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Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s also impossible

Essay by Martha Quillen

Education – March 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

It’s that time of the year, when people get seasonal depression disorders, the post-holiday blues, cabin fever…

Well, whatever you want to call those syndromes, it seems like a good month to write about something unabashedly cheerful.

Except I can’t think of anything.

Maybe that’s because very few things are unquestionably cheering. The Simpson verdict is a good example; it had some people cheering, and others weeping. The Superbowl, on the other hand, probably cheered up a lot of people in Wisconsin — but not in Massachusetts.

All and all, it’s pretty obvious that most things aren’t merely black and white; most history isn’t solely glorious or lamentable, and most people aren’t simply perfect or depraved.

Yet Colorado Senator Charles Duke seems to think we should teach our children otherwise. He proposed a bill requiring educators to impart only favorable information about great Americans. Duke says he’s tired of hearing about “racist white males.”

“There has been no other greater contributor to freedom and limited government than Thomas Jefferson,” Duke said. “Or you can describe him as a slave owner and a gun runner, it’s a question of emphasis.”

Exactly. I agree. So why don’t we tell kids the whole truth? And why do we have so many politicians and think-tank pedants, both right and left, who want to deal in half-truths?

Personally, I think Thomas Jefferson was a great American because he actually struggled with the fundamental issues of his era. Jefferson recognized the basic irony in founding a country that embraced both democracy and slavery — and he addressed that conundrum. Even though Jefferson didn’t believe slaves had the education or resources to survive emancipation, he acknowledged the moral basis for abolishing slavery.

Jefferson once wrote, “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” But more to the point, he also wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Unfortunately, however, it’s sometimes hard to see the difference between innocence and ignorance. But if it’s true that those who control the minds of men, control the men — then it’s easy to understand why some people want to squash certain information.

Everybody wants to suppress something. Whether they want to expel Huckleberry Finn, the Bible, prayer, sex education, or Catcher in the Rye from the schools, most Americans hope they can mold their children by limiting what the kids learn. Therefore, I understand Duke’s reservations about letting it all hang out.


When I read this, I was reminded of those old Soviet clichés. Yes, America invented electricity, the light bulb, apple pie and motherhood. But I suppose one man’s propaganda is another man’s truth.

Or as Encyclopædia Britannica would have it, “a given propagandist may look upon himself as an educator, may believe that he is uttering purest truth, that he is emphasizing or distorting certain aspects of the truth only to make a valid message more persuasive, and that the courses of action that he recommends are in fact the best actions…”

Personally, I don’t agree with Senator Duke’s implication that kids can only appreciate our heritage if they believe it was arranged by flawless superheroes.

But Duke’s instinct to suppress knowledge in order to encourage virtue is hardly new. Without a doubt, our aversion to knowledge is a cultural tradition.

And why not?

Look how we paid for Pandora’s unseemly need to know. Then Adam and Eve got us kicked out of the garden for partaking of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. For centuries the Church defined information not approved by Rome, heresy. For a time, from 1642 to 1660, the English Puritans shut all of the British theaters. Here at home, in our own century, Scopes was put on trial and convicted for teaching evolution.

That’s a pretty abbreviated history, but suffice it to say that in the course of western civilization, humans have always been leery about information.

And even today, everybody believes some information should be suppressed, whether it be instructions for making nuclear weapons, or state secrets, or personal correspondence, or confidential financial reports.

Which gets me to my point. We live in the Information Age. We’ve got messages pouring in by FAX, E-mail, and Internet. Our televisions don’t merely serve three networks and a local station, anymore. By satellite, television delivers more stations than any parent can keep track of. Movies by the dozen can be rented at the local video store or bought at Wal-Mart.

Now, miniature cameras are available to everyone — making it possible to monitor the nanny or your neighbors’ sex life. With a good scanner anybody can pick up police dispatches — or someone else’s cellular phone calls.

Today, news is a major industry. It flows from dedicated news stations, and a myriad of programs from 60 Minutes to Hard Copy to Geraldo. Details of murder and mayhem abound, because if the metros are squeamish about revealing salacious details, the tabloids aren’t. Whether you’re in Great Britain or the United States, you know more about O.J. Simpson and Lady Di than you do about your next-door neighbor.

Never before has so much dirty laundry been sorted so publicly — because our information reservoir overflows with intimate and scandalous hear-say, tell-all, and paid-for disclosures.

So when I say I understand Senator Duke’s attempt at censorship — of course I do. I even wrote a song about it four or five years ago (which I’ll include so you can gauge my response to some of our recent enlightenment).

In truth, I think we’ve all been a bit bruised by this glut of data — because modern communications assault us with more information than we can possibly evaluate.

But does that mean we should sanitize information by removing unpleasant truths?

Before Watergate, there was a conspiracy of silence (or perhaps decorum, if that’s how you want to look at it).

But Americans weren’t necessarily as virtuous as they pretended to be. As it turns out, those marvelous, old-fashioned movies came out of a Hollywood saturated with sex, drugs and licentious living. Elvis was as drug-addled as Kurt Cobain. And the Kennedy’s Camelot was more adulterous than King Arthur’s.

