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.