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When Corrupting the Youth is Good

“Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read!”
So he vanished from my sight,
And I plucked a hollow reed,

And I made a rural pen,
And I stained the water clear,
And I wrote my happy song,
Every child may joy to hear.
–William Blake, Songs of Innocence

“And I stained the water clear”: look at that line a few times, and see the beauties of that exquisitely ambiguous modifier, “clear.”  It’s a line to cherish.1 And it has to do with the thoughts below – after which, in the next post, we’ll get to an also exquisite sacred sex scene (and I’d like to call it a love scene to avoid the appearance of sensationalism, but it’s not a love scene) from Gilgamesh, along with laughs, I hope, about trying to teach it to today’s teens, in today’s classrooms. But first, an interlude:

When “Corrupting the Youth” is Good

“Good people” can be dangerous.

Socrates and Jesus, for example, in the eyes of the “good people” of their times,  were both criminals2 They were criminals because they challenged those good people’s conventional views of religion, of the sacred, of moral right and wrong.


How do you know?

They both attacked the gods of their day. Socrates questioned both the truth and the righteousness of the Olympians; and Jesus (though less consistently) similarly questioned the teachings and the righteousness of the Hebrew priests and the “good” church mosque temple-going Christians Muslims Jews around him.  Both were reviled by the good people back then, and both paid with their lives for the same “sin”: critical thinking. The good Athenians killed Socrates with poison, the good Hebrews – the Romans, actually – killed Jesus on the cross.3

Today, we do well to revere Socrates and Jesus for pushing human thought forward.  We would also do well, though, to see their examples as reminders of something else we tend to forget: namely, that good people of any age often appear, in historical hindsight, to be the opposite of good. Again, good people – pious people – killed these two men.

Socrates today is held up to students as the model of that practice called “critical thinking.”  But in his own day, that very act, critical thinking, led to criminal charges against him for this :  “Corrupting the young by teaching new gods.”

Look at that. Socrates was killed why?  Because the adults in his society didn’t like the questions he was entertaining with their kids – about religion.  He was killed for asking, around young people, what we all see as a common sense question today – “Why do we believe in Zeus?”4

As a teacher who loves common sense, finds it less common than we think, and loves the idea of giving more of it than of grammar to the young in my classrooms, that story has always made me nervous.

I love critical thinking for many reasons, but the biggest one is this: it requires, always, an honest awareness in the thinker that he or she may be wrong.  Socrates, while less a hero of mine due to recent readings I’ve done about his politics, still wins my respect with this classic one-liner:

I only know that I know nothing.

Scientists understand the wisdom of that statement, and so do philosophers.  Priests and their “good people” followers, though, show no understanding of this wisdom. They assert truth-claims without evidence, and worse, they attack modern-day versions of Socrates and Jesus for thinking critically about their beliefs.

Schools are very bad places for a teacher to promote critical thinking about anything important.  The cliché “critical thinking” in schools is only allowed for safe subjects – an oxymoron I’ve mentioned many times in these pages.  Touch a subject that will offend a single parent or student, and your job is at stake.  That’s why so many classes are so boring.  They refuse to acknowledge the many elephants in the room, or to state that the emperor is wearing no clothes – especially when it comes to whichever god and flag are flying above your country.

And that’s why so many types of hugely influential beliefs that make no sense persist today.  Kids go through twelve years of school without those beliefs ever being touched by a serious question, they graduate, and bam: the beliefs live on for yet another generation: Bush really is communicating with God, while in the same universe, Bin Laden, in another country’s school system, really is obeying the Word and will of Allah.  McCain and Obama consent to be interviewed on national TV with Rick Warren, and thus legitimize a man whose ministry supported a “Left Behind” video game in which post-Rapture Christians kill non-Christians on the streets of New York – and they’re the good guys.  To question these things is not important?

I say it is. We see the Crusades of the 11th Century  being re-played now in the 21st.  Maybe questioning will reduce their chances of continuing into the fourth millennium, if we make it that far.

