Know Lots of Stuff – Part 7 of The Twelve-step Program for American Recovery

Scene – an improv workshop on the stage of Chicago City Limits, a crusty little theatre on the Upper East side of, confusingly, New York City.
Dramatis Personae – Phillip, the actor and teacher
                                  27 high school drama students
                                  Audience – me and several other chaperones
Action – Phillip led improv games, coaching, encouraging, critiquing all while tossing a tennis ball up the single aisle where a yellow lab waited by the entrance door. The dog would catch the ball then nudge it back down the aisle. The ball would roll to Phillip’s feet and the whole process would start again. Meanwhile Phillip continued to coach, push, and encourage and every now and then he’d say, “Know lots of stuff.”

The mandate was clear in the context – an actor might be asked to play a paraplegic, or an astronaut, or a cowboy, so he better “know lots of stuff.” But the more I thought about it the more I realized its broader applicability. As a teacher I was always being asked, “Why do we need to know this?” “When will I ever use that?” The questions annoyed me – couldn’t they see the obvious worth of my life’s work?  I had some good pat answers, but “Know lots of stuff,” allows no argument. Any worthwhile conversation requires a broad frame of reference. In any emergency knowledge is necessary. Knowing lots of stuff broadens opportunities and promotes success. Who wouldn’t want to KLOS?

I liked the line so much I painted it over my classroom door and for years thereafter all I had to do was point to the sign and the kids would nod and repeat the mantra KLOS; I was never asked the annoying questions again.

What does all this have to do with American recovery? As a nation we no longer KLOS. True we know new things – the younger the generation, the more facility they have with technology – that’s cool; somebody has to teach the aged how to use their phones. But they don’t seem to know much else.

When Alexis de Toqueville toured the United States in the 1830’s he noted, “There is hardly a pioneer's hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember reading the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” After the Revolutionary War, when our nation was engaged in public debates about the nature of our new government, essays written by Madison, Hamilton and John Jay appeared regularly (sometimes 3 or 4 a week) in newspapers in many of the colonies. These essays, which we know today as The Federalist Papers, were read and discussed by the population as a whole, but most folk now find them too difficult and Glenn Beck recently published a “translation” of the essays into simpler English (The Original Argument: The Federalists' Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century).

Do we really need that? Apparently we do. A recent study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress discovered that only 12% of graduating high school seniors can
Perform “proficiently” on an American history exam. Only 47% even passed the test. The same study showed that 79% of elected officials do not know that the First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing a state religion. Most colleges have dropped the traditional Western Civ survey classes in favor of niche courses like Gay and Lesbian Studies or Black History. According to testing done by the American Council for Trustees and Alumni only 29% of students graduating from the finest, most expensive universities in the land knew who wrote the Constitution. On the other hand, the same study showed that 99% could identify Beavis and Butthead.

 So, what do we do about it? We do what our founding fathers did: we educate ourselves and we teach our children.  True education has nothing to do with institutions. It has to do with caring enough about things outside of our selves to be curious. It has to do with fitting facts into that curiosity, with connecting those facts to each other. It has to do with a love for truth. Finding information is not difficult; we’re swimming in it. Books are cheap and available at the library, which also provides free internet access. KLOS.

Ok, which stuff? I’ve done a lot of thinking about that. Let’s all challenge our selves and our children to know about:
  • The basic doctrines and stories of the Bible -- whether you are Christian or not. Our civilization is built on the ideas taught in the Bible, our literature is replete with Biblical allusions, and our deepest assumptions about right and wrong reside there.
  • The most important Americans in our history – the issues they faced, the solutions they found, the decisions they made, the places they went, the wars they fought, the things they invented. Today we are repeating our worst mistakes because so few people know what they were; we’re not going back to effective solutions for the same reason.
  • The way things work – from capitalism to metamorphosis, from digestion to the internal combustion engine, from Congress to germination. KLOS.
Know about:
  • Language – English first. The average high school student has a working vocabulary of only about 500 words, yet the Oxford English Dictionary lists 622,000. Before you get judgmental about those stupid kids, the average college grad only uses about 20,000 of those words. We cannot know truth without language, and we can’t discern lies either.
  • Math and logic, which, like language, are skills more than bodies of knowledge. Truly educated people are capable of disciplining their thinking into objective, rational patterns. How are we to solve our national problems if all we can do is react subjectively?
  • Geography. It was Mark Twain who once said, “God invented war to teach Americans geography.” If he thought we were ignorant on that score a hundred years ago, he should see us now. A recent man-on-the-street interviewer had trouble finding a high school student who could list the countries with which we share a border. One of those borders could cost us our national sovereignty; seems we should know where it is.
  • The arts. All of them – music, painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, theatre, literature, poetry. These are the studies that humanize us, that civilize us, and many educational experiments show a strong correlation between involvement in the arts and increased learning. 

The truly fun thing about a list like this is that we’ll never run out of things to learn and everything about our wonderful nation will work better with an educated populace. It should be obvious to us all that institutional learning has major limitations, that learning only to meet a job description is narrow and dehumanizing, and that an ignorant population is easily manipulated.

Institutions are too cumbersome to change quickly, but not to worry; we don’t need them. We can learn on our own – most of what I know I learned outside of a classroom in spite of my master’s degree. Our children will learn because we do, and because we take the time to teach them. They are our children, after all.

I have two challenges for you.
1)    Pick a topic from my list and start learning about it. I’ve included this week a new book list of non-fiction titles that I’m sure you’ll find interesting, and when you find wonderful books, let me know.
2)    Add to my learning list. That was just the product of one tiny brain. What else should we know to make this nation great again?
Here’s to learning! KLOS.