I was never a big fan of the Bushes, though I did meet Barbara Bush at a luncheon when I was named a White House Distinguished Teacher back in 1990, so I was sort of partial to her and her particular devotion to literacy and education. It was in June, right after her tour de force commencement address at Wellesley College in which she showed, to an initially skeptical student body, that ardent feminism and fierce independence is not at odds with duty to family, kindness to others, and respect for differences.
Recollections of that Washington experience, of Mrs. Bush and her wicked sense of humor, of her white hair and Kenneth Jay Lane pearls, came back to me as I watched the funeral service for her on television a couple weeks ago. Other First Ladies have made significant contributions during their husbands’ tenure as president, of course, but as eulogists pointed out repeatedly, her efforts to bolster literacy in this country became a life-long passion, one that she was still actively pursuing just weeks before she died. Barbara Bush knew the power of words, and she held a steadfast belief in the power of literacy to safeguard democracy and to make America a stronger, healthier, more prosperous society. As she wrote in her 1994 autobiography, Barbara Bush: A Memoir, “After much thought, I realized everything I worried about would be better if more people could read, write and comprehend.”
Amen to that!
In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year was “post-truth,” a term that describes a situation in which facts are less influential in shaping opinion than emotion and personal beliefs. It implies an inherent disregard for experience, expertise, scientific research and objective facts. In other words, throw out the principles of The Enlightenment, which have dominated Western thought and progress since the 17th Century. Forget any historical or cultural context through which to evaluate current events —we don’t know history anyway, don’t want to study it, and don’t want to admit that there might be lessons to be learned from it. We are, all of us, firmly fixed in the now: we are our own experts, our own “citizen journalists” on social media, our own arbiters of the truth. We are all equal, and we are all entitled to our own opinions.
Except we’re not, and deep down, everyone knows that, which is why so many people are angry and disgruntled. No wonder our level of national discourse has sunk to new lows; it’s hard to have an “enlightened” conversation with people who eschew the basic values of The Enlightenment. It’s hard to follow the narrative with people who don’t want the facts to get in the way of the story. And for that matter, it’s hard to have discussions with other Americans who seem to have abandoned all concepts of civility, respect, truthfulness, graciousness, decency, and honesty — what were once known as “traditional American values” — who can only counter with insults and vitriol.
When I was teaching (back when I won that award) and we had classroom discussions, often heated, and classroom debates, always structured and defined, students would sometime dissolve into “everyone is entitled to their [sic] own opinion” when their argumentative skills and their skimpy facts failed them. And I would always counter that, “No, opinions formed in ignorance without foundation are worthless. You may hold them, but please, don’t foist them on the rest of us.” Today, all these opinions are foisted all the time on everyone, and frankly, it makes me tired. Like Barbara Bush, it makes me worry and fear for the future of our democracy. Ignorance born out of youth and inexperience is one thing; every teacher, like me, has made it a life-long quest to combat that kind of ignorance, but willful ignorance, sustained ignorance, ignorance in adults born of hubris, anti-intellectualism and infatuation with self disgusts me, because that sort of ignorance operates only to subvert and exploit others. And so yes, go on and call me an “elite.” If being highly-literate, well-read, well-educated, a published writer and an English professor puts me in that category, then I am proud to claim membership.
Don’t tell me that people, intelligent people, reasonable people can’t tell the difference between “fake news” and real news. Of course they can! Propaganda, which is basically sound bites disseminated to convert and persuade, relies on repetition much as advertising does: if you repeat it often enough, people believe it and it becomes “true.” Spin news, circulated among the “faithful” who only watch, read, listen to, or adhere to what they already believe or want to believe, is known as “confirmation bias,” which means there is never any dissenting version or opinion to be received in the delivery. And news slant, meaning a network or newspaper’s leaning toward liberal or conservative viewpoints, or with great effort and resolve toward balanced non-oppositional poles, is for the discerning reader/viewer — the one Barbara Bush hoped to educate and elevate through literacy so that he/she could be informed and make reasonable, informed decisions. That’s the reader/viewer I spent most of my life trying to cultivate, both as a writer and as an educator, and that is the reader/viewer I still try to be by exposing myself to a wide variety of news sources and editorial opinions, even the ones I deplore. This is the bulwark of the first amendment and the fourth leg on which our democratic government depends.
So back to Mrs. Bush. She was the First Lady in a transitional time, less tumultuous perhaps than our own, but still difficult. Yet, she recognized the importance of words and championed the value of an educated, literate population. Truth is not elusive; it is there, and it is not impossible to recognize, if only people will embrace it.