*    *    *

Critical Thinking as a Litmus Test

Reading the comments on my last post (the first Gilgamesh essay), and of the people who also commented on it on StumbleUpon,5 it occurs to me that critical thinkers serve as litmus tests for the people who disagree with them.  They fall into two categories:  those who challenge the thinking, and thus pass the test and prove themselves fellow critical thinkers; and those who attack the thinker instead of the ideas, and thus fail the test and show themselves to be non-critical thinkers, like the poisoners and crucifiers of old. Thank goodness free speech is now protected by law.

If the first Gilgamesh “lecture” had happened in a classroom instead of here, those non-critical thinkers would have been demanding my resignation – because they don’t want their children to think beyond what they, the parents, believe. 6 It’s funny how parents don’t care if their kid goes more deeply into, say, math than them; that’s fine. But have my kid go more deeply – and more critically – into religion than I ever did?  Into politics and my country’s history?  That’s a different beast altogether.  As a rule, parents aren’t okay with that at all.

So that’s the challenge to critical thinking in so many of our classrooms today, and a reason for its boredom-inducing absence. If only teachers felt secure in speaking their minds, there could be incredible discussions in classrooms.

And for the record: I share my questions about sacred cows not because I delight in doing “ee-vil.”  We may as well accuse Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, Martin Luther, Copernicus, Voltaire, Darwin, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and millions of other reformists dead and alive of “loving evil” for imagining – and speaking of – better visions of the Good or more sensible versions of the True.

I share these questions because first, I love asking them; second, it’s my way of supporting others who are asking them; and third, imperfect as all of us are, I believe these questions have vital value for happiness, intelligence, well-being, and, um, education. In my eyes, as much as your preachers or your parents, I am trying to do good. I’m just doing it by my own lights, instead of by the teachings of childhood.  I left those teachings long ago, by reading more than the preachers showed me. (I also discovered, in the cult of the early Christian leader Valentinus, an extinct version of Christianity I actually admire. It’s almost Buddhist. See Princeton religious historian Elaine Pagels’ eye-opening, and very readable, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas for more.)

Faith-based history: man with dinosaur <br /> Creation Museum, USA

How can we think? Magic-based science (Creation Museum, Kentucky, USA)

And then there’s the issue of fairness. Millions of preachers clog the airwaves daily with their claims. Creationists attack science and infest science classrooms and textbooks.  It’s only fair that equal time is given to those of us who want to challenge them with critical thinking.

My last point:  Critical thinking can “corrupt the youth” on one condition: that youth fail to think critically themselves, as they read.  As long as the young thinkchew – before swallowing this, or any, adult’s words, they’re not “corrupted” at all. No matter what those adults say.

I don’t know if any of this helped “stain the waters clear.”  I hope it did.

*    *    *

Now on to more fun with Gilgamesh, one of the wisest and – in the “sacred sex” scene that is the next post’s topic, also one of the most beautiful – books I’ve ever read.

Wait a minute. It just hit me.  My god, I’m about to discuss the oldest sex scene in the history of mankind.  Not a bad way to spend an evening.

It should be up in a day or two.

Please keep the comments critical, and thanks for doing that in such a friendly way in the first post.  And sorry for the length.  This was no fun to write, but I had to get it out.

Photo credits: Human Questions by AmberflyKezzie ; Creation Museum by rauchdickson

  1. See the word as an adverb modifying “stained.” []
  2. They were both considered something like “bums” by the good people too – Socrates wore tatty clothes, Jesus was a homeless guy – but that’s a different story. []
  3. Since this crucifixion episode, by the way, has been used to justify Christian Antisemitism and the slaughter of Jews for over a thousand years, I have to add this point to keep my conscience clean: Jesus may not have been crucified at all; he may not, in fact, have ever lived at all, according to many serious scholars. (A comprehensive discussion of the evidence is laid out, among many other places, in a long chapter of The Pagan Christ: Is Blind Faith Killing Christianity?, by ex-minister and professor of New Testament Greek Tom Harpur, who seems to want to radically reform Christianity the way Jesus, if he did exist, wanted to radically reform Judaism.)  It’s a fascinating question for those who care to think critically about important things. If it’s true, after all, that means the Jews were framed and persecuted by the Christians for an execution that never happened, and that American voters today are electing leaders on the basis of faith in a phantom. []
  4. It goes deeper than this, really, since many used it as a pretext for other grudges. But the interesting thing is that this pretext still held in a court of law, and it’s what he was convicted and killed for: teaching common sense. []
  5. and for the record, as I’ve already said, I agree that the tone in that post is lame at times, and will work on that, and find such feedback helpful, when polite []
  6. My own resignation was demanded once by a pair of parents – from a long line of preachers – for including the ideas of Bishop Spong as a contemporary descendant of Martin Luther in a history unit about the Reformation. Maybe I’ll tell that full story one day. Right now, I’ll just say that my assistant principal at the time commendably held firm and told them they were free to leave. Instead, they pulled their son from my class and put him with another teacher.  No chance he think beyond his parents’ beliefs that way. []

