By Ken Stokes
It’s back! September, that is. For time immemorial, the ninth month of the calendar year was also the start of a new academic year. Although the calendar year is 2022 anno Domini, today’s academics might be better described as 2 anno Covid.
While in-class learning has resumed for the most part, many aspects of education are not remotely back to the pre-pandemic paradigm, and let’s not forget that the state of education pre-pandemic was hardly rosy. A nationwide teacher shortage, denigration of teachers, censorship, soaring education costs, inadequate funding, bureaucracy, antiquated facilities, the trend to devalue in-person instruction (the list goes on) are daunting challenges. Yet, arguably, the single greatest threat facing education in America today is the enthusiastic embrace of anti-intellectualism by a sizable and very vocal segment of the American population.
The word ‘educate’ is rooted in Latin and translates roughly as ‘to lead out.’ Out of the darkness and into enlightenment, a fact-based, never-ending process which expands knowledge, broadens horizons and forces a person to constantly evolve his or her view of the world.
The whole point of education is to expose oneself to new experiences, environments, people and points of view to learn something one doesn’t know, not to repeat the same information incessantly or reinforce one’s beliefs. The opposite of education is not merely close-mindedness, it’s willful ignorance. Born of fear, cultivated in grievance, empowered with condescension and lacking any anchor in facts or reality whatsoever, this New American Anti-Intellectualism is some really toxic shit. Knowledge truly is power. Ignorance might be bliss, but it’s still ignorance. Any way you slice it, ignorance will limit one’s options. And what you don’t know can certainly hurt you.
In Ketchum, in any given year, hundreds of kids attend a school named for bon vivant, adventurer and Nobel Prize-winning writer Ernest Hemingway—a former short-term Wood River Valley resident (and permanent long-term occupant) whose life and work is the intersection of:
The need to immerse oneself in the act of living on a global canvas, and
The desire and skill—genius, really—to share that worldview first as a journalist and then through literature—an art form that, at its best, creates a reading experience that transcends plot.
No doubt the school’s name was intended to be not merely a memorial but a beacon. The Hemingway narrative – the scope, color, innovation, achievements, influence – is extraordinarily seductive. It’s the kind of story that could easily inspire an individual to plunge headfirst into life as a means of crafting his or her best self. It’s also a very human story. Will it be easy? No. Will it be complicated? Certainly. Will it be unique? Authentic? True? One would hope so. After all, who would want to craft a life that was essentially a fiction?
Well, so-called ‘reality’ television, in combination with a celebrity-obsessed culture, is who. And it’s manufacturing a small army of influencers who at best possess absolutely no substance and demonstrate no real curiosity; at worst these influencers put the most repugnant of Hemingway’s characters to shame.
What Would Papa Write?
Hemingway is perhaps more relevant now than he was in his lifetime. The Nick Adams Stories tackle the crushing effect of PTSD, Up in Michigan is perhaps the first piece of literature to graphically portray date rape. Ban all the books you like, but realize a teenager who has read and processed Up in Michigan may be a bit less likely to unwittingly become the victim or perpetrator of toxic masculinity.
Hemingway is generally misused by the education system. His novella The Old Man and the Sea is wasted on teenagers and rarely read by those who need it most: middle-aged, middle-class people grappling to make sense of the seemingly arbitrary nature of life. The war novels, despite their revolutionary prose style, are wonderful, but arguably no greater than those of any number of literary luminaries (hard to beat the Russians in the war novel competition).
For my money, Hemingway’s most revelatory and relevant work is The Sun Also Rises, a cautionary tale with a dazzling cast of characters headlined by a eunuch and a slut. It delves into the issues of entitlement, excess, pettiness, betrayal, manipulation, self-delusion and general vacuousness that are at the core of what is currently America’s best-selling political brand.
I strongly suggest that if you are going to reside in the Wood River Valley, you should school yourself in ‘Papa.’ PBS’s American Experience profile of Hemingway (streaming and DVD) is a fascinating documentary that celebrates the man’s genius and his very human foibles. Read his work. Revel in the art of literature. School yourself on a legend worthy of the title.
And if self-appointed ‘beacons of all truth’ try to school you or fool you with fancy airs, slick talk, long legs and ‘alternate facts,’ feel free to tell them all to go educate themselves.