Intellectual Hunger & Fear

December 29, 2007

by Tammy Drennan

In his excellent autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas talks about discovering the joy of reading for the first time. It wasn’t as a child, nor as a grade school or high school student. It wasn’t at the colleges he attended, not even Yale.

Instead, after getting hooked on WWII history by way of documentaries – well into his adult life, Justice Thomas grew hungry for more and began reading Winston Churchill biographies. He had done a phenomenal amount of reading in his life – serious, hard reading. But the joy only came with the hungry reading – the longing to understand — how could Hitler and the Holocaust and WWII could have happened?

Deep learning is the result of intellectual hunger. A person can be in possession of a tremendous amount of knowledge and still be intellectually empty. He can reach great heights of success and still be mentally sluggish.

A sharp mind, a fine-tuned intellect, is always searching, always seeking, always digging deeper, always curious and listening. It is intrigued by new ideas and equipped to explore and judge them. It is not fearful of competing or opposing philosophies, because it is free (maybe at last) of the artificial and presumptuous judgments of tests and grades.

Institutional schooling, especially the model the state has developed over the years and imposed directly and indirectly on the majority of Americans, is based on fear and is thus grossly limited in what it has to offer. All material must be testable and test results must carry consequences. Students dare not trust their own judgment about what they read. Students cannot stray far from the curriculum imposed by the school (by dint of lack of time, if nothing else). Fear kills curiosity. It kills boldness and joy. It overcomes even hunger, except the most extreme sort.

Not only must we free ourselves from the chains of state schooling, we must free ourselves from the model it has imposed upon so many of our independent schools. It is possible to become physically free and still be intellectually enslaved. If we settle for this, our freedom doesn’t mean a whole lot.

Once we take back our bodies and our children’s bodies from the state’s schools, we must reject the fear-based standard the state has used to define education and reclaim our natural hunger to learn and the normal ways of doing it.

That doesn’t mean hard work won’t be involved in learning, but it will be satisfying hard work, deepening and widening hard work, the kind that leads to the sort of knowing that induces excitement and potential, the drive to discover more and understand better.

The state model of schooling has scared our intellectual hunger into the dark reaches of our souls. Some are fortunate enough to stumble upon the hunger and to find the means and the confidence to satisfy it. For all too many, though, the hunger will cower forever in the shadows of their minds, the victim of a system that has beat it into submission.

Few freedoms are as exciting as taking possession of our own intellectual development. It’s a gift we can give our children from the start.

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