31 thoughts on “When Corrupting the Youth is Good”

    1. Maybe you’re right, I can’t say. But can you meet me half-way, and agree that the syntax of “noun adjective” – “water clear” – is non-standard even in this poem, which we see in the standard “adjective noun” order of things like “happy song” (not “song happy”)? And that the inversion of “water clear” adds an ambiguity that makes this poem the gem it is?

      I’d hate for grammar debates on a secondary point to detract from the poetic beauty of the primary point.

      1. For the record, I changed the word “misplaced” to ambiguous. Call me picky. (I worry, though, that it makes the tone more academic from the start than I want it to be.)

  1. Clay, good points here. I agree that to think critically, one must examine ideas and thinking rather than simply attack those presenting the ideas and doing the thinking. Although, there is something to be said for one’s credibility in such a line of thought.

    What I find the most perplexing is the notion that if science has not quantitatively proven it, it does not exist and must be put in the category of “superstition”. There is so much yet to be “proven” that people know exist yet await scientific evidence. There are also many new discoveries yet to be made. And there has been so much that has been “proven” that was not/could not be proven at the time. Even you bring up the credulous notion that perhaps Jesus did not exist at all and site as support your argument a video clip and one of your own blog posts which fly in the face of staggering amounts of historically valid documentation. Can I “prove” it? No. And perhaps even if I could, my “proof” may never be good enough for someone who simply just does not want to accept that truth. We all tend to be ensnared somewhat by our own biases and predispositions. But, this is one of your main points that I agree with.

    No doubt the Christian church and Christians as a people have failed on so many fronts… all stemming from their failure to live up to the teachings of Jesus and the wiles of human nature. I don’t discount that for a second. And science is critical in our society and in our thinking. However, one simply cannot discount faith because it cannot be scientifically, empirically proven (using proven carefully, as science does not claim to be able to prove anything with 100% certainty). Unless something can actually be scientifically unproven, then it still has room at the table for the critical thinkers and those with faith.

    But thanks for the reminder to continue to think critically and to participate in discourse (and to encourage our students to do likewise) that is logical rather than simply passionate and to analyze ideas rather than blindly attack them and those who espouse them. It is a good lesson for us all to remember.

    1. Steve, thanks for the input.

      I must have implied something I didn’t intend, somewhere in this post, to make you think I argue that, as you say,

      if science has not quantitatively proven it, it does not exist and must be put in the category of “superstition”.

      I don’t mean to imply that, and I don’t think scientists would agree with it either.

      I think scientists would agree that science knows there are countless things it has not discovered, but that still exist. It’s just that we can’t call them “true” in an ontological and epistemological sense – we’re not certain these “maybes” have being, or that they are true. They still could be.

      It’s arguments that undemonstrated (or worse, undemonstrable) things are true with certainty that muddy the waters of “truth.” Faith is a good word for those sorts of belief, but the faithful all too often use the “know” word instead of the “faith” word.

      And that’s why Bin Laden and Bush are both right, I guess, and dinosaurs lived in Eden. I know that sounds sarcastic, but my intent is just to underscore how unfounded any traditional article of faith is today, when so much conflicting argument and evidence surrounds it.

      I have all sorts of faiths, based on my experience: I have faith that the universe is not evil, that nature doesn’t contain a hell for people with independent beliefs to burn in forever, that death is probably as much the (peaceful) end for us as it is for that possum hit by the car on the side of the road, that there’s no such thing as the devil or Jehovah or Brahman. But I also know that there’s no way I can prove those things – yet – so I can’t claim they’re “true.”

