In 1989, the late essayist Florence King wrote of her early educational experiences as a precocious child from the South who could read before kindergarten. She was similar to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, but was raised in a small DC apartment by two parents and a widowed grandmother who were coping with The Great Depression.
Miss King was around my mother’s age, and knowing how my grandparents felt about educating women, I was impressed by her struggle to earn a master’s degree in the Eisenhower years in spite of frequent encounters with anti-intellectuals – some from within her household – who feared that too much education – especially for women – was ruinous. She was once a regular columnist for The National Review and no friend of liberalism, but she advocated for quality K-12 education for all, perhaps without meaning to.
Not every student must choose college, but it should be available to anyone who has the aptitude and wants to attend. Even if one chooses a field that doesn’t require a degree, there are major benefits to broadening one’s horizons. My guidance counselor was terrible at his job and had no imagination. He was more hindrance than help, and once I got to college I realized that the world offers many choices that I would never have been aware of if I’d listened to him.
However, not everyone is destined for college. I’m eternally thankful for the trained professionals who are certified to do things for which I have no aptitude. I celebrate the working class, but I also want them to have the highest quality K-12 education possible, which coordinates with the vocational and technical training they get in their high school years. Students should emerge with the equipment to navigate life and make informed decisions.
At the risk of waxing nostalgic, I attended school when courses in accounting, American government, art, civics, drama, economics, foreign languages, journalism, music, physics, psychology, sociology, and trigonometry were offered, and some of those were required. I even took a class in which we learned how to apply for a car loan and a mortgage. Our accounting teacher spent an entire unit teaching us how to compile tax information and complete every type of income tax return that we might face. Our civics teacher taught us about the political spectrum and how each branch of government maintains checks and balances. We were required to know every world leader, and though she was rather totalitarian in her methods, I emerged with a greater understanding of the benefits of democracy. We were entering an era when it was difficult to survive without an MBA, but we graduated with tools to equip us regardless of the paths we chose.
My family believed a college degree would make life more secure. My grandmother thought that college would make perfect spellers who were experts in grammar and geography. One family view of college was that we were somehow learning a trade that would make us marketable, but one of their strongest beliefs was actually a fear of too much education.
We were expected to get a degree, but get in and get out. Go to college, but don’t stay so long that the neighbors would talk. The notion of college was to use our brains to tick off the necessary boxes to earn a degree, but don’t fill our heads with ideas that might lead to discussions of Comparative Religion, Women Who Changed History, Feminist Authors, or Social Changes of the Late 20th Century.
I received quite a few mixed messages in childhood that required sorting out, but one that I instantly discarded came from a college-educated family member who had a master’s degree. Both she and her husband were college educated, but they delighted in belittling the teeming masses that had degrees. During at least two holiday dinners, which were populated with a mixture of degree- and non-degree-holders, she repeated that a bachelor’s degree is just BS. “And M S,” she brayed, “stands for more of the same, and a pea aitch dee is just piled higher and deeper.”
There were a few polite chuckles, but her lowbrow anti-intellectualism was more disappointing than surprising. The intention of this statement was to prove that she hadn’t lost her common touch; that education hadn’t changed her, but that is exactly what education should do. The attainment of knowledge and applying it to our lives should change us for the better. We should use what we have learned to improve lives rather than pandering like politicians who wish to appeal to voters as someone with whom they can have a beer.
Anti-intellectualism isn’t new, but it’s effects are dangerous. As a culture, we haven’t valued quality K-12 education for decades. Underfunding school curriculum, shockingly low teacher’s salaries, removing the arts from the classroom, decayed facilities, and forcing educators to stick with methods that prohibit time for discussion. School shootings have been reduced tremendously from our daily lives because of covid, but when kids return to the classrooms, so will the argument that teachers should be armed.
How about training our teachers to teach civics instead of preparing for combat? Perhaps we improve the quality of education so that students can develop critical thinking skills. Perhaps we improve classroom education that works in harmony with vocational and technical education so that future generations of working class families can feel included again. Perhaps we teach why it’s wrong to take up arms and overthrow the government. How about teaching that?
Many argue against having too much knowledge, but we’re certainly in no danger of overdoing education in this country. Possessing knowledge provides options for greater understanding of our fellow planetary inhabitants and their conditions. There is so much we don’t know about each other, and it seems that many are unwilling to find out. We have ended up in bubbles of like-minded thinkers who face no challenges to our ideas. How, then, are we to realize a greater truth?
After the January 6th insurgents stormed our nation’s Capitol, Mitt Romney addressed the Senate that night and said the best thing we could do for the people who preferred their fears and stubborn ignorance is to tell them the truth. I can hear the cries of “What is truth?” Truth is based on facts. Truth absolutely is not collecting opinions and deciding what you want to believe. One cannot determine the truth by reading five opinion columns and creating a thesis based on the few common statements taken from each. To do so is to base one’s knowledge on a game of Telephone.
Facts matter, and our opinions are better formed when we respect facts. “But who can we trust to tell us the truth?” Begin with scientists and valid, certified experts on a particular subject. Trust peer reviewed studies; not a political activist who once heard something about drug research and decided to make a video. Trust a constitutional scholar who clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court, but disregard the opinions of a raving hillbilly wrapped in a Trump flag running up the Capitol steps with a bait cooler full of ammunition.
We have much work to do. We must stay involved in our government of, by, and for the people, as the domestic terrorist groups gather to find new ways to intimidate and wreak havoc. We must fund quality education, value intellectualism, and choose leaders who know what they’re doing. Congress is populated with a number of extreme right-wing anti-intellectuals who got into government by winning elections in severely gerrymandered districts because people have been led to believe the best candidate will have a beer with them. That’s why we end up with unscrupulous wrestling coaches, cage fighters, gun-nuts, and religious wackos who couldn’t pass a civics class much less debate constitutional law. Why would anybody in their right mind elect such troublesome fools to public office?
Speaking of, U.S. Representative Mary Hill (R-Ill.) recently stated that Hitler had made a good point while she spoke about the dangers of children being propagandized through education. She obviously believes that her extreme right-wing philosophies are threatened by education, which should prove that quality education for all students in every state would expose the hate, bigotry, and weak-mindedness that chip away at our free society.
© 2021 by Patrick Brown