We are taught the landmarks of human history--their importance is reinforced again and again throughout our lives. The wheel, the axe, trains, printing press, steam power, electricity, the internet, and space rockets!
These are what have shaped our culture.
But what if you question that narrative?
To paraphrase Neil Postman, education is part content, part method. For most people, content is what is focused on in their education: when did we land on the moon, how many miles wide is America, what is the capital of New Zealand?
But what if we stressed the method: the skills to question, observe, and listen? How would we view the history of our world and what has shaped it?
With this post, I’m starting a series to explore books I’ve recently read that probe and push to find new narratives for our culture, narratives that can only be found through an education system that believes we should not tell people what to think, but rather we should teach people how to think.
In this first in the series, I want to introduce you to two books, Teaching As a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation by Nicholas Guyatt. These two books break apart the received information people often have in their heads about how education works, or about American mythology, using the questions at their core to unlock a new way of looking at the world.
Teaching As a Subversive Activity
This is an unusual book for Neil Postman because alongside criticism of media and culture he offers an alternative to our current educational system. It’s an appeal to make learning not about finding a job, but rather about making a life. And it suggests that this starts by the learned habit of asking questions. Postman writes, “Asking questions is behavior. If you don’t do it, you don’t learn it. It really is as simple as that.”
Education fosters cultures that treat people with humanity and care. Our current situation of antagonism makes clear what happens when education is systematically underfunded and the most widely-promoted education methods are those that do not meet contemporary cultural needs.
“Once you have learned how to ask questions—relevant and appropriate and substantial questions—you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.”
“First, good learners have confidence in their ability to learn. This does not mean that they are not sometimes frustrated and discouraged. They are, even as are poor learners. But they have a profound faith that they are capable of solving problems, and if they fail at one problem, they are not incapacitated in confronting another.”
Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation
This book questions some of the most deeply held myths of American and western culture. It examines the icons and the motives of the people who “founded” this country, and the means by which this country grew. In one calculating example, Guyatt writes, “Jefferson told Harrison to ‘push our trading houses’ onto the Indians, encourage them to run up accounts, and then, ‘when the debts get beyond what the individuals can pay,’ encourage them to ‘lop them off by a cession of land.’”
The book also makes clear how people can be so easily persuaded to take to heart something entirely fictional and destructive, in particular the insidious construction of race as a means of wielding power. In one example of this Guyatt writes,
“From the 17th century, runaway slaves took refuge in Indian country, often becoming full members of Indian communities. This infuriated southern slaveholders and became the cause of considerable tension on the borders of white settlement. But as southern Indians adopted rudiments of the “civilizing” program around the turn of the nineteenth century, they borrowed one marker of respectability from the white planters rushing toward their lands: Native Americans began to practice forms of captivity that increasingly resembled the chattel slavery of the southern United States.”
These quotes, and the book overall, underscore how easily people stop thinking and feeling empathy for others when a prevailing, and powerful, culture tells them that however inhuman their actions may be, an entirely fictional construct of race and racial difference can make those actions seem acceptable, or even appropriate.