I have never heard that before." The student's face was a study in incredulity - echoed by several others in the classroom who hadn't summoned the courage to speak.
We were studying the Age of Exploration, during which European traders and colonists groped their way down the West African coastline, established sugar plantations in the Canary and Azores islands, and eventually "discovered" and began to exploit sea routes to Asia and the New World. The textbook section in question concerned the role of African leaders as a main source of supply to the Atlantic slave trade.
"That just can't be right," Mr. Dubious continued after I confirmed the text's account. "What did they do, sell their own people? That's stupid." Several heads in the class nodded in agreement.
A brief outline of the role of tribal and state warfare in the West African slave trade followed, but it apparently remained implausible to many students. They couldn't wrap their minds around the concept of Africans enslaving other Africans - despite the abundance of similar examples throughout the history we had previously studied. When I pointed this out, they remained unconvinced. Somehow, for some reason, in the scope of human history the authors had got this part all wrong.
I understand the reason behind the disbelief. The intrusion of reality into the neatly compartmentalized myth of the slave trade as involving only white European villains and innocent African victims was bound to create disquiet. It always does. This is the place where real education begins: countering misinformation and ignorance of fact; a too-common task when one speaks about the history of western civilization.
Too many students today have grown up in a world where Spanish conquistadors, though lacking a germ theory of disease, committed genocide using smallpox. Where "separation of church and state" is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution - which was written by rich white men to perpetuate their hold on power. A world in which capital accumulation and investment are unknown; where wealth isn't created, it just is. Where the United States was the first democracy on Earth, and where, before he got his first real job as president, who knows how Abraham Lincoln made a living. To be fair I haven't yet heard that he was a vampire hunter, but I fear that's coming.
It's not the students' fault. They aren't dull, they simply haven't been told. Today's educational system proudly focuses, we hear repeatedly, on "higher-level thinking." Analysis is a large part of what is being taught. So is "evaluation" of material. "Facts" are usually of secondary importance, dismissed along with the historical record as an artifact of the historian's prejudices. So it's entirely possible that the "Robber Barons" held up stagecoaches and trains in the Wild West, as was suggested to me. It's all in how you look at it...
But facts are not secondary; they are central to any useful knowledge. Reality is the ravening wolf at the door. It will howl and scratch, and if it finds its way in, the results will be ugly for those unaware of its carnivorous proclivities, or who have chosen to disregard the unpleasant implications of such instruction. Ignorance, willful or not, is deadly; only a willingness to recognize that which is, insures a chance at survival.
This is more than an academic problem. Both today and for the foreseeable future, the prosperity of individuals and nations rest on a workforce that is well-educated and aware of the nature of the world. But too many young Americans are neither. Products of a fact-averse educational system, they live in a world where effort, not results, counts; where how they feel about their surroundings and themselves is paramount. Where the doctrine of equality means not that each citizen should have access to the political and judicial systems, but that each person should have their heart's desire, regardless of ability to pay. And where no one should have too much. That isn't "fair." This is a world that has never been, and will never be; even St. Thomas Moore, who created the genre of Utopian fiction, realized it was a mirage.
An educated person is aware of the failings of such visions, but if the facts of the past aren't taught - its triumphs, tragedies and its truths about what works and what doesn't - everything is new again for the young, even that which has proven many times to end in tears. This neglect lays the foundations for inevitable frustration and anger, as reality refuses to conform to the theoretical and the ideal, to the mythology of victims and villains, the exploited poor and the evil rich. It is poisonous and must stop, before it's too late.
If it isn't already.
Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.