Thinking or Indoctrination? We are losing our ability to tell the difference

My local library here in New York is still closed.  With my usual supply of library books temporarily suspended, I decided this would be a good time to sort through my bookcases and cull my collection.  Of course, I made absolutely no progress whatsoever as I am unable to part with even a worn copy of a Milton anthology filled with my scribbled notes, barely legible, and useless at this point.  Yet, I can’t part with the craft that sustained me for thirty-two years in the classroom.  While the wind howled and tidal waves of administrative and bureaucratic initiatives lapped at the door, I held fast to what I loved: teaching literature, writing, grammar, and the absolute power of the spoken word.  Idealistic? Yes, I was one of the few who would have done the job for a pittance.

Teaching English is not like teaching a foreign language in an American high school.  Students know their own language and by high school are generally cognizant of syntactic structures, rhetorical devices, grammar, and basic research.  The job of the English teacher is to teach kids to think critically.  This very aspect is being attacked today.  Thinking is now a dangerous thing.  It is hijacked by political parties to highlight the inadequacies and stupidity of the other side.  There is the progressive side which is always right.  Then there are the conservatives who are always wrong.  Is there any wonder that we have a silent majority: People, who refuse to voice an opinion about their vote?

Cancel culture is destroying thinking itself because what good is thinking about anything if there is no audience for one’s views?  What good is writing if it’s just going to become fodder for one side or the other?  Even a centrist like Bari Weiss, New York Times writer and editor is forced to admit that“… a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”

Who are the “enlightened few” anyway?  How did they get so “enlightened” while the rest of us are stuck in relative ignorance? I’m always so surprised when anyone with an opposing opinion, usually one that is not “woke” or in keeping with the cancel culture, is suddenly treated like a benighted dullard, an uninitiated rube, a believer in the earth is flat theory, an unschooled dupe who doesn’t get science.  Ostracizing one side or the other stifles thinking and the expression of ideas.

We can remedy this situation in the English classroom once schools resume.  A great book to consider reading is Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie.  As I was trying to get rid of some of my books, I discovered this novel I had missed.  After reading the first page, I settled in, compelled to finish it off.  In this short 184- page novel, which tells the story of two young men whose doctor parents have been named enemies of the people during China’s Cultural Revolution, they are to be re-educated by spending their days lugging excrement, digging in dangerous mines, and forgetting about their intellectual parents.

However, it’s impossible to keep people from thinking and questioning.  The two young men discover a wealth of intellectual classics in Chinese translation and a lovely young seamstress.  The boys are drawn to her and they are revived by the prospect of reading the banned books.  The books feed their intellect and that of the beautiful seamstress.  Re-education strikes fear in the heart and yet, it is also true that thinking can never really be banned unless people give it up of their own volition.  Unless they are bullied into “correctness.”  The young men in this little gem of a book refused to let the re-education stifle their thoughts; ironically, the lack of books made books even more desirable once they were discovered.

English teachers in classrooms have a job to do that goes beyond correcting grammatical errors and creative spelling.  They must teach kids to think, not like progressives or conservatives, but like the young men in the book.  They must think outside of the political noise and clamor.  Reading great classics, contemporary literature, should not be used to fan the flames of political agendas but to enlighten us about the dangers of dogmatic support for such agendas.

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