Fear of Knowledge?

I usually enjoy seeing news about my home town, but not today. An article in the Columbus Dispatch via the Dayton Daily News caught my eye today when I saw “Wapakoneta” in the headline. Wapak, as the natives call it, is a small county-seat town in Northwest Ohio where I graduated from high school 50 years ago. The headline brought home to me literally how insidious Islamophobia is affecting not only our present world crisis but future generations as well.

The story reported that 21 7th-graders in Wapak are boycotting history lessons that include Islam. (Note: I have since learned from the editor of the Wapakoneta Daily News that the official number of students according to the School Superintendent is 10; so I want to share that bit of good news.) In particular they are opting out of one of 21 sections in their world history class that focuses on Islamic civilization from A.D. 500-1600. The good news is that world history is part of curriculum. It certainly wasn’t when I was a student there. For us history didn’t begin until Columbus “discovered” America in 1492.

According to the news article “Ohio’s state learning standards call for study of numerous civilizations and empires, and the impact of Christianity, Islam and other religions on history.” The section in question “focuses on the impact of Islamic civilization as it spread throughout most of the Mediterranean in the period following the fall of Rome and its later impact on the European Renaissance. Attention is paid to achievements in medicine, science, mathematics and geography.”

The bad news is that “the school policy that allows the Wapakoneta students to opt out is shared in some form by hundreds of other school districts statewide.” The policy does not allow students to opt out of entire classes, just certain sections if “after careful, personal review of the lesson and materials a parent determines that it conflicts with their religious beliefs or value system.” Maybe some of these 21 students have parents who know enough about Islam to make a careful review of this material, but I’m betting most of them only know what Donald Trump and Fox News have told them about these people who comprise 1 billion members of the human race.

I get the fear caused by recent world events, but even if we have reason to fear a designated “enemy,” doesn’t it make sense to know as much about them as we can. The impact of Islam on the European Renaissance has direct influence on our history in this country. Their story is part of our story, and if we fail to understand our history we are indeed condemned to repeat it. Like it or not we live in a multicultural international community. People who are different from us are literally our neighbors here and around the world.

The alma mater of Wapak High School has a phrase that sounds way off key to my ears today. It says, “Hail to thee dear Alma Mater, temple reared by God’s own hand.” I’m sure the author of those words many decades ago had only the Christian God in mind as the builder of said temple of learning. The God of the entire universe I know is weeping for those 21 students and everyone else who is being robbed of a chance to better understand the world we live in by fear and ignorance.

The final paragraph of the Columbus Dispatch article is especially poignant. It quotes the state’s seventh-grade history standard on civic skills which makes a case against opting out of lessons like this. It reads, “Skills in accessing and analyzing information are essential for citizens in a democracy. The ability to understand individual and group perspectives is essential to analyzing historic and contemporary issues.”

The American democratic experiment is founded on an informed citizenry, and ignoring important aspects of world and American history because we are afraid of what we might learn reminds me of the old adage, “Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind is already made up.” Saddest of all is what these students are being taught, not by the schools, but by parents who are passing on their own fears and biases to their children.

This situation reminded me of a great song that I first heard at Wapak High over 50 years ago when our high school chorus performed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical “South Pacific.” The song “Carefully Taught” in that show is about how people learn their prejudices. It’s long before we get to formal education. One line of that song says it so well, “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught!” (I wrote a full article on that topic last year entitled “Life Lessons I Didn’t Learn in Class,” posted February 24, 2014).

Fear of people and things outside our comfort zone is a learned behavior. Innocent children don’t come into the world with preconceived notions. We learn subtly or directly to label differences as “other” instead of understanding and appreciating the basic human needs and desires that make us part of one common species. I love it whenever I see the suggestion about how to answer the question we get on medical forms and other documents that asks for “race”? The answer that is never one of the choices is the one that really matters, and it is “human.”
All of us share the same basic needs for love and acceptance, for food and water and shelter, for clean air to breath, for a sense of security and safety. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs knows no ethnic or ideological distinctions. When we isolate ourselves from “others” geographically, socially, economically, and even by refusal to study our common history, those needs and commonalities are obscured by fear, ignorance and bigotry. Fear of violence is understandable. Fear of knowledge is tragic.

I became aware just recently of the peacemaking work of a fellow Ohio native, Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist who died earlier this year. He was the creator of Nonviolent Communication, a communication process that helps people to exchange the information necessary to resolve conflicts and differences peacefully. One of the tenets of non-violent communication is that humans act out of unmet needs. So one of the first steps toward understanding our own behavior or that of others is to ask what unmet needs we may have. (I would add especially in this season of hectic holiday consumerism, these are real needs, not desires created by clever marketing or peer pressure.)

