Thoughts come first. If we entertain them, they turn into attitudes and actions. Thoughts are also contagious. When they spread, they permeate a people and transform them. The United States came to be after philosophers like John Locke catalyzed it. “All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” These thoughts were Locke’s and the country they produced a century hence prospered until conflicting thoughts from Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and others slowed it down. During the last few years of my teaching career I emphasized how thoughts shape America, for well or ill.
Study of such thoughts and actions has shaped me as well. I’ve come to favor some philosophies over others and that affected how I viewed history and, in turn, it affected how I taught it. I strove for objectivity but felt compelled to disclose my biases to students early in the school year. No thoughtful person is completely objective and students should be aware of their teachers' biases. Because I wrote a weekly column published in local newspapers, my biases were out there anyway. I told them I was a Catholic Christian, conservative in both my religious and my political views. Then I taught them what the political spectrum was, then reduced it to one page and gave it to them for reference.
It also became necessary to disclose that I believed in objective truth - that there was indeed an objective reality that we humans perceive imperfectly. When I paused to feel out how that concept was sinking in, I realized before very long that I was preaching to the choir. Students not only understood, but wondered why I would take time and trouble describing what they considered so obvious. Of course there was such a thing as objective truth. They knew it intuitively. They were eighth graders and hadn’t been to college. This concept hadn’t yet been purged from their minds by pseudo-intellectual, relativist professors. They were uncorrupted.
It soon became apparent that, rather than debate the question of whether objective reality existed, my job was to prepare them for encounters with instructors for whom the only truth was that there was no such thing. I started by writing the word “philosophy” on the board, then asked them what it meant. Students offered answers like “The study of thinking” and such. Then I’d tell them to look up a formal definition, whereupon they’d tell me the dictionary.com definition: “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.”
“Okay,” I said. “Whoever wrote that definition has the same perspective we have - he or she believes in objective truth, right?”
They got that.
“If we didn’t believe there was such a thing as objective truth, we wouldn’t bother to pursue it, would we?”
Some looked at me as if they were disappointed that I’d be wasting their time teaching something they already knew, and I should have realized they’d be bored. “Bear with me, please,” I’d say. “America’s founding fathers believed in a Creator who had a purpose, however mysterious that might be. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century Americans did too. They believed they had a God-given right to pursue happiness as individuals, and they could practice any religion they wished in that pursuit, unimpeded by government and America prospered. The 20th century can be viewed as one in which that gradually changed.
My curriculum was twentieth-century American History, civics, economics, and current events. It was my intention that one of the over-arching themes during the year would be how seeds of conflicting philosophies begun in the nineteenth century, like Darwinism, which postulates that everything just happened for no purpose; Marxism, which declares religion as an opiate of the people; but especially nihilism, which purports that nothing matters; and relativism, which denies objective truth. All these would become dominant in the late 1900s when my students were born. As such thought patterns prevailed, Americans changed, and so did their country.
I was unsure at first whether fourteen-year-olds would be able to comprehend such concepts, but I needn’t have worried. They ate it up. When I “came out” as a person who looked at our existence quite differently from the relativists whose thinking dominated our age, most understood. Showing them how I thought, and why, seemed the most honest way to approach my job.
My column was, and still is, controversial - being as I am a minority conservative in a very blue state. Every week or so there would be a letter to the editor in one of the local papers critical of my views, or of me personally. Every couple of months I’d read a particularly vitriolic letter to each of my classes and watch their eyes widen. “Doesn’t that bother you?” a student would ask.
“At first it did,” I’d explain, “but after a year or so I started looking forward to letters like this because when I’m getting flak, I know I’m over the target.” Then I’d tell them the superintendent directed me to tell my students “from time to time” that it was all right for them to disagree with my views or what they thought my views might be - just like the letter writer did.
Inevitably, a student would say: “We already know that, Mr. McLaughlin.”