I “ Know Nothing”, Proudly

In the 1850’s, a political party emerged, flourished and faded. It was so virulent in its beliefs that members were sworn to secrecy. When asked about it, they would say, “I know nothing”, and, thus, the enduring name, ‘The Know Nothing Party”.

Passions are not new to American politics. In fact, opinions were kept on the boil, for a long time and for a purpose. The venues for contesting ideas were many. Cities spouted newspapers, pamphlets fell like leaves, street corners were at a high decibel. To be sure, even violence was a spice in the mix. What was unique to then and so distinguished from now is that people knew what they were talking about.

In the 19th Century, being educated, formally or otherwise, was a given. From 1800 to 1840, the literacy rate rose from 75 to 95%. In 2015, for comparison, the percent of proficient readers fell, in the US, to 37% and fully a quarter were below grade level. To get a real sense of how powerful the written word was look at https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/books-that-shaped-america/overview.html From 1800 to 1900, books and the time allotted to read them, shaped the country. This list is especially interesting as it admixes noble works, i.e., Frederick Douglas, with those whose flaws would be incongruent today. The point reinforces Marshall McLuhan’s clarity that the message is the medium.

Reading permits a tension to develop around ideas. Hundreds of pages replace 147 characters. Time forces you to think and not react, the very opposite of the basement dwelling, Chucky Monkey tainted, bathrobe clutching, screed.

What we learn really does determine who we are. For centuries, the Western Canon was our bedrock. The Canon is the collection of high culture works of literature, music, philosophy and works of art that have achieved that status of classics. The works were drawn from many cultures and civilizations and achieved that status of “canon”, a work that derives from the Greek for “measuring rod”.

For some pre-eminent literary critics, most notably Harold Bloom, the Canon is immutable. He makes a strong case but, in practice, it has been remarkably dynamic and hardