Monday, January 30, 2006

"Think -- Let your mind go, let yourself be free"

--Aretha Franklin

This message from my friend Lee Ballinger (pasted below) helps explain some of what can be most difficult about teaching in our society. This is particularly vivid in the job I do, teaching writing, which is--more or less--problem solving with words. Too often, my students have been trained to offer "correct" answers that don't reflect much thinking.

It shouldn't be surprising that once enthusiastic learners (every pre-school age child) come out of twelve years of school turned off by the idea of education. And our politics--which limit our thoughts of alternatives to one mind-numbing lesser of two evils scenario after another--is a turn off for the same reason. Neither system encourages real thought because the basis for the entire system discourages critical thinking about why things are the way they are and how much different they might be.

I feel like a lot of my job is to help people unlock their potential as writers by encouraging them to think about the mixed messages that are inhibiting them. What he shows here (accurately, I think) is that this tendency to discourage real thought is built into the DNA of this country, justifying slave labor in the name of freedom. To my ears, that's exactly what Aretha's song is about. DA

Ballinger writes--

In the new book At Canaan's Edge, Taylor Branch describes how the rise of slavery, especially in the United States, led to an explosion of pseudoscientific attempts to explain the status of kidnapped Africans as due to their being part of a different species (smaller brain size, different forehead angles, etc. etc.).

"The brain of the Negro," Louis Agassiz told the Charleston Literary and Philosophic Society in 1845, "is that of the imperfect brain of a 7 month old infant in the womb of a White." Agassiz, a Swiss native, went on to become one of the founders of organized scientific inquiry in the U.S. He drew huge crowds for his lectures in both the North and South, married the first president of Radcliffe, and a special endowment was created for him by industrialist Abbott Lawrence to fund a Harvard professorship. Agassiz went on to found both the National Academy of Sciences and the Harvard Museum of Comparative Biology.

As the twig is bent, so grows the tree...

In 1966, the tobacco industry gave the American Medical Association $20 million and the AMA dutifully produced a study claiming that smoking was not a health hazard. This was followed by a Nobel laureate's assertion that smoking dramatically increases intelligence. The tobacco industry was and is linked to slavery not only in its origins but in the way it continues to help fund and maintain our Southern-dominated political system and all that that implies (e.g. the 2000 Presidential election).
In 2006 this is the whirlwind we have reaped--the reduction of science to the self-interested gibberish of powerful elites. And science isn't merely lab experiments, it also includes being able to look at the world as it actually is. With the blinders we have inherited from slavery's apologists, that's often very hard to do.

For instance, even though just a casual investigation confirms that modern technology has created the resources to house, feed, educate, and keep healthy everyone on earth, we accept the totally unscientific premise that only some of the world's population can eat, be healthy, or go to school.

To see the boundless possibilities which now exist for the human race requires only that we shed the intellectual straitjacket fashioned by slaveowners to hold us in check. Of course, to act on that fact means rejecting all those whose vision is at best limited to a few more crumbs for a few more people. That includes the Democratic Party and the vast network of pseudoscientific opportunists they are linked to--the poverty pimps, the profitable non-profits, the NGO charlatans. They cannot survive a mass embrace of science, an acceptance by our friends and neighbors of the world as it actually is. We should welcome this, remembering Jimi Hendrix's gleeful refrain: "Fall mountains, fall."

The truth shall set you free. LB