One of Rosenberg’s insights that speak so clearly to our current world situation is that “violence is the tragic expression of unmet needs.” That is not easy to remember when we are afraid for ourselves or others, but it is critical because it is hitting the pause button on our natural flight or fight emotions long enough to put ourselves in the place of another and ask what unmet needs that person has that might explain his or her actions. That understanding is what makes compassion possible in interpersonal and international relationships. And it is only possible when we take time to know about and understand others. That happens in multiple ways, from really listening to each other to cultural competence that comes from taking the time to learn about the history and customs and beliefs of our fellow travelers on spaceship earth.

That’s the way to unlearn those hurtful, dangerous things we were “carefully taught…. before we were six or seven or eight.” Those prejudices and fears passed on from one generation to the next by well-meaning but uninformed people. We can learn and change and grow, but not if we are afraid of knowledge and are AWOL from class.

Life Lessons I Didn’t Learn in Class

Overhearing the Gospel is a great title for a book on preaching by Fred Craddock. Craddock argues that an indirect and subtle approach to hearing the difficult truth of the Christian Gospel is often the most effective method of communication. It’s why Jesus relied so heavily on parables to share his truth. Stories have a way of bypassing prejudices and ideology by touching hearers at a deeper level than purely rational arguments can do. Stories personalize concepts and appeal to emotion and morality in a holistic way that is more persuasive than a more direct imperative approach.

That’s why listeners who first heard Jesus urge them to “love their enemies” or “turn the other cheek” probably said, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But when convicted by the truth of the Good Samaritan story, even the lawyer who started out planning to “test” Jesus had to admit the real neighbor in the story was not the religious leaders, as one would expect The surprise hero of that parable is the hated enemy from Samaria who showed compassion on the man who was mugged and left for dead by robbers on the road to Jericho. (See Luke 10:25-37).

I learned some great life lessons via the indirect approach 50 years ago in high school. Blessed with a good memory, I was always a “good” student, which simply means I knew how to play the education game well and regurgitate answers that teachers wanted to hear on tests. But I realized recently that some values I learned in “extra-curricular” activities were far more important than any quadratic equations I solved or verbs I learned to conjugate. The irony is that the lessons I value most from my high school education came from our choral music teacher, Walter Kehres. What makes it ironic is that I cannot and never have been able to carry a tune in a bucket. I am also not very technologically or mechanically gifted; so I don’t remember how I ended up as one of the students asked to run the light board in our school auditorium, but I’m very grateful I did.

As part of the stage crew I had a priceless opportunity to participate in two major musical productions. To explain the value of that experience I need to set some historical context. I attended high school in a small, conservative rural Ohio community from 1960-1964 during a time of great tension and change in American history. My wife and I recently saw the excellent movie, “The Butler,” that is yet another example of the power of narrative. The film covers the history of the Civil Rights Movement from Eisenhower to Obama, and was a painful reminder to me of how isolated and unaware of what was happening in our own country I was in my youth.

That isolation was a function of the culture and ideology that defined my community and my education. For racism to be addressed directly as part of our academic curriculum would have been met with strong opposition from the community. That’s why the indirect approach to controversial issues was necessary and effective. I will never know for sure if addressing social justice issues like racism and multiculturalism even factored into our music director’s decision when he was choosing the shows to be performed each year. I hope it was, but what I do know is that my junior year our big musical production for the year was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical “South Pacific.”

Here’s how Wikipedia describes “South Pacific:” “It centers on an American nurse stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II who falls in love with a middle-aged expatriate French plantation owner but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. A secondary romance, between a U.S. lieutenant and a young Tonkinese woman explores his fears of the social consequences should he marry his Asian sweetheart. The issue of racial prejudice is candidly explored throughout the musical, most controversially in the lieutenant’s song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”.”

Here are the lyrics to that prophetic song:
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a diff’rent shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

Had that message about racism and an inter-racial couple been preached from any pulpit or taught in any classroom in my hometown it would never have been tolerated by anyone, including me. But hearing those words sung dozens of time in rehearsals and performances in the context of a “story” sneaked them past the censors and filters in my head. The words and emotions of that great show are so memorable that 50 years later, I can still sing most of the score to this day (fear not, only in the shower).

I have no idea if that production affected anyone else the way it did me, and the message was so subtle, or I was so obtuse, that I didn’t realize until recently what am impact it had on me, even though I’ve quoted “Carefully Taught” in numerous sermons and classes over the years. In that high school auditorium when I thought I was just running a light board, seeds of tolerance and social justice were planted in my head and heart that slowly began to germinate. That made me open to more direct messages and experiences about racial equality in the very formative years of my formal and informal education that followed.

I don’t know if Walter Kehres, our music director, is still living or not, but wherever he is, I send a very belated thank you from one of the most non-musical students whose life you helped change forever.