July 12, 2010

The More you Know...

Today, friends, I take a much-needed break from rambling incessantly about teenaged vampires. This may be because my shame finally caught up with me, but I will choose instead to lend it to the fact that I have succeeded in diving back into the Common Reading Exam List.

This past weekend, I got through the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I will admit first and foremost that I don’t have a great deal to say about this book. To me, it is a landmark piece about a time in history that is now not much more than painful memories and curling yellowed paper. Slavery was horrendous, of that there is no doubt. This book must have gone a long way towards proving that to individuals of the time and perhaps even individuals of a generation or two after the time. However, to me, modern liberal-minded girl that I am, it just is. I don’t feel more intellectually enlightened having read it (though I ate through it like it was a pound of chocolates… except without that bloated guilty feeling afterwards).

I suppose I should at least try to say something scholarly and insightful about it despite my current difficulty with thinking DEEP THOUGHTS. A few things did strike me. The first of which being that Douglass’ most salient simile for slavery was to piracy; the hard-won fruits of an honest man’s labor are then heartlessly and cruelly taken from him so that the thief may prosper. The pirate image stuck with me and has left me really pondering it. Doubtlessly, this simile is a romantic notion, but perhaps that judgment is simply my modern mind projecting anachronisms onto a dated piece. Still, I can’t help but imagine that Douglass was a man to whom pirates were all but myth. What I mean by this is that Douglass would never have met a pirate, even if they were perhaps more common in his world than in ours. To him, pirates (though very much real), were fictional characters and figures in stories told by his fellows rather than day-to-day realities.

Douglass was a highly trained caulker and worked on shipyards for many years, both before and after his emancipation. This nautical-centric life he led may also lend insight as to the curious choice in analogies. Perhaps putting things in terms of the sea came more naturally to him as this was how he lived his life. Perhaps the shipmen around him were so full of such analogies and stories as to pepper his speech and mind with images of the ocean. Perhaps this notion of the formation and source of Douglass’ choice in imagery is as romantic as the imagery itself.

A second thing which was prevalent to me throughout the narrative was the dichotomy between men and beasts. A “good slave” is essentially a man turned into a beast; a savage, someone whose sole focus is work, someone who has been stripped of any higher notion of hope for his life. Most importantly lacking from these beast-men is education. In a curious and fortuitous amalgamation of circumstances and ingenuity, Douglass was able to learn to read and write while still a slave. This knowledge, one comes to understand, is what drove him forward in his pursuit of freedom. With it, he could not ignore what was around him: that he was a man and thereby should be subject to the same freedoms as any other man. After all, he was capable of higher reasoning. Clearly there was no difference between him and the white street urchins so pivotal to his ersatz education. Despite this, Douglass himself admits several times that he wished he could return to ignorance. Once enlightened, there was no way for him to forget these lessons and thereby no way for him to be satisfied until he had attained absolute freedom.

“Knowledge is power”, certainly, and to me Douglass’ realization stands as a powerful statement about the importance of higher education. While something as simple as literacy could empower Douglass to understand his own innate worth as a human being, in modern times an individual must stretch further to find this empowerment. When my parents graduated from college, they could begin careers with merely undergraduate degrees. The fact that they chose not to speaks towards the values of my family, but that is besides the point. As the job market becomes increasingly competitive, education as a whole becomes devalued. In these times, it is well near impossible to get a high-paying career-type job without a Graduate Degree. Certain fields do bend and/or break this rule, and there will always be exceptions for extraordinary talent, but as a general rule getting one’s foot in the door increases with ease in direct proportion to the number of degrees one can list at the top of one’s resume.

While higher education is certainly vital for job-hunting, it is equally vital to the improvement of the human spirit. In school, we do not simply learn about books and formulas, we are also working towards the ultimate goal of expanding (and growing into) our potential as human beings. If literacy could unlock this for Douglass, think of the compounded factor of less fundamental knowledge on the human psyche. We learn about the world and we learn about ourselves. As the world devalues our education as it stands, we must counter with greater degrees of education to expand our worth and potential.

….as I read through this it sounds like a public service announcement. Coming from someone who does teach college and hopes to continue doing so in the future, it also sounds like a desperate plea to keep myself in a job. While I can’t deny the validity of either of these thoughts, I will also ask you to consider more deeply the value of your own education. What did college teach you? Okay, fine, what did it actually teach you? I can nearly guarantee that what you really learned had little to do with what the piece of paper on your wall tells you that you learned.

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