Being a bit behind in my reading (as always), I picked up The Nation from November 22 a few days ago to read Patricia Williams’ column, Veritas-iness and the American Way. This started a train of thought about education, reading, why so many followers of popular conservatives are uneducated and how much of a threat this is to the American experiment. It also got me thinking about why being liberal became a bad thing. Somewhere in recent history “liberals” became “progressives”.
According to my 11th Edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, the first definition of liberal is related to education, “of, relating to, or based on the liberal arts”. The archaic meaning if “of or befitting a man of free birth”. More current meanings include “marked by generosity” and “broad-minded esp: not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms.” The entry goes on to explain “Liberal suggests openhandedness in the giver and largeness in the thing or amount given…” From these meanings the political philosophy of liberalism was born. Liberalism being defined as “a political philosophy based on a belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.” On the other hand, a conservative is defined as “tending to disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions.” Conservatism is “a disposition in politics to preserve what is established.”
Conservative and liberal. These are two tensions that should complement each other. But liberal has become synonymous for the over education elite who want to move away from the traditions of our Founders and the True Meaning of the Constitution. (my caps) Is this because somehow our education system has failed?
Patricia Williams points out
Sadly, American education has suffered a miserable decline since those days.[when she went to public schools] According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, we are fifteenth in reading literacy, twenty-first in science literacy and twenty-fifth in math literacy. This slide was largely accomplished by a calculated disinvestment in public education that began with the anti-tax movement of the late 1970s. California, where that movement began with a series of ballot initiatives, had one of the best school systems in the world. It now ranks almost dead last here, just above Mississippi.
There’s a curious tension in politics between the popular hunger for better schooling and widespread resentment of those who actually find it. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin have built a movement around the felt dispossession of those who don’t read newspapers, whose spelling is nonstandard and who cite Shakespeare to “refudiate” book-learning. Beck, who sniffs that public schools should be abolished altogether, exploits this ambivalence brilliantly by establishing his online Beck University, whose basic courses are Faith 101, 102 and 103; Hope 101, 102 and 103; and Charity 101, 102 and 103. Yet Beck U. also has a coat of arms with a numbingly lofty motto: Tyrannis Seditio, Obsequium Deo.
Here is one of Beck’s diagrams copied from AlterNet.
Being one of the over-educated liberals, I find the diagram incoherent and the connections based on a lack of understanding. Does Glenn Beck understand that George Soros who is the heart of the “obam a pocalypse” help finance movements to overthrow oppressive governments in Eastern Europe? Or that he grew up in Nazi occupied Hungary? So yes, he has a connection to Hitler, but not the kind Beck wants to imply. And Ivan Jones?
Williams describes the crowd at the Steward-Colbert rally this way
…While Stewart and Colbert expressly appealed to “the busy majority” of reasonable, middle-of-the-road, somewhat-stressed-but-not-given-to-hysterics people, the signs among the masses were deeply inflected by class consciousness and the national educational divide. Some were relatively subtle: Which Way to Whole Foods? and Anyone for Scrabble Later? Others more overtly referenced Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor: Every Word on This Sign Is Spelled Correctly; I &heart; Evidence-Based Policies; and my favorite: If You Don’t Believe in Government Perhaps You Shouldn’t Run for It.
This was a crowd that listens to NPR (Kiss Me, Nina Totenberg!). It was racially and ethnically diverse ( Fox Told Me I Am a Terrorist). Their humor was sophisticated ( I Clutch My Purse When I See Juan Williams Coming). It was a throng of New York Times readers who eat bagels and peruse the Book Review. They marched with Kindles in hand, and their Patagonia backpacks contained novels by Anna Quindlen and essay collections like David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil and Other First World Problems.
If this sounds like a litany of class markers, we need to remember that class and education are not necessary correlates. This was a population of very diverse Americans who equate political sanity with studiousness and curiosity. It was a gathering of people fluent in subtlety and satire, tolerance and tact; who saw similarity in differences and differences among the similar; who appreciated metaphors, analogical thinking and the discipline of data. This is the opposite of fundamentalism. And it ought to be the very essence of American identity, for we can have no broad civic culture without it. Unfortunately these critical capacities are also the hallmarks of a good liberal arts education, which is increasingly unavailable to any but the very well-off. (The State University of New York, Albany, just announced that it may eliminate its Latin, French, Italian, Russian and theater degree programs.)
Why bother with the nuances of analytical thought? Consider this—recently State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted: “Happy birthday President #Ahmadinejad. Celebrate by sending Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer home” and “Your 54th year was full of lost opportunities. Hope in your 55th year you will open #Iran to a different relationship with the world.” Sarah Palin tweeted back: “Happy B’day Ahmadinejad wish sent by US Govt. Mind boggling foreign policy: kowtow & coddle enemies; snub allies. Obama Doctrine is nonsense.” This is not merely a lack of irony; it is a form of illiteracy, the kind of flat, childish reading that grasps the basic meaning of each word but not what they mean together.
Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are frightening in their ignorance and I worry that the ignorance is spreading faster than we can stop it. The problem in the United States today is not the divide between liberalism and conservative: that tension has existed since the founding of the country. The problem is the divide between those who can read and comprehend and those who can’t. I am not talking here about the quality of the inner city elementary school, although that too is an issue, I am talking about people who are supposed to be educated and still can’t really read and when they do don’t understand what it is they read. True conservatives should be just as worried about them as liberals like me.