      Off to breakfast. Thanks again for the civility.

      1. Sorry… I forgot to mention the additional context of our twittering last night. I thought you would make the connection. Sorry. I do think that there is Truth with a capital T (absolute) and truth with a small t. T(t)ruth can be relative on many plains. Apart from scientific certainty about things that are measurable, it is probably next to impossible to “prove” Truth (capital T) as absolute on many fronts. Dealing with this is problematic, to be sure. I just want to make sure that we use the term “Faith” as not being unfounded or credulous all the time.
        Thanks for the response.

        1. Steve, take this in the spirit of search it’s offered in: You say you think there is “Truth with a capital T.” Can you name one that is not demonstrable and yet clear for everybody to see? Or name one without any of my silly conditions, and give me an idea of what it means to know an “absolute truth”?

          If I’m asking the wrong (or a flawed) question, change it as you will. I used to believe in absolute truth, back when I was in search of it. But it led me to conclude there’s no such thing. Back to faith, which is something closer to “absolute opinion” instead of “absolute truth.”

          Thanks again for enriching this discussion, Steve. I know you’re sincere, and respect that. You may even change my views, if you care. But not yet 😉

        2. Clay, it is my belief that there is often Truth with a capital “T” that is yet scientifically unprovable. Again, we get trapped in this circular logic. No, I can’t prove it. But that does not mean that it does not exist. I can’t see the atom, but I accept it as Truth. I have to admit, as a non-scientist, there is a little bit of faith there in scientific visualization equipment and mathematical equations. Inability to empirically “prove” is not necessarily an argument for superstition, folklore, or fantasy. That’s all I really want to stress. Yes, faith becomes part of the equation here. But faith does not always have to be ill-informed or without merit, as you yourself recognize. You simply cannot deny the benefits of faith in things beyond which we can prove empirically (yes, there have also been a healthy number of negative examples one could dangle as well).
          Faith, hope, love… these are things I know to be True. It’s not my intention to change your views, but simply to engage in rich, reasonable discussion. It is up to each of us to find what we consider Truth or truth. As your original post inferred, the danger comes when we cease to seek. Thanks for engaging with me in this discussion.

          Oh yes, here is a fun link I found:

  2. Hi Clay –
    Critical thinking is, as you point out, often subject to the whims of the current sensibility. As you suggest – yes, think critically about math; no, stay away from religion – is a trap that we fall into.

    Learning about the hard stuff is hard, and dangerous. It’s work and it means that we each have our own ideas and the ideas of others can not be controled or predicted.

    Emerson spoke about this in his address to the Phi Beta Kappa society of Harvard. I’m going to write about the thinker using the male pronoun, but I don’t want to suggest that Human Thinking is a gender specific task. Emerson suggests that”…the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.”

    He goes on to describe a man thinking, in active contemplation of the world around him, learning for himself. “The ambitious soul sits down before each refractory fact; one after another, reduces all strange constitutions, all new powers, to their class and their law, and goes on for ever to animate the last fibre of organization, the outskirts of nature, by insight.” He thinks critically, organizes the world to satisfy himself.

    So – the Soul and nature become one to that thinking man. And he begins to ponder creation. “And what is that Root? Is not that the soul of his soul? — A thought too bold, — a dream too wild. He shall see, that nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal, and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind. Nature then becomes to him the measure of his attainments.”

    Now, if you are Emerson – what do you do with books? They aren’t YOUR experience of the world – they are someone else’s. That makes them SUSPECT and DANGEROUS to us as native thinkers:

    “The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth. It came to him, short-lived actions; it went out from him, immortal thoughts. It came to him, business; it went from him, poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.”

    Here is the greatest danger- according to Emerson – that we mistake the writer for his work. If we agree with the book, the writer is a hero – if not, a bum.

    He calls it “grave mischief…the act of thought, — is transferred to the record. The poet chanting, was felt to be a divine man: henceforth the chant is divine also. The writer was a just and wise spirit: henceforward it is settled, the book is perfect; as love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue. Instantly, the book becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant. The sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude, slow to open to the incursions of Reason, having once so opened, having once received this book, stands upon it, and makes an outcry, if it is disparaged.”

