We’re locked in a war that’s making us all hostages. We ‘re all scared. Politics has swallowed up everything else that matters, it seems, until there is no oxygen or energy left for anything else. Some may enjoy the constant combat, but most of us want things to calm down. How on earth did we get here? We’re here today, in part, because we did something willingly and enthusiastically for the good of our children that had nothing at all to do with politics. And that changed absolutely everything. Because that original decision had nothing to do with politics, I am hopeful it holds the seeds of a cure.
We didn’t know what we didn’t know. We were being offered 6 keys to civil and productive discourse, politics and society. They were commonplace, and now they’re edging to extinction.
I must go way back in history to describe the first key. When I was at the University of Texas and Vanderbilt University, the schools deliberately paired Engineering Students with English majors as roommates. We thought it a sadistic exercise of power, but this simple practice was a deliberate part of our education. We mocked each other’s chosen careers. I, as an English major was in “Arts and Crafts” and “Finger-painting”, and my roommate’s vocation of engineer was “Robot” and “Gearhead.” But when our own skills, mindsets, emotional intelligence, and aptitudes weren’t enough for an educational or life challenge, we borrowed those of our roommates and increased our arsenal for taking on the world. It turns out that seeing the totality of a thing, a person, or a situation is essential to correctly perceiving it or them, and that’s the first key— perspective—our ability to change our view, depending on what comes to light.
It turns out that the comprehensive study of History, particularly American and World History, gave us something priceless we no longer have—the story of America and where we fit in, the key of context. It taught us we aren’t the whole story. We learned how a multitude of disciplines and points of view made us an indomitable whole. That’s how America works, when it works. This study taught all of us how we fit into the grand scheme of a thing. It taught our American system of government, how the branches of government are designed to work, and when they don’t. History reaffirmed our American values and explained why they were our values in the first place. It gave our children profiles and examples of courage, heroism, service, and sacrifice. It chronicled our mistakes and recorded them for posterity, so future generations wouldn’t repeat them. Attempts to correct these mistakes are the beginnings of policy. In the study of history, we got to stand on the shoulders of millions who went before us and learn what their lives taught us, without having to suffer their tragedies.
It turns out that English, Literature, and foreign language courses gave us the most precious thing possible: a way to disagree with our friends, and still keep them as friends. They did this by giving us a bridge of language we could use to reach and learn about people unlike us. The study of language and literature gave role models of how to communicate civilly with people who are strange to us. They gave us the keys of vocabulary and civility. You can’t have one without the other.
Guess What? It turns out our Liberal Arts educations weren’t in any way useless. Won’t our parents finally be glad? Probably not. A broad- based education has served for generations to be an orientation on how we Americans work; our history and why it’s important, our heroes, and our children’s potential place in all of this. All of these seemingly unrelated courses gave us the ability to see the whole of our political system and how humanity fits in—how we fit in. They gave us the ability to assimilate, analyze, and prioritize information to decide for ourselves what’s valuable knowledge and what isn’t; what’s true and what’s myth. The word, Liberal in terms of education or knowledge means generous, extensive, the whole enchilada, the totality. It has no more political connotation than the word, pipe wrench does for a plumber. This type of education teaches the key of detachment-– the ability to detach from our own emotions. How we feel about something doesn’t alter what it actually is.
Who wants to raise kids who are scared of everything?
All of these keys together give us the magic bullet thatstops fear dead in its tracks: curiosity. For this reason alone, a broad education is worth its weight in gold.
Curiosity allows the mind to open just long enough for it to assimilate new information before fears sets in and stops us. How can a person change, if they’ve never wondered if they could, or wondered how? How can a person pursue their dream and catch it, if they never wondered if they could, or felt safe enough to wonder anything at all?
Curiosity leads to questions without fear, and permits us to ask the three questions that change absolutely everything: What if? Why not? and Who says?
If we look at every new fact through a lens of terror because curiosity has died, our emotional state prevents us from seeing anything at all. Fight or Flight was not designed for providing insight.
This is how we got here: our kids were getting left behind in math and science, so we devised standardized tests to catch up. But this change in emphasis went all the way up and down the educational ladder, and affected whether kids could learn how to think critically, without fear. The emphasis became turning out perfect technicians. Ask any parent about “Teaching to the Test” and you will get not only an earful, but a sermon on how not to teach a young child anything that matters at all.
Polarization means concentration at one end. I’m not saying that jobs don’t matter or competition is a bad thing. We just went a little overboard, and now we have to cultivate a balance.
When we turn out technicians, without also teaching our children how to utilize and enjoy the right sides of their brains, we lose the artists, prophets, and sages. We can get the outcome of citizens trained to be richly rewarded for thinking in only 1 way. Eventually, we lose the ability to even hear someone else’s way of thinking, much less accept it.
If you only take away one point from this blog, let it be this: Curiosity must be taught and rewarded in a world that is changing every second, because if it isn’t, we are creating kids who can’t self-soothe and look beyond the chaos. Curiosity is the lens through which we look at our lives and the world and its inhabitants, and choose for ourselves what definitions we use. We have a choice about what kind of world we want to live in every day of our lives, not just in election years.
It all comes down to the two roommates I described in paragraph 2 of this essay. Are they fellow travelers and friends, or enemy combatants? Is life a never-ending adventure and classroom for them, or is it’s all-out war, a sentence only to be endured? Is the world something benign and beautiful, or is it menacing and dangerous? Will they continue to complain as every aspect of the political system devolves, or will they dedicate themselves to becoming educated citizens? Are there infinite possibilities for them to invent and re-invent themselves, or is life over after High School?
There is a way for all of us to come home.