We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence. – Paul Kurtz
Sometimes I’ll ask a child their favorite day of the year. Number one is always Christmas. Always. Number two is their birthday. And number three is almost always the last day of school. I feel so sorry for children whose school is held year-round, who never know the exquisite joy of an unscheduled, wide-open summer stretching before them. I remember running out of the school building and jumping on my bicycle, parked at the bicycle rack underneath the maple tree behind South Elementary, and feeling this elation, this freedom on the last day of school. I always thought it must have been how a prisoner felt when they were walked to the gates on the day of their release.
On the last day of fifth grade, Mr. Evanoff, my teacher, told us we could keep our math books because the school was getting new math books. I put it on the little rack on the back of my bike and rode home. I don’t know what possessed me to do it, perhaps my dislike of math, but when I got home, I began throwing that book as high as I could up in the air, then tearing out the pages. I had it pretty well destroyed when my school principal mother pulled in the driveway and saw me ripping that book apart. She got out of her car and stalked across the yard and grabbed my arm with one hand and began swatting me on the bottom with the other.
Oh, she was livid, the angriest I had ever seen her, and my mother was not a woman prone to anger, but she was irate that day. She said, “You pick that book up, and you put it back together.” Which was impossible because I had torn it into tiny pieces.
She said, “That is a sin. You don’t ever do that to books.”
To this day, I can’t throw a book away. I start to, and I feel my mother’s hand clutching my arm, so I donate them to the library instead. I take that back. Last year, someone gave me a copy of a book written by Ron DeSantis, and I threw that away. But that’s it, honest.
As I reflect on that now, I suspect my mother’s anger wasn’t kindled by the destruction of a book, as much as what the destruction represented–the dismissal and contempt of education. It seemed to her as if I were thumbing my nose at all she held dear—wisdom and knowledge and progress and intelligence–and that, she could not abide. She waged war against error until the day she died. Literally. My cousin Judy had come to see her at the nursing home. We were all there. Mom was tossing and turning and Judy said, “Just lay still, Aunt Glo. Just lay still.” And my mom, the former English teacher and school principal, who hadn’t said a word all day, sat up and said, “It’s lie still.” Then she laid back down and died, just like that. Now that’s a woman who lived for education. My mother would have made a good humanist. She deplored efforts to denigrate human intelligence.
Isn’t it interesting the cultural shift we’ve experienced these past several decades regarding religion and education? When our nation was settled, one thing was as reliably predictable as the sun rising and setting, and that was this–that when towns were settled, churches would be started, and the churches would start schools and eventually colleges. That’s how we ended up with Earlham College, DePauw, Hanover, Marion University and Notre Dame, to name a few, because people of faith believed it was their godly duty, their moral obligation, to educate their children.
But there has always been, since America’s founding, an unfortunate strain of Christianity that feared human enlightenment, believing it led people away from God. They were exactly right. The more people learned, the wiser they became, the more likely they were to reject those forms of Christianity rooted in superstition and ignorance. Eventually, those Christians were confined to more isolated and backward regions of our country. I know this, because it was true of my family, who four generations ago lived in the hills and hollers of Tennessee with little access to education and therefore feared it. My siblings and I were the first generation in our family to attend college. Then something interesting happened, a religious perspective that disparaged human enlightenment went from being a backwards, isolated phenomenon to a mainstream political movement, largely due to the rise of Christian fundamentalism, its growing political power, and the nation’s population shift from the North to the South.
So it’s no surprise that public schools and colleges are starved for funding, while tax dollars flow to private, religious charter schools whose outcomes are often appalling. In New York City Hasidic schools, over a billion dollars have been spent in the past four years to educate children in Jewish law, prayer, and tradition. In 2019, a thousand students at the Central United Talmudical Academy were given state standardized tests, and every one of them failed. Because generations of Hasidic children have been systematically denied a basic education, they are trapped in a cycle of joblessness and dependency. The poverty rates in Hasidic neighborhoods are some of the highest in the nation. When religions denigrate human enlightenment, children suffer. So I am grateful to the humanists, who deplore efforts to diminish human enlightenment.
We do ourselves no favor when we believe education and enlightenment are only for the young. Education doesn’t end when the degree is conferred. It continues all our lives. The fact that we always need to learn, that we never quite have life figured out, should never be a cause for resentment. Have you ever noticed that when some people are faced with a new reality, their first reaction is anger and frustration? “I’m too old for this,” they say. Or “I know what I believe, and I won’t change my mind.” I feel sorry for people like that, and even more sorry for the people who live with them.
When I was a kid, I played junior league football. I was just horrible, I only weighed 60 pounds, but all my friends played, so I played too. Every week it was a bloodbath. Concussions, dislocated joints, amputations, near death experiences. I don’t know how I survived. Our coach was Mr. Kennedy. God love him, he was so patient and kind. I’d come back to the bench bloodied and discouraged, my arm hanging by a shred of tissue, and he’d clap me on the back and say, “The game’s not over yet, Philip. Don’t give up. The fourth quarter is the most important quarter. We can’t rest yet.”
So I figured out the other day that I’ll probably live into my 80s, which means I’m in my fourth quarter. According to Coach Kennedy, that’s the most important quarter. I can’t rest yet, and neither can you. There is still much to learn. Human enlightenment is far too important to stop now. Now that I think about it, Coach Kennedy was a humanist, too. Keep trying, keep learning, keep growing, keep moving the ball down the field no matter what.