Growing up, the most important things I remember learning in school (most important from the educator’s point of view, rather than my own) was religion and history. In a country that is like an epileptic, every now and then having a fit of zealous religious movement or historical import, it could hardly have been otherwise.
But the religion I was taught – a child-friendly (not in that way!) Catholicism, full of hellfire and rituals that made me dress up in navy-blue, ill-fitting suits – was cut-off, a million miles so, from the world I was to grow up in. It was an out-dated morality and, what’s more, it was insufficient in explaining the complex world I was to be raised in. History no less short-changed me. Yes it was crucially formative to learn of the Neolithic temples and Baroque palaces that emblazon our island nation, of the Knights who apparently ruled us so benignly, and the British who, well, were alright, but we did well to be rid of them. And whilst I can only speak for the Maltese educational system, I suspect (minus the over-zealous religious focus) it is much the same in other European countries.
The history we are taught is sensationalist. As if our education was sponsored by CNN. We learn about the Second World War, yes, the Cold War, colonialism; and we get a good cry out of the millions that died and were enslaved, fair enough if that rocks your boat. And I wouldn’t for a moment suggest we oughtn’t teach those milestone events. But those powerful events, formative and iconic as they are, do not teach us who we are, how our society functions, what its principles are – we are growing up like fish out of civilized waters.
Why am I writing this now? Because that very civilization is currently under threat. Both from without and within. There are many fundamentalisms on the rise in the world today. They are surrounding us in a pincer movement worthy of Genghis Khan’s hordes. The enclaves of Western society are being diminished by skirmishes from Islamism, Salafism, Chinese Communism, Russian expansionism, American Christian fundamentalism, and fascism. These ideologies are a threat to the way we live. A threat to the basic values upon which everything else depends.
And yet, all these external shades of barbarism would not have been the threat they are if we were more confident in what we are defending. We are victims of our success. The notion of tolerance – which goes against so many innate natural instincts – is one of mankind’s greatest progression. And tolerance leads inevitably to enlightenment, integration, a melding together of cultures, ideals and values. But it seems, and I really do hate to have to observe this, that our laudable lust for tolerance has lead to an identity crisis.
So, when Islamists attack our cities, we blame ourselves for not being tolerant enough. When Chinese-sponsored poachers annihilate whole stretches of wildlife in Africa in order to make outdated, archaic medicines, we tolerate that culture’s ‘alternative’ lifestyles. When Saudi Arabia builds Mosques that flaunt extremist teachings in our own backyards, we excuse their right to privacy, after all, the Bedouins got good oil. And when Putin declares open war against Ukraine and homosexuals we tense and remind ourselves that war is good for absolutely nothing (seems to be good enough for Russia).
The problem harkens down to the integral one of education. The enemies that I have mentioned (and I neglected to mention farcical North Korea or insidious Pakistan) know who they are, and their children know where they’re growing up. Children in Saudi Arabia are taught exclusively Wahabi ideals and are growing up in an (exclusively) Wahabi society. Chinese children learn of Chairman Mao and Confucius. In Russia children learn of the Tsars and then grow up in a society still run on Tsarist ideologies. Our ideological, economic, political enemies are self-assured, irritatingly strong and dangerously faithful.
What about us? Just now, you are already thinking, I am sure: “if you’re saying what I think we’re saying, what will we teach our children?” Therein lies the existential crisis we face. Ask a thousand Westerners and you will get a thousand responses. Some would say we are a civilization indebted to Christianity, others democracy, some might argue for a particular event, like the French Revolution, or even capitalism. And those are all wonderfully important, of course, but they are too broad, too diverse. Islam is united by the Quran and Hadith, Chinese Communism by Mao, the far-right by Hitler and Mussolini. What are the thoughts and ideals that universally underpin our society?
“Man is free the instant he wants to be.”
“It is better to risk sparing a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one.”
“To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties. For him who renounces everything no indemnity is possible. Such a renunciation is incompatible with man’s nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts. Finally, it is an empty and contradictory convention that sets up, on the one side, absolute authority, and, on the other, unlimited obedience.”
“It is solely on the basis of this common interest that every society should be governed.”
“Freedom is a gift from heaven, and every individual of the same species has the right to enjoy it as soon as he is in enjoyment of his reason.”
“To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.”
“There cannot any one moral Rule be propos’d, whereof a Man may not justly demand a Reason.”
“Doubt is the father of invention.”
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
“It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
“Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble, and I believe truer, to consider him created from animals.”
Do you know who spoke those words? The minds that formulated these ideas are as important to us as Muhammad is to Muslims. These elegant, powerful thoughts are the roots from which everything we cherish blossoms. They are the quotes (respectively) of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Galileo, and Charles Darwin. That you don’t know these fundamental phrases is no fault of your own – who has ever taught them to you? But it is a great plight on our civilization are growing up ignorant of the men and women who made their lifestyles possible.
I don’t think, with the right teachers and the right methods, these lofty ideas are beyond the grasp of children as young as 8. Teach them in a playful, interactive manner, by all means, let them have fun, make them ask questions, give them homework to look up pictures and quotes of those giants, upon whose shoulders we all stand!
When they grow up they will know what’s right and what’s wrong. How will they? They will be able to reason it out. I realise my imposition may sound somewhat dictatorial, ‘we must teach this to our children.’ And that is an oxymoron in all I’ve been saying. But, I am confident in saying because the main ideal, notion, truth, that those philosophers and scientists will teach them is to doubt, question, fear despotism, hate injustice and fight against oppression. When they grow up, they will be confident in resisting the parasitic inroads being made by those ideas that we cannot tolerate.
And above all, they will grow up appreciating the freedoms they are so lucky to have. They will make the most of it. It will drive them to travel, love, laugh, wine, dine – let them endeavour in, as Thomas Jefferson spine-tinglingly phrased it, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”