When my husband was in graduate school his professors often invited him and a select few of his classmates to discussions at their homes. He took me along as an observer and the experience was delightful. Sitting in a small circle among people with brilliant minds reminded me of the Parisian salons of great authors, artists, and philosophers who ultimately influenced the world with their creative inventions.
I usually sat mutely listening to the parlay of ideas about society and history. I was like a child with a big bowl of delicious ice cream lapping up the collective knowledge that hurdled the conversations forward. Many times the more experienced professors served as foils for the graduate students, asking them difficult questions, challenging them to defend their positions with logic and facts. I reveled in being present for such a glorious confluence of ideas.
I learned about the cultures of ancient societies and the ideologies of modern day political thinkers. The students and their professors debated the very structures of how we humans choose to live in different parts of the world. They discussed the good, the bad and ugly of society, often finding flaws in the most admired civilizations and glimmers of brilliance in those most feared. I began to realize from those intellectual soirées that we humans have been searching for the best way of living since the beginning of time. I saw that even my great American democracy was founded by colonial intellectuals who forged a Constitution based on their studies of other great thinkers about society.
Like the students of those informal convocations that I attended there have always been groups of people focused on open dialogue about human efforts to forge a way of living that creates better opportunities. Because we are each individuals with differing needs and desires the odds are fairly certain that we will disagree on what an ideal way of living should be. Thus from Socrates to Jame Madison to Karl Marx humanity has debated the possibilities of how best to live together. In all likelihood the discourse and disputes will continue until the end of time.
We should not fear controversial ideas. Nor should we want to study only a watered down propagandized form of history. The more truths that we know, the better we will be to make our own informed decisions about the issues that have plagued societies since the beginning of time. Unraveling the red thread of civilization is sometimes smooth and sometimes knotty, but always essential. It may frustrate us to face ideas outside of our bubbles of comfort, but having an open mind actually makes us stronger. We don’t have to feel guilty about the transgressions of our ancestors, but we should all want to learn from them. If the founders of the United States of America had been unwilling to question the status quo we might still be members of the United Kingdom.
I truly love the Advanced Placement courses that my grandchildren took while in high school. I enjoyed the lively conversations I had with them as they breathlessly told me about things they had learned. They widened their perspectives without being propagandized. They learned how to consider the pros and cons of a challenging situation. They had to see the world from many different perspectives.
Now that they are in colleges in different parts of the country they are learning about new cultures, different American experiences. Their professors are challenging them the way my husband’s professors confronted his thinking and asked him to consider views beyond the narrow constrictions of his upbringing. They are growing and becoming the kind of citizens that the world needs for the future. They excite me with their evolution as they use their new found knowledge to parse ideas with deep analysis rather than emotion.
We sometimes fear that if we or our young are exposed to philosophies contrary to our own that we will be filled with guilt and confusion. I have found the opposite to be true. We become better able to discern the difference between lies and truth. We develop confidence and trust in a society that allows us to see reality as it is, not just as we wish it to be. Nothing makes any of us more angry than learning that facts have been purposely hidden from us. While honesty might initially be painful, it ultimately makes us feel more self-assured.
I wish I could find a group like the one I sat with so long ago. I always felt the essence of what it means to be free in those sessions. I cherished my citizenship most when I saw people saying shocking things and not being imprisoned or silenced. The mark of a great democracy never lies in hiding from our divergent ways of thinking. It is to be found when we are not afraid to speak our minds or even to walk away. I want our young to know that kind of freedom.