I love learning. You could even say I crave it. I lust after knowledge the way a “normal” man lusts after a beautiful woman, an exciting football match, a cold beer, or a fast car. I find it appalling how quickly we demean education in this country. The United States has grown more and more anti-intellectual as the years have passed. Al Gore, as should be clear to all by now, did not lose the election to George Bush. Gore won the popular vote, which is the only truly democratic vote in national elections in this country. Sad to say, we maintain a system in this country whereby the democratic vote is cast aside in favor of the elitist electoral college. Still, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Gore actually lost. It’s obvious why, yes? He was far too intellectual for the tastes of most Americans, who distrust scholars, who fear knowledge, who abhor education.
I sit down with my daughter sometimes to watch her favorite cartoon, and I try to keep my hands on the remote the entire time, so that I may mute every commercial break. I missed one once. The remote had fallen between the cushions and could not be extracted quickly enough. Consequently, I saw a commercial for flat, pocket-sized toy cars. And how did the ad company chosen by the manufacturer of this particular toy, choose to promote this product? By depicting children sitting in a boring classroom, of course. Unbearable atmosphere. Yet once the exceedingly dull teacher turns his back, two clever boys remove their cars from their pockets and have a grand old time as the crowd goes wild. Once again proving that school is a waste of time, teachers are morons, and kids will always maintain the upper hand so long as they focus on what really matters in life – fun!
Fun comes in many packages. Allah’a şükür! I imagine no more joy in a one-size-fits-all form of entertainment than I would expect to find in a Happy Meal. How dreadful the world would be if it all came down to this: a Ford in every garage, a Starbucks on every corner, a McDonald’s in every school, English on every channel, a Bible in every home. Personally, I prefer watching a good sumo match over a Nascar race, but that doesn’t mean I would force everyone to watch one rikishi force another out of the ring when viewers could instead watch their favorite soccer team, tennis player, golfer, or just turn the bloody TV off and go for a walk, play with their kids, or work in the garden. Homogeneity is the height of tedium. Trust me on this one.
And yet … and yet. What’s so wrong about reading a good book? What is so wrong about finding a book “good” to begin with? Why can’t a book be fun? Sexy? Exciting? Thought-provoking? What am I saying – books are all of these things and more. Much more. My daughter came home from school recently and said, “Baba, you’re not going to like this…” My faced cringed. What this time, I wondered. “I hate to ask,” I said, “but go ahead and tell me. What am I not going to like?” She grinned. “I don’t like books.” I tried to joke about it. I tried to shape my expression somewhere between stern and stolid. With very little prodding from me, she admitted that a popular girl in school had been bad-mouthing books. And school. And learning. While of course life cannot get any better than Hannah Montana, silly bands, and left-over Halloween treats. I sighed, nearly defeated, and did my best to offer my daughter … a different perspective.
Why is it so easy to belittle learning? I have often declared to my students, when poised precariously on my classroom soapbox (oh, come on – tell me you don’t pontificate from time to time in the class!), that a life without learning is not a life worth living. I truly believe that. Which makes me … what? Silly? Dim? Boring? If it’s not on Wii, then how can it be worth doing? So maybe that is the next stage – school on Wii! Okay, maybe I am not kidding. With the capacity for amazing graphics and fantastic interaction, video games could easily be designed into Discovery channel-type explorations into the past, where the player “walks through” the tomb of King Tut or the temples of Angkor Wat or the monoliths of Stonehenge. I’d be one of the first to give it a go. Why not? Why shouldn’t popular technology be used to “educate”? … So long as we don’t call it “education,” for fear of turning people away.
When did “education” become a bad word?
Still, we have to keep our sense of humor about us, don’t we? What’s the point if we can’t laugh at ourselves from time to time. God forbid we ever stop laughing! The more seriously we take ourselves, our cultures, our beliefs, the easier it is for us to cross over from patriotism to nationalism, from pride to arrogance, from enthusiasm to extremism. So in keeping with this mood of self-effacement, I wanted to share this brief quote from Aziz Nesin in a story entitled “When was Şermendi Born?” In this story, we read about a phenomenal scholar who is writing the definitive study explaining how the poet Şermendi was not in fact born on 4 May, as had previously been assumed, but somewhere in the night between the 3rd and 4th of May. This scholar spent fifteen years working on the first volume of this momentous work. God willing, he will complete the second volume before he dies. Which would be useful, since the first volume really only covers the point that Şermendi was not born on 4 May.
You’ve got to love satire.
The character in the tale who is explaining all this, and who clearly has nothing but great respect for the “scholar” working on this multi-volume masterpiece, declares:
Bilgin demek, herkesin bildiği şeyleri, hiçkimsenin bilemeyeceği biçimde yazabilen, beş kelimeyi beşyüz sayfa uzatabilen adam demektir. Bir bilginle, bir bilgisizin ayırımı işte budur.
Which I would translate:
To be a scholar is to be able to write what everyone knows in a way that nobody can understand. It is to be a man who can stretch five words into five hundred pages. This is the difference between the scholar and the fool.
Who says men of learning can’t poke fun at themselves? … We just can’t win public office. At least, not when a cowboy is the opposing candidate. After all, this is America, ain’t it? Who here doesn’t love a well-armed tough guy who can barely speak, who rides a horse, and who blows away the bad guys in a dichromatic land where everyone is either good or evil? Ah, the joys of a simple, uncomplicated life! A life without books and schools and teachers. Wouldn’t we all be better off if all them there no good for nothing scholars would just pack up their books and mosey along back to wherever they come from?
Lord love a duck!