Part of my problem came from the simple fact that most of my rural schools were underfunded in important ways. K-6 was spent in a school run by Mennonites in an experiment in ecumenicism my father claimed was worth it no matter how loudly we children would protest.
The good part was that the Mennonites were education junkies who also believed that an elementary education could be sufficient for most adult members of their society. The idea that a graduate of their elementary school could not read, write gracefully, or do arithmetic was so unthinkable as to be labeled evil. And because Mennonites can be found in unusual places around the world, they taught an international perspective that is quite unusual for the typical USA student.
The bad part is that this international perspective was the perspective of a tiny element of Protestant Christianity. Ironically, because Mennonites are so clannish that joining their tribe is neigh unto impossible, it makes the whole missionary venture pretty pointless. Even so, because I had a serious crush on a missionary daughter in sixth grade, I got to know quite a bit more about the Belgian Congo than even a serious student of National Geographic would have.
The high schools I attended were in tiny rural towns. The lifer teachers were the hopeless incompetents who never got a better job offer. Occasionally, young teachers fresh out of college would provide some respite from the normal mediocrity but they didn't last more than two years before moving on.
Quite honestly, there wasn't a day before I left for the University of Minnesota that I didn't go to school fully expecting to know more about any given subject, and be better prepared, than my teachers. But the U was going to change that--or so I hoped. The mighty U was so loved and lavishly funded that the problem of "learning" from folks who didn't know their subject just had to be in my past!
Well not so fast! The spring of my freshman year saw the assassinations of M. L. King and Bobby Kennedy. We young Democrats got all excited about the battle between Eugene McCarthy (YEA) and Hubert Humphrey (Dump the Hump). This was especially interesting because these two were our Senators--the wounds of that political battle were still visible 25 years later.
And so I soon discovered that my university education was going to be quite political. Only, my professors were remarkably silent about the big events of the day. I sat through four weeks of lectures on War and Peace the same quarter as the Tet Offensive and my professor couldn't find it in his heart to bring up the Battle of Hue. How could this possibly be?
It took me many years to figure it out but when I did, the answer was amazingly clear. Just like the organized ignorance of my childhood was brought to me by the intellectual left-behinds, so my University education was this mish-mash of incoherence brought to me by the folks who were left over after the purges of McCarthyism.
So in today's Truthdig, Chris Hedges writes about some of the talent we lost to political repression. Because we were taught by the sort of people who could make a Sarah Palin happy, we boomers are damn lucky we can pick our noses.
The Origin of America’s Intellectual Vacuum
Posted on Nov 15, 2010
By Chris Hedges
The blacklisted mathematics instructor Chandler Davis, after serving six months in the Danbury federal penitentiary for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), warned the universities that ousted him and thousands of other professors that the purges would decimate the country’s intellectual life.
“You must welcome dissent; you must welcome serious, systematic, proselytizing dissent—not only the playful, the fitful, or the eclectic; you must value it enough, not merely to refrain from expelling it yourselves, but to refuse to have it torn from you by outsiders,” he wrote in his 1959 essay “...From an Exile.” “You must welcome dissent not in a whisper when alone, but publicly so potential dissenters can hear you. What potential dissenters see now is that you accept an academic world from which we are excluded for our thoughts. This is a manifest signpost over all your arches, telling them: Think at your peril. You must not let it stand. You must (defying outside power; gritting your teeth as we grit ours) take us back.”
But they did not take Davis back. Davis, whom I met a few days ago in Toronto, could not find a job after his prison sentence and left for Canada. He has spent his career teaching mathematics at the University of Toronto. He was one of the lucky ones. Most of the professors ousted from universities never taught again. Radical and left-wing ideas were effectively stamped out. The purges, most carried out internally and away from public view, announced to everyone inside the universities that dissent was not protected. The confrontation of ideas was killed.
“Political discourse has been impoverished since then,” Davis said. “In the 1930s it was understood by anyone who thought about it that sales taxes were regressive. They collected more proportionately from the poor than from the rich. Regressive taxation was bad for the economy. If only the rich had money, that decreased economic activity. The poor had to spend what they had and the rich could sit on it. Justice demands that we take more from the rich so as to reduce inequality. This philosophy was not refuted in the 1950s and it was not the target of the purge of the 1950s. But this idea, along with most ideas concerning economic justice and people’s control over the economy, was cleansed from the debate. Certain ideas have since become unthinkable, which is in the interest of corporations such as Goldman Sachs. The power to exclude certain ideas serves the power of corporations. It is unfortunate that there is no political party in the United States to run against Goldman Sachs. I am in favor of elections, but there is no way I can vote against Goldman Sachs.” more