During his campaign, Dole tried to blame Baby-Boomers for creating an immoral, promiscuous society. But as more and more people reveal all on talk shows, in magazines, and on the Internet, it’s obvious that even in the Heartland, wife-beating, pædophilia, incest, and child-abuse were always facts of life. Today, a lot of older people are talking — and they aren’t talking about things that happened to them in the ’90s.

Now, our murder rate is going down. Crime is down, rape is down, robbery is down, and assault is down. Even our economy looks good (or at least it does on paper). Yet politicians, Christians, talk show hosts, and educators keep fulminating about the mess we’re in.


Maybe it’s because of all that information. It’s not countable, it’s not measurable, and it’s probably not even controllable — since it flows from radio, television, Internet, magazines, newspapers, letters, E-mail, telephones, film, and even word of mouth — but information about murders, conspiracies and corruption is way, way up.

Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that a lot of people think wickedness is about to overwhelm us — since scandal is a commodity in this Information Age. The Internet provides a whole new outlet for our national passion with disaster — allowing people to muse about JonBenét, Flight 800 and O.J. to their hearts’ content.

Video games supply an amusing source of imaginary violence. Crime is a best-selling genre. Serial killers are celebrities. And trials have surpassed game shows as entertainment.

Without a doubt, this barrage of information has contributed to some very real problems, including an escalation of fear and suspicion, and a proliferation of handguns. New technology presents fresh opportunities for con artists and criminals. And with so much data available, it gets more and more difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

But whether we like it or not, like Pandora, we’ve opened the box, and I don’t think we can shut it — no matter how hard we try. We’ve liberated a lot of intimate secrets, unsavory information, incoherent chatter — and important news. Now Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and Dick Morris can all lie and cheat, but they’ll probably get caught.

It isn’t easy to adjust to such a blizzard of information, but maybe we should look at it like one Welsh social worker did — after more than six hundred allegations were made against thirty-one child-care homes in Wales.

Alleged victims claimed that they were gang-raped, molested, scalded, tortured, pimped, and forced to act in porn movies. Although complaints about the homes started thirty years ago, they were ignored until recently.

But when a bevy of investigators and reporters finally arrived on the scene, Malcolm King, a former social-service worker there, welcomed them. “At least it will be very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle,” he said.

Still, some people would like to try.

Right now, we live in a world of conflicting messages, brought to us by television, radio, newspapers, books, magazines, videos, computers, CDs, New-age bookstores, Christian bookstores, Sunday sermons, Nintendo, Hollywood, and innumerable others. And it does tend to get confusing.

But we’ve got to stop heaving our problems onto the public schools. The societal problems we try to fix through the schools often don’t have much to do with children — but they may have a lot to do with why our schools are in trouble.

Political pressures have already given our schools sex education, drug education, curriculum committees, a mountain of paper work, a bevy of social workers, and a testy stand-off on prayer.

And Senator Duke’s notions of proper history would merely add more discord.

Duke’s bill, however, was amended by our own Senator Ken Chlouber, who objected to the bill’s inflammatory language and “favorable light” segment. As the bill now stands, it makes required reading of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and George Washington’s Farewell Address.

Those are all worthy texts, but our school curriculum shouldn’t be micro-managed by the legislature.

As it is, our schools already cram American History into headlined bulletins. If and when they get to it, the Vietnam War usually garners less space than this column. And I for one, would rather the teacher had the option to cut the Federalist Papers — rather than a century of history, or a lesson on the current judiciary system.

On the other hand, most of Duke’s preferences are already assigned in local high schools — although I suspect most teachers merely assign selections from the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers. Those works are fairly long, and it could take months to do them justice. And that’s the problem with legislating new material.

In Salida, we’ve already added additional math, science, and foreign language credits to our high-school requirements. For students in sports, music, honors programs, and for those who work after school, the schedule can be tight. Which makes one wonder what Senator Duke thinks our schools should cut in order to accommodate his Bill.

As I see it, curriculum should be designed by people who look at the entire package.

But even so, I’d like to thank Senator Chlouber for making Duke’s bill a little more palatable — because if it had gone through as Duke presented it, teachers wouldn’t have been able to lead a class discussion comfortably or answer student’s questions truthfully.

Clearly, honesty is not a popular policy with many politicians, but it seems a little strange to propose a bill requiring deceit. Yet nonetheless, I understand Duke’s inclination.

Like a lot of politicians these days, Duke would like to return to an America that never really existed — except in the fantasy world of white-washed television programs and censored texts.

In the ’50s, three networks featured married sit-com characters who slept in twin beds in big suburban houses where sensitive Dads seemed to be at home nearly as much as loving Moms — who were always at home. On television, perfect mothers like Margaret Anderson and June Cleaver always got dressed up to wash the floors — and the kids never got their navels pierced.

Back then, when radio stations banned a song, you actually didn’t hear it. But even so parents worried about Elvis the Pelvis, who went in the army, and shook hands with the president, and worked hard at convincing America that he was really all right.

In those days, Anne Landers warned girls about the dire consequences of French kissing. And in school, children were nourished with sugary aphorisms and sanitized history.

— Until those kids rebelled, and it ended with the ’60s.

Do you think Duke realizes that a return to the ’60’s may be where his replay of the ’50s is headed?

— Martha Quillen