, but were, in fact, allowing yourself to engage with them with an open mind?
Don’t forget, everything we now understand to be nonsense was once thought to be true: the world is the center of the universe; bad luck can be prevented by throwing spilled salt over your shoulder; the king derives his authority directly from God; illness is caused by imbalances of “humours;” take your pick. We believe what we believe fiercely, and we don’t give it up easily or willingly.
This is one of the main reasons for the partisanship and divisiveness in our country. We can’t see past the borders of our own mini-nations of like-mindedness, and we think—we decide—that anyone who lives beyond those borders is evil or insane. Like the old magazine cover showing how New Yorkers view the world, we focus only on what is close to us.
So: are we raising our children with the intellectual curiosity and confidence to question everything, including their own assumptions? Are we letting them cast their minds far from the comforts of home to see how other people live, and love, and think? Do we have the confidence, as parents and teachers, to allow them to question and test the opinions they’ve inherited from us? Are we secure enough in what we believe (having tested and confirmed it) to know that, after questioning and testing those things, our children and students will arrive at the same conclusions we have? And if they don’t…is that okay?
If we invite our children and students to undertake that journey of questioning, are we giving them the skills they need to navigate those waters and plot a safe course? Ask your children—ask your students: “How do you know whether something you’ve read is true?” Go on—ask them. Let’s see if they have an answer, beyond, “my teacher gave it to me,” or “my parents told me.”
I once taught a unit on the Cold War to some high school students, during which, I gave them an old, 1960s-era textbook chapter (theme: the USSR is actively trying to conquer the world) and a more recent essay by Noam Chomsky (theme: the USA is using the pretext of the Cold War to solidify and extend its power worldwide). The two pieces disagreed on pretty much everything, and it left my students perplexed…and angry. They didn’t find it fascinating; they found it annoying. They demanded that I tell them which point of view was “right.” I’m not being cute, here. They actually demanded. They didn’t find the intellectual exercise of compare-and-contrast interesting. They wanted an answer, and they wanted it right away.
People who demand an answer will almost always get one. There are plenty of teachers, parents, and political leaders more than willing to provide simple, clear answers to whatever problem is in front of them. Sometimes, the answer will be something positive and helpful like, “we all must make sacrifices and work hard,” but sometimes, the answer will be something like, “it’s all because of the ____.” (fill in the blank with any minority group.)
Self-rule requires that we not settle for other people’s answers. We have to do the work, ourselves. Raising a citizenry capable of self-rule requires that we not provide answers so quickly and easily. Socrates taught us, many centuries ago, the power of teaching-through-questioning. Instead of giving our children or students easy answers, let’s drive them crazy—and make them think—by responding with questions of our own: What do you think? Why do you think that? How do you know you’re right? If you don’t know whether you’re right, how might you find out?
We shouldn’t be replacing yesterday’s gatekeepers and guardians of information with newer, even less-trustworthy authorities. We should be able to trust ourselves, as Emerson suggested. But, in the words of the Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan loved to quote, to tease Mikhail Gorbachev, “Trust, but verify.”