My father once told me that education is a process where, on a yearly basis, the teacher corrects the lies you were taught the previous year. I can see much of the truth of this, both in my experiences as a student and as a teacher. It’s not so much lies, usually, as necessary dumbing-downs, which are removed later. The algebra I teach to high school students isn’t a lie; it’s just a very, very small part of a specific kind of algebra. The lie is presenting it as Algebra when really it’s just an algebra. In philosophy, it’s somewhat more subtle. Take a statement like "Kant was an idealist." Is it a lie, or truth? Some philosophers argue that it’s true, others that it’s false. Would it be more reasonable to present the situation as "there are idealist and realist readings of Kant"? Sure it would, but then you’d have to delve into it, explain how the realist reading works, in the process going above some heads, and then leave your students with an uncomfortable feeling of ambiguity. This isn’t what you want in an intro class, and the idealist reading is so much more natural, and easy to explain, that you just go with it. Then the student gets to grad school, and one of two things happens. Either he finds himself still unable to comprehend the realist reading — because for 4 years he’s associated Kant with idealism — or he feels like he was somehow lied to or misled. It’s really unavoidable, though.
I mention this by way of explaining some problems with the teaching of history. We teach history in a simplified, black-and-white manner as well, pretty much content for students to learn key phrases, knee-jerk associations ("Bismarck=German Unification"), and some important dates. That there are subtleties and ambiguities to historical interpretation doesn’t really belong in a basic history course. The student later might learn some of these interpretations, and similarly either reject them as impossible because they conflict with his knee-jerk understanding of history, or feel he was lied to.
There are also outright lies we tell because the truth would be far too hard to explain. Explaining the Holocaust is one thing — but how can you teach a room full of high school students about normal, everyday Germans going along with it? So, you talk about propaganda, about official secrecy, about keeping the information away from the people. This is all nice and plausible, but completely false. Not only were the horrors not a carefully held secret, but the German government was producing movies portraying the murders. Normal Germans — folks kind of like your neighbors — were going to the cinema for a fine evening, and watching Jewish women being raped and then strangled to death. There was no sense of shame, no fear of an uprising if the secret got out — the people went along with it willingly! It might very well be impossible to explain this to children, who haven’t yet had the ideas of revolution and personal truth drummed out of them.
There was more to the production of these movies, though, than simple entertainment. It’s not just that the people liked seeing Jews tortured, and so they wanted to attend movies showing it. Putting such things into movies has a few effects. First, it creates the effect among the population that, well, other people accept it, and so I should go along too. More importantly, it fictionalizes it. We can deal more easily with inhumane things in the context of fiction than we can when they are presented as facts. Then, once we’ve seen the fictionalized version a few times, we are desensitized, and can deal with a factual version more easily, even support it.
Putting something into a movie, a fictional form, also makes it okay to discuss. This was the case, for instance, with Minority Report a few years ago. This movie was critical of a truly monstrous idea — preemptive arrest. Of course, preemptive strikes are also monstrous, but that’s another story. The problem was, the movie pointed to a particular problem — the computer that does the predictions making a mistake, and someone being arrested who wasn’t going to do the crime. It avoided the larger problem — that the entire enterprise was indefensible. In so doing, it opened up discussion of the pros and cons of the idea as a conversation civilized people could have. Leaving the movie, people felt free to debate whether or not it would be a good idea, to what extent it could be perfected to avoid mistakes, etc. Without the movie, these people would have never even discussed it, they would have known immediately that it was wrong. By fictionalizing it, you can discuss it — after all, real people aren’t getting hurt, only characters in a movie, right?
In a related development, a new movie is coming out soon. The plot line that follows is what I gleaned from a coming attraction. A man steps off an international flight, and is approached by airport police. The officers inform him that they have an urgent message for him from his wife. Concerned that his wife might be in trouble, he goes with them — and immediately has a gun in his face, and a hood slapped over his head, his hands and feet shacked. He is then flown to a foreign country for torture, while his wife struggles to find out what happened to him, where is his, and how to help him.
The problem with this movie is obvious — it isn’t fiction. This is happening, for real, to real people. I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the very reason the movie was made. At present, when we hear about cases like this, it’s in a newspaper or, more likely, online — in a factual setting. We are hearing about it as a real event. When this movie comes out, people will be exposed to it in a fictionalized setting. This will desensitize them, and people will be less concerned about this horrific practice. People will even be able to leave the theater, discussing the pros and cons of it — it violates human rights, but on the other hand it makes us safer (safer from what? Certainly not from government…) — and after all, it’s easier to have this theoretical conversation about the fictional treatment of a movie character than it is about the actual treatment of a real live person.
Germans managed not to go down in history as the people who ate popcorn while their countrymen were slaughtered. Will Americans be remembered for eating popcorn while discussing torture, for eating overpriced candy and considering the complete abolition of every idea of liberty and freedom on which their country was founded? Surely this would be a bizarre, but fitting, end to a country that sold its freedom for safety.
Joshua Katz, NREMT-P [send him mail], is the newest member of the mathematics faculty at the Oxford Academy, Westbrook, Connecticut. He has studied philosophy of mind, logic, and epistemology of economics from an Austrian perspective, and is a former graduate student in philosophy at Texas A&M, as well as holding a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He still holds the title of Chief of EMS for the Town of Hempstead Department of Parks and Recreation, and will return to full-time service there in the summer. He enjoys a glass of port and a wedge of Brie, but has discontinued this practice on a regular basis, due to the sugar content of the port.