Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Adult Education

I was schooled by my Southern mama to refrain from discussing politics and religion in polite company, which I understood to be any gathering in which my views may not be uniformly shared. But surely the internet is not such a place, so I need not set aside my training in good manners to bring up both topics simultaneously.

Some years ago, I had the great fortune to be acquainted with an elder of uncommon knowledge and wisdom. At the time, I was a church-going agnostic mother of two young children and Bob was a retired ordained minister and professor of theology, which perhaps is not typical ground for friendship, but my periodic coffee meetings with Bob and two other older gentlemen are among the intellectual highlights of my life.

At one of our meetings, Bob made a provocative statement which was quite radical for someone with his background: church, he said, is no place for children. To recount the entirety of this conversation would require a lengthy post best left for another day, but I will explain his key point as relates to the forthcoming history/politics tie-in. The underpinning theology and philosophy of religion, he said, is too complex to be understood by children, and so by necessity, the major concepts are simplified in youth religious training into stories that can be taught in Sunday School, usually with the aid of crayons. Unfortunately, many, if not most, church-goers limit their religious education to their childhood years. Even when they do embark on adult religious education, the mythologies established in childhood can be hard to shake.

I've thought of this conversation often in the intervening years, most recently after becoming aware that my views on American history may be subject to similar childish simplicities. My grounding in American history happened in the 5th grade, where I was required to memorize "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." (This was in 1970s North Carolina, where paddling was still an accepted punishment in schools.) I can no longer recite the famous poem, but it was a central component in an early education that established in my mind the War of Independence as a straight-forward struggle to overthrow a foreign invader and occupier. Subsequent exposure to historical information was not sufficient for me to question this view for the past 40 years, although I should note I chose to satisfy the history credit requirements at my college with art history courses.

A work of fiction inspired me to reassess my notions of the American Revolution. I've been reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series this summer (my knitting/reading/film blog is where I've been lately), and her main characters get into the thick of the Revolutionary War in the seventh volume, An Echo in the Bone. With the battle lines separating friends, neighbors and even family members, I felt as if I were reading about a civil war. Was it?

Living in the 21st century, I have many historical research tools at hand (yes, I'm referring to Google). With a few minutes of reading, I discovered numerous historians have taken the view of the American Revolution as a civil war, at least at its outset, and this understanding is reflected in high school lesson plans, supplementary materials and even a college course taught on the other side of the Atlantic. Had I continued my education in American history past elementary school, I likely would've been exposed to greater complexities. Was I poorly served by an education system that allowed me to discontinue significant academic inquiry into the formative period of my nation's history, or is my shallow knowledge my own fault?

Certainly we can't learn everything about everything. But ignorance is not bliss, and what you don't know could hurt you. Perhaps most of us can slide through our adult lives with our childhood religious and historical mythologies intact with no harm done. The fate of the republic is probably not dependent on a middle-aged midwestern resident's understanding of historical nuances. Still, I would like to broaden and deepen my knowledge, particularly in subjects where better education will enhance my life and help me contribute to my community.

In some areas, lifelong learning is a necessity, not a luxury, particularly for those in positions of influence. With his usual blend of humor and outrage, Jon Stewart illustrated the shocking scientific illiteracy of certain members of Congress who are charged with crafting legislation on climate change. This is one area in which we can't afford to assume everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten. We court ignorance at our own peril.