    And then we forget the origins of the books: “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.

    Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm.”

    This happens with holy books, both “sacred” and “secular.”

    The greatest danger to us as “critical thinkers” is that we turn our thinking over to others and to the books that they write. We let the work (and the writer) think for us. He says that a good book will pull us out of our own orbit – make us a sattelite and not a SUN!

    “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system.”

    And here he gives us his belief in critical thinking: “The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although, in almost all men, obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates.

    He says – now don’t get me wrong. I love books and writers, and to read a good book helps him write his own BUT there is an active engaged way to read. “The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakspeare, only that least part, — only the authentic utterances of the oracle; — all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakspeare’s.”

    Finally, he gives us his manifesto: “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.”

    So – what does that say for the mindless recitation of facts and the sycophantic enslavement of the scholar? He demands a new way of thinking for every age.

    Is that empowering or terrifying? I think you would agree that the most patriotic and equally subversive thing that we each can do it to read, experience, and think for ourselves.

    Off my transcendentalist soapbox.

    Kate Tabors last blog post..Mindset to begin the year

    1. Kate, I’m sorry to be late on this. I had to save it until I could focus.

      I’m glad I didn’t forget to come back to it. You’ve moved Emerson up my reading list (and Tabor 😉 ).

      Every book came from a more or less fallible, more or less disinterested, more or less tolerant and intelligent, human. That’s the simple and resisted point.

  3. Hey Prof. Burell (I’m a student)

    I love your blog, and I’ve already emailed it to a few of my more open minded teachers for them to check out.
    I do have a few questions though – A lot of your fears about parental retaliation on touchy subjects such as “Lolita” and evolution and religion don’t apply to my school here in Canada. It may be because I am in an International Baccalaureate class, but most of my teachers don’t shy away from discussing controversial topics and challenging the ingrained thinking of the students.

    What do you think is it that makes the teaching of more controversial topics more accepted in schools? Is my school just a freak exception or is it because of Canada’s more secular government? And does this make for a better education (or as you would say, not teachers teaching but students learning) system?

    Keep up the awesome blog posts!

    1. Hi Calvin,

      I’m hearing from more and more Canadians that the symptoms of medievalism I’m describing don’t apply there.

      I read last year about a Minnesota (USA) school district that canceled IB because parents found it “anti-American and anti-Christian.” So telling.

      Consider yourself lucky in your school in Canada.

      (By the way, it’s “Mr.,” – or “Clay” – not “Professor” 😉 .

      Thanks for dropping in. Keep the comments coming too :)

  4. “Stained the water clear” Clear can denote pure and unclouded…or untroubled, certain. With questioning comes doubt but also enlightenment.

    Adam & Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They gained understanding and were therefore capable of making choices.

    Innocence will not protect our students; knowledge is their shield and armor.

    dianes last blog post..Have a Fair Day!

    1. Diane, I like the implication that the “unstained” water is not clear at all – until the poet “stains” it with vision.

      I hate trying to explicate paradoxes. :(


  5. “Wait a minute. It just hit me. My god, I’m about to discuss the oldest sex scene in the history of mankind. Not a bad way to spend an evening.

    It should be up in a day or two.”

    Well, I see it did get up. Was it as good for you as it was for me?

  6. An interesting post and great comments to boot. Playing off of the freedom question from the previous blog post I wonder how in a secular school environment students are allowed the freedom to ask the questions of: Who is God, who are they, who is Christ, and why the Church? These questions certainly take critical thought from anyone who dons the descriptor “believer”.

    I work in a Catholic school and our students are free to debate these questions all day long. Of course we seek to pass on the Gospel and do so. Our chaplain is quick to remind all of our faculty that if what we believe in the end is really the “Truth” then why would we fear dialogue on these issues and engaging questions about these core issues.

    Long live the debate because from it comes learning.

    Charlie A. Roys last blog post..The Debate on Drug Testing

  7. Critical thinking is the foundation of making a person rational. Questioning the preconceived notions does not make a child criminal. Thanks for reinforcing the need of critical thinking

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