There is a limit to what blind obedience and a desire to please can achieve. I first remember encountering this limit back in grammar school. The cause of the collision was fractions.
It is easy to forget just how much of our early education had no particular point. For instance, there is no why to the alphabet. It just is. It is nearly impossible to really explain to a child why memorizing the alphabet will be useful.
To a child, the memorizing stands as a task by itself. Knowing the alphabet certainly does not teach you how to read. We were assured it was a necessary first step in learning to read and we liked to imagine ourselves reading like the big people. But the truth is we did it mostly because we were told to.
Being a fairly bright and very obedient child, gifted with a good memory, the alphabet was easy. I may have believed that is was necessary to reading, but I doubt if it meant very much. Far more important was the immediate challenge. Mastering it, I got to please the adults and show off at the same time. Perfect.
Same thing with the multiplication tables. If anyone tried to explain to me why 9 x 7 was 63, I don’t recall it. By then, we had already learned that the goal in class was to get the right answer. The answer didn’t need to make sense: It was the one the teacher liked. The tables were simply another thing that had be memorized.
It is possible there was more logic to it. I am sure I knew I could add 9 seven times and get the same answer (the right one), so if I memorized the tables I would save myself some time getting the right answer. And I had seen adults figure things out. Once again, I could imagine myself doing something like the big people. But beyond that distant use, I remember it as just another rote exercise to perform to please the adults.
Then came fractions. Fractions were not exactly easy and obvious, but I managed to combine what I could understand with enough blind faith to learn the rules and get through addition and substraction (remember common denominators?).
Multiplication, where you multiplied the top and bottom into a new fraction, lost the understanding part and pushed the faith to its limits. Still, you just had to do it. You still got the right answer.
But division broke the back. To divide one fraction by another you inverted the second fraction and then multiplied.
It was so bizarre an operation, so removed from anything resembling common sense, that it almost seemed a joke. Yes, you got an answer. An yes, it was the right answer. The teacher was pleased. But it seemed almost like some arbitrary test of faith. Just how ridiculous an operation could they get us to blindly perform?
More importantly, no matter how much the teacher might tell me that knowing fractions would be useful later, I could not imagine any sane adult doing anything so stupid as invert and multiplying. I had never in my life seen any adult multiply or divide fractions.
From one point of view, it was the first time I hit something patently silly that no adult I knew was able to explain to me. A useful landmark, as I was to encounter a lot more such examples as time went on.
But from another point of view, it was the first time I exceeded my own matrix and was asked to grow. I had met something with no feasible (in my eyes) application to the world I knew. I was being asked to change that world I knew by adding something foreign to it.
One of the dominant characteristics of the young, particularly adolescents, is their original discovery of the world. It seems to be a permanent human quirk that each generation knows that the world is a fresh discovery it makes, unique and never found before. Certainly not by those old poops, the adults. It is only much later that we discover the true universality of the human experience.
In my encounter with the essential lunacy of being taught fractions, I had reached a major fork in the road. Down one road, I could continue to passively accept ideas and tools from others that were more and more remote from what I knew of the real world. Down the other, I could become my own person, monitoring the information people tried to foist upon me, accepting only that which made sense to me and rejecting the rest.
Being a good Catholic kid being taught by the nuns, I opted for obediently accepting what I was given. I trusted that some day it might make sense, but for the day it was far more important not to tempt the wrath of God (not to mention my parents) by defying the nuns.
This was only the first time I met this fork in the road. I was to find myself facing the dilemma with some regularity. With hindsight, I can now see that in taking the coward’s way out, I was unwittingly accepting my role as a link in the chain of human inheritance. I was making myself heir to a vast and wonderful legacy.
The world I knew was, after all, pretty tiny compared to what life and more years had to offer. But even the greatest world that any single individual could ever experience over the course of a lifetime was tiny compared to all of that others of our species could and had experienced. If I confined myself to a world view that was based solely upon what I and those around me could personally see and apprehend, I would never be able to grow beyond that narrow place.
Isaac Newton once said that if he saw farther than other men, it was because he stood upon the shoulders of giants. But so do we all. The reason that we are not still wandering around the bush grubbing for food is because we are the inheritors of a gradual accretion of human wisdom built up over thousands of generations. All our tools, all our buildings, all our learning, all our civilization is the eminence we stand upon, able to see far.
By choosing the obedient (not to mention compliant) fork I innocently evaded a trap that would have dominated and devastated my life. Had I taken the other road, I would have condemned myself to essentially inventing my own culture. Abandoning your inheritance means that you have cut yourself off from all of the lessons of the past. Like an ignorant child, you are then forced to touch every different surface you meet to see if it burns.
To look out upon those that education has passed by (or who rejected education) is to see people who have no natural place and must invent one. You can look out and see them in their thousands and millions, modern day graduates from the school of The Lord Of The Flies.
Consider, at one end, the gang banger, armed to the teeth and locked in his own version of “everybody knows.” His method is all confrontation. He will get in your face and arrogantly declare the superiority of his understanding with, “You don’t know nuthin’.”
At the other you have the militia type, also armed to the teeth and locked into his government conspiracies. His method is camouflage. Stockpiling his ammunition and survival foods, he is a coiled spring, waiting for the discovery and challenge that will match his nightmares.
Among the things they have in common is an absolute belief that somehow they have been treated unfairly. They are the victims of some monstrous injustice where THEY have so twisted the system that WE haven’t got a chance except to defy the system and make our own way.
They lack any of the critical thinking that would allow them to recognize the contradictions in their own theories. They have no knowledge of history, so they cannot know how conspiracies of more than a few always collapse. They have no idea that the patterns they decry as new and deliberate have recurred again and again and are more a reflection of human nature than premeditation.
It doesn’t matter whether it is Chicano gangs or Neo-Nazi skinheads, black ghettos or suburban enclaves, the fruit of cutting yourself off from the human heritage seems to be the same. A sense of powerlessness, of vast forces keeping you from your due, of undirected, reactive rage.
Personally, the vast inheritance I have barely had time to more than sample is part of my definition. I do not see myself as naked and alone. I have not been forced, with my peers, to invent a whole culture from scratch. I am an heir of great estate, a wealth built by all of the humans that have gone before.
In some sense, we who share in that heritage are also the repositories of the hopes of all the generations who slaved so that their offspring might have better lives than what they had known. Each nursed that precious flame through all their years, tenderly passing it a little brighter from one lifetime to the next.
To miss all that or to reject it would do more than just leave us naked in the world. It would be to dishonor those upon whose giant shoulders we stand.