I don’t hate my English teacher.

A few days ago, I read an internet discussion that talked about how English is taught in schools. Several people felt the curriculum stifled them, the teacher didn’t recognize their intelligence, and that the stress contributed to their unhappiness.

I’m sympathetic to this line of thinking about the past. If it’s not English it’s physical education. Or history. Or math. Despite a great deal of intelligence, teachers seemed to get in the way. The bad grades weren’t my fault, it was a stupid set of requirements and rules that didn’t make sense. Disappointing grades caused conflict with my parents. Why would you do this to me? I could teach this class.

Although I’m sympathetic to that reading of my academic past, it’s not true. And I don’t hate my English teacher. The assignments I didn’t do may have not been the most engaging and the books I didn’t read may have not been the most important. Digging deeper into my younger self, it becomes clear.

I didn’t hate my English teacher. I hated my adolescence.

Adolescence is both a traumatic process and one every single person has to go through. The perpetrator isn’t someone I trusted or a playground enemy I despised. Biology- it was biology. There’s no good way to get mad as adolescence. It’s incorporeal. I vented at other people. My parents, my teachers, my peers, random strangers on the internet. I vented it at walls, pinecones on the street. The exception was myself, I didn’t hurt myself, I knew too many who did. Even today, when a friend wears short sleeves,  the tell-tale scars on her arms are there…their way of fighting something that didn’t come out and stand solid to attack.

Living in my mid 20s, crisis takes a different form. A friend’s mother dies suddenly. Another has to go homeless for a few weeks to scrounge up rent money.  Yet another struggles with domestic abuse and develops a drug problem. It all is real, serious, and terrible to them and those that they love. It happens sporadically, though. Someone falls then gets back up again. Then another takes their place. Overall, most are doing okay. When I was thirteen the crisis was now, and everyone I knew was in the same situation. Maybe a bit better, maybe a bit worse. Maybe finishing the crisis, maybe just starting it. It was a warzone.

I don’t hate my English teacher. I hated everyone.

My English teacher gets an ex post facto amnesty. For all imagined crimes committed against me. For allegedly not recognizing my talents. For getting me in the kind of trouble I needed to get into and get through.

I don’t hate my English teacher. I hate thinking about my past.

Sorry, you’re a part of that past. I can’t take back my past anger- the things I said and the much larger, darker bank of things I thought. The most I can do is rehabilitate you and your reputation. Over time I’ve come to think that the worst jobs are those where you have to see people on the worst day of their lives. Bailiffs, abortion clinic workers, homicide detectives. Though you may not be in that tier, you’re close. Every day you walk in to the classroom. At least half of the class is bullied. Some have been sexually assaulted. A couple think about killing themselves at least some of the time. Maybe a few are starting to develop a substance addiction that will stick around for a long time. Nevertheless, you showed up several times a week and tried to make us all give a shit about the English language. A Herculean effort if there was ever one.

I don’t hate my English teacher. I’m just glad that they didn’t hate me.

They didn’t hate me.

Dead people’s baggage

Louis Michael Seidman, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown, wrote earlier this year a book entitled On Constitutional Disobedience. His idea- that the Constitution is a lead weight for present society- was summed up when NPR asked him to give an  elevator pitch outlining his thesis:

“There’s no good reason why we should be bound by decisions made hundreds of years ago by people who are long dead, knew nothing about modern America, and had moral and political views that no sensible person would hold today.”

The appeal to tradition logical fallacy emphasizes that tradition and history proves certain arguments and practices correct. Arguments against same-sex marriage, or for school prayer stress the long cultural opposition to the former, and cultural favor of the latter. But this appeal doesn’t use reason or modern relevance, leading to broken and unfair societies. The above link urges  “until people question the logic and reasoning behind such traditions, people who are negatively affected by such traditions will continue to suffer.  Just because it was acceptable in past cultures and times, does not mean it is acceptable today.”

Doug Stanhope, a foul-mouthed political comedian, once opened a bit by declaring ideas like patriotism and heritage “dead people’s baggage.” Due to social inertia, present society is unlikely to radically change its institutions. The question then arises- what can be learnt from the past, and what is merely that lead weight, the baggage of long-dead people.

Therefore, the past is divided into what is presently useful, and what is archaic and without use as a guiding principle. Here are some possible dividing lines

  • Wisdom consists of teachings that have universal insight, and do not age as society moves forward. The wise writings of Lao Tzu, the Stoic philosophers’ appeal to moderation and virtue, and history books that warn of excess, tyranny, or catastrophe. Wisdom can be very short- perhaps a short poem- and perhaps many books are a mix of wisdom and 
  • The Archaic are teachings that have been broken or only rarely have present use. They can be combined into good, modern ideas- but only with an appreciation of the context and the language used.
  • Baggage are things dragged along which lack relevance and clarity. They may inhibit justice without bias, or contribute to discrimination and bigotry.

The Constitution is a mix of all three. The wisdom of the First Amendment, or the lack of a religious test for office, or the parts making sure that states cooperate and recognize each other’s laws all bleed into the present. The unusual and archaic language in the Second Amendment has led to a present culture deeply confused about the role of guns. And the baggage of a contingent of white men, many slaveholders, is there. And why do we give them more deference than a modern day believer in racial inferiority? At some point, “of their era” is no longer an appropriate excuse.

Thomas Jefferson is one of the founders of American political philosophy, and his words are frequently true. But why follow his ideas on economics and taxes? He could barely keep his massive slave estate  from default and didn’t understand why he had such massive debt.

One should be careful with relying on the thinking of people born before the Rights Revolution, or the Industrial Revolution. It can only be so relevant, and to bring it into the present is just being a bellhop for dead people with antiquated ideas.