A Purpose-Driven Life

Once upon a time over the portals of the fabled Library of Alexandria were chiseled these words: “The Hospital for the Soul.” This majestic phrase captured for all times the eternal dream of the pure and unfettered pursuit of knowledge and our need for quiet places like schools and libraries to find repose in renewing the spirit.

Amidst the confusions of this distracted world, the Greeks never lost sight of thinking about the larger issues of life and its ultimate meaning. We must not lose our way amidst the obsessions of the moment, they warn us, for in turning a blind eye to the concerns of our humanity, we court our destruction.

The school and all that it stands for are now under siege for its very soul. 

Paideia, that noble dream of classical antiquity in the transformative power of education, the belief in self-enhancement through knowledge, the single-mindedness in promoting the common good, and an aware citizenry about political charlatans, this enduring legacy is struggling for survival in these darkest of times.

The 19th-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt referred to a coming age of “terrible simplifiers” that would crush these ideals. We are now in that age, with the school especially vulnerable in being taken over by the toxic mentality of those with no understanding of a school’s meaning and purpose in liberating the mind from all forms of hatred and bigotry.

They reject the search for truth and the things of the spirit and would replace them with the ignorance and intolerance of White supremacist dogma, a betrayal of what education has always embodied since the Greeks.

The truth will make you free, but it may not always make you happy, and it may even make you uncomfortable, which is always the sign of growth and abandoning the delusion of “possessing the truth.” 

Is there any hope for the moral regeneration of our nation when some Congressional GOP leaders, state legislators, and governors institutionalize a national amnesia about historical truth in avoiding a long-overdue reckoning with our national racism? 

Rather than denial, what we need from these leaders is honestly confronting this sickness in providing moral leadership as apartheid South Africa did in the 1990s. Their bellowing silence, however, speaks volumes about these leaders in high office. 

Many are disappointed but not surprised that these “profiles in courage” have not already offered a strategic vision for lasting peace and reconciliation between our two races by having not at least tried to convince their followers to confront our national demons to seek moral rebirth. Instead, they have rejected the only lasting solution to this tragic malady — a national examination of conscience. 

This dismissal of the brutal treatment of the Black race in American history from being taught in the classroom must also be seen within the framework of that other GOP outrage of voter suppression, the very embodiment of its disdain for Black voters, minorities, and democracy itself. 

These politicians would rather that their party steal its way to power because they know that cheating is the only way they will win.  It used to be called “losing with honor” rather than “winning with disgrace,” but that was a long, long time ago.

Suppressing the historical truth in schools and the votes of Blacks and other people of color are two different forms of the same censorship in the cause of enshrining a White racist supremacy in a nation that was once a welcoming beacon of hope to all of humanity.

When Whites think about race, they think as Whites because they have never endured racial hatred and discrimination. But if they had suffered the same enormities as Blacks at the hands of a non-White population, they would see the country that enslaved them in a much different light.

A little role-play, however, evokes compassion and empathy, magical elixirs that are good for the soul and can transform one forever! As the ancients well knew, it is not logic that softens the heart, but pity.    

Fortunately, many Whites today do understand what Blacks have endured in this country for centuries to the extent that any White person can understand this. They deeply sympathize with their Black citizens and are appalled at their fellow Whites, who even to this day are still consumed with such unaccountable hatred. 

They realize that it doesn’t matter what color a person’s skin is because we are all human beings with a common destiny when we all, indeed, shall be equal in very fact. They affirm our common humanity, no matter one’s race or ethnicity.

What is hard for them to comprehend, however, is why all Whites cannot see this. They feel a moral obligation to promote peace and good will between the races, while living in a country where, almost 160 years after the Civil War, Black Americans still find it impossible to vote in many parts of our country or even to have their story told to America’s schoolchildren, as it is routinely told about the Jewish Holocaust.

One hundred and sixty years, and the hatred and bigotry continue among those who take enormous pride in being God-fearing, righteous, church-going people!

I am reminded of those words in the Good Book: If a man says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? (1 John 4:20)

There is a psychologically astute observation by the Roman historian Tacitus about hating those whom one has injured because of the guilt one feels at having injured them, which, naturally, makes one feel “uncomfortable”!

Tacitus was characteristically much more laconic, Proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris. It is human nature to hate someone you’ve injured (Tacitus, Agricola, 42).

All of us are here today and gone tomorrow, and we sometimes forget what we are doing and what it all means. What will be our legacy? When the final curtain falls and we are resting in our graves, would some be exultant to have these words on their gravestones: Here lies one who tried his best to make America a Hell for Non-Whites?

Image: History of Yesteryear

Frank Breslin is a retired high-school teacher in the New Jersey public school system. Read other articles by Frank.