January 23, 2012

Learning To Think

In going through some very old files while getting ready to move, I came across two things that meant something to me: One, a sketch I’d done of John Cabot in the late 1960s and, two, essays I’d written for my civics teacher in grade nine at Slausen Jr. High in Ann Arbor, MI.

I sketched a lot growing up and was sad when, having moved to Arizona for health reasons my senior year of high school, my mother threw out my art work. To her defense, there was quite a pile in the basement of our Iowa house. The two years I was at Maurice-Orange City High School (my sophomore and junior years), I took Drawing; and this consisted almost entirely of sketching classmates very quickly. We might go through five or six models in the course of one hour. I suppose, if I were my mother, I’d have given the whole stack a toss, too. Still, I’ve often wondered how good I was. And so discovering “Giovanni Cabot[t]o,” I was surprised to see I’d developed a serviceable skill at least.

My second satisfactory find was a sheaf of essays written for my ninth grade civics teacher at Slausen Jr. High in Ann Arbor, MI. I’ve always credited him for teaching me how to think.

He did this by handing off a list of famous quotes and requiring weekly opinion essays utilizing one of these quotes. “Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you” sort of thing. And so we’d write, he’d rebut, we’d rewrite, and he’d rebut our response. A single essay could go back and forth several times before being accepted, and not until he felt we’d sufficiently clarified and articulated our position. In this sheaf, I became intrigued by an essay using Thomas Jefferson’s “All men are created equal.”

“All men are created equal,” I began, quoting Jefferson in his preamble to the Declaration of Independence. “But what does it really mean? I believe that when Jefferson wrote this, he meant that all men were born with the desire to have liberty, an opportunity to live, and to seek happiness.”

I went on in what is clearly a very un-Republican way of thinking with respect to government. The government needed to afford opportunity for everyone, I wrote. Not just the lucky few. My teacher's rebuttal was extensive. “Why should the government supply these opportunities? What status is there in being a ‘mere working man’? If liberty is inalienable, how come some are taken away—or never granted by some governments? Why does democracy tend to not try to take them away, but rather to protect them? Or does it?”

I struggled to clarify. “It is up to the government to supply jobs, or how would anyone earn a living? The country would rot away. It is up to the government to keep it strong. One way to this is to have jobs for everyone.”

He pushed back. “Why can’t the government merely see that private industry is prosperous enough to have jobs for all? Isn’t this what we want?”

I had to rethink my position. Finally, I wrote: “I think it’s up to the government to create an environment where job opportunities abound and where everyone can earn a livable wage.” I remember being pleased with myself, the clarity ringing clearly in my brain. I’d gone from vague to specific. Government providing jobs, no, but an environment for jobs? yes—two very different things. This teacher not only taught me how to think—but how to say it.

I’m approaching sixty. These essays and drawing are more than forty-five years old. Do I throw them out? They’ve served their purpose, I know. I can’t imagine anyone else being interested. But still, their discovery reminds me of who I am. An serviceable artist. An articulate thinker. What if I forget? I am pushing sixty.

I think, if it's okay, I’ll hold on a bit longer. Maybe when I approach eighty, I’ll discover them again. And again be surprised.

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