Tea and Empathy
By David Henderson
[BTW, I almost made it to the top of Half Dome. Last year, I was intimidated by the series of steep switchbacks just preceding the cables at the top. On Saturday, I got to the switchbacks, felt intimidated again, had a nap, woke up feeling better, and made it to the top of the switchbacks. That’s a personal best. Then I saw a traffic jam: the wait to get up the cables was at least an hour and waiting around would have caused me to get back down in the dark. Veterans of the hike said they had never seen such a jam. In all, I walked 20 miles that day, because we took the John Muir trail on the way down. Maybe next year. Thanks to those of who sent best wishes and encouragement.]
I’ve been following the discussion of the tea parties, intellectuals, etc. (here and here.) Here is my two cents worth, an excerpt from the education chapter (Chapter 16) of my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey. Here it is:
I’m convinced that that is why so many millions of people associate learning with pain rather than with the pleasure that accompanied their first learning in life. In fact, I think the standard school setting turns the classroom into the intellectual haves and have-nots, creating a distinction where one doesn’t exist. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Orris, divided the class into the Eager Beavers and the Busy Bees. Within seconds of hearing who was in each group, everyone in the class, beavers and bees alike, knew that the Busy Bees were the “slow” learners and the second-class citizens. But, being a member of the Eager Beavers, I was strongly tempted⎯and I didn’t resist the temptation⎯to think of myself as superior. For the remainder of my school career, and part of my college career, I carried that way of thinking with me. Those who did well in classroom settings, I thought, were intellectually superior to those who didn’t. Along with it, I held the view that working-class people weren’t intellectual, and I thought of myself as an intellectual. I could have easily gone through life with that view. But, thank goodness, something happened in the summer before my last year of college that changed my thinking on this dramatically.
At the start of that summer, I hitchhiked to Thompson, Manitoba, a mining community in northern Canada, to get a high-paying blue-collar job because I wanted to make enough money to pay for my last year of college. I ended up getting a job as a diamond driller’s “helper” in an underground nickel mine at Soab Lake, 40 miles from Thompson. About 300 men worked in this mine and lived in the adjacent mining camp and, with two years of college under my belt, I was the most formally educated person in the entire group. I am a very social person and I wanted interaction and conversation. These, therefore, were the people I had to pick from. So within a few days, I was sitting around with these guys, ranging in age from 18 to 45, arguing about the upcoming provincial election, the wisdom of the socialist party’s proposed government takeover of the auto insurance industry, and various other political issues. I learned quickly that many of these people had reasons for their views and could argue them, and that they weren’t noticeably worse at making their case than most of the students or even many of the faculty at the University of Winnipeg. The main differences were that they were blunter and put on fewer airs, and that some wanted to line up hippies against the wall and shoot them. (Some of the U. of Winnipeg students agreed about the firing squads, but wanted the guns aimed at capitalists instead of hippies.) By the end of that summer, I had concluded that the population cannot be divided into an intellectual class and a nonintellectual class; instead, I concluded, everyone is to some extent an intellectual. The college professor is an intellectual who, it is hoped, applies his intellect to his teaching and research. The skillful auto mechanic is an intellectual who uses logic to eliminate various possible causes of an engine’s failure in order to narrow it down to the actual cause. Everyone is an intellectual. Compulsory schooling has robbed millions of people of the knowledge of their intellectual birthright.