In the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, after the often-repeated “Love is patient, love is kind” passages, we read another often-repeated portion:
11. When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
12. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
We come into the world knowing nothing, not even who or what we are. We can’t even open our eyes, the new light is so bright, and our only recognizable instinct is to suck on anything put into our mouths.
Our parents are our first educators. During our earliest years, they teach us the basics, things we never remember not knowing, like how to aim a spoon at our mouths and actually get the food in there. Others around us, like neighbors and daycare workers, teach us to be social: to regard others as worthy of kindness, to value cooperation and order. As our consciousness of the world grows, our knowledge of ourselves is enhanced by the ability to compare unlike ways of living to our own. Though St. Paul’s letter is addressing our relationship to God, in the temporal world we also come to know others as we are known to them.
After we have grown up ourselves, we have a duty to help raise up the “generations coming on.” This duty includes not only teaching practical skills, like cleaning up messes and tying shoes, it also includes instructing young people about the moral obligations to the people around them. It might be cute to say, “I’m lookin’ out for number one!” but if that were a valid philosophy at all, we would have discarded all notions of society long ago, and rolled right into anarchy. No, we must look out for ourselves and for each other, and as hard as it may be to face, part of that duty means recognizing when and how we hurt other people.
It is this consciousness – that other people are like ourselves – that raises us up, to be the best that a human being can be. An awareness that other people also suffer requires each of us to respond, hopefully with kindness, empathy, and even charity. Without that understanding of human nature, which comes from sources both inside and outside of a classroom, we devolve into anti-social brutes who make choices based only on perceived self-interest.
Our families and our communities have a role to play in dismantling the divisiveness and anger that now dominates our American culture. This derision cannot be handled on a mass scale with politics; it must be taken apart one individual at a time. Each of us must take each step toward peace in each instance when we have an opportunity to keep the anger going. Yes, it’s hard to embrace dignity and kindness while another person spews venom onto something we value. But reciprocating with our own venom will only leave two people tainted and hurt, where one hurt is too many.
My own education has steeped me in the liberal arts tradition of critical inquiry and in the facts of Jim Crow and of Civil Rights history. Some of that education occurred inside a classroom, but much of it did not. Spending time learning about man’s inhumanity to man changed how I view life, culture, and politics. Applying the lessons of the past to situations that I see in the present makes me fearful that our nation is about to repeat some terrible errors in judgment. Unfortunately, many people around me, in Alabama, don’t see it that way.
But some of my own experiences have educated me on how to approach other people on matters where we disagree and on how to respond when they are emphatic that I am wrong. I’m always prepared for the knee-jerk anger, the unwillingness to listen, and the refusal to budge on matters of ideals. Often enough, these difficult situations arise between me and people who I care about very much, but I am firm in my conviction that, if those people truly care about me, then they will value my honesty and respect our differences, which is what I will gladly do for them.
Though I have learned a great deal in classrooms and from books, I do share one idea in common with conservative-minded people. I also value a real-world education, rich in everyday experiences that enhance one’s value system with practical insights. That real-world education should teach a person how to live effectively among other people, which includes dealing civilly with diversity of opinion and backing up one’s own ideas with facts. Forrest Gump famously asserted that “stupid is as stupid does,” and unfortunately, to have a real-world education lead to embitterment, intolerance, and anxiety is stupid. If a person’s real-world education leads him to retreat from and fear the world’s diversity, then he didn’t learn anything. That man who comes to those conclusions is like the child in the back of the classroom who puts his head down during the lesson and leaves just as ignorant as he arrived.
Anyone who has raised children has seen what behaviors result from ignorance. Toddlers, who know little about the world, scream and cry when they don’t get their way. They hit other children who take their toys. They run from their parents, with no idea of where they are going or what they will do next. When a person is driven by visceral emotions, like self-involved anxiety, the actions that will result won’t be much better than a child’s. And no matter whether one’s leanings are conservative, liberal, or moderate, one thing that we all should share in common with our fellow man: the desire not to think, speak, or act as a child.