“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 criminals. 2 They were criminals because they challenged those good people’s conventional views of religion, of the sacred, of moral right and wrong.
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.)
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 think – chew – 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.
- See the word as an adverb modifying “stained.” [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- 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. [↩]