Like all good scholars in the humanities, I try to teach my students to be critical and independent thinkers. By that I mean a lot of things, but much of it means questioning what one is told and to be courageous in taking a contrary position when that position seems justified. I mean that people should learn to be creative in their thinking and be prepared to marshal a case for their positions. I mean that people should be principled in their thinking and really try to apply those principles in their every day life.
The problem is, if one really does make a habit of thinking this way, it makes every day life a lot harder. Maybe I’m an old curmudgeon before my time, but on a daily basis I am enraged, saddened, or exasperated by things that I’m pretty sure wouldn’t bother me (or bother me so much) if I was not so well educated. I don’t feel right donating blood, for instance, because I think their policy on gay donors is discriminatory; I get cock-eyed looks every November because I won’t wear a poppy because I feel it glorifies war; I can’t donate to my friend’s effort to raise money for MADD because I disagree with that organization’s campaign on random breathalyzer tests. The list goes on. I’m not saying that mine are the only positions an educated person could hold on these issues; I’m saying that anyone who is really well-educated in the sense I mean is going to constantly be confronted with things that don’t seem right, but would have in a more blissful time.
I once read a news story about an activist who was nearly forced to go shoeless because every shoe he looked at raised a moral objection: no leather for the sake of animal rights, nothing made in China for the sake of human rights, and so on. I feel for that guy every time the driver in front of me fails to signal his turn and I immediately see it as an affront to the nature of civilization.
The worst part is that I can’t even explain myself to most people because they have no interest in following my argument because they are convinced, no matter what I say, that I couldn’t possibly be right. My facts and arguments are dismissed as crazy ivory-tower political correctness and that’s the end of the story. Poppy is good, drunk driving is bad, what the f^%k is your problem, Pettigrew? Regular readers of this space will have seen this reaction already — and may possibly be having it right now.
Education is a gift and a curse. It is a gift because it allows you to see things that others don’t see; it is a curse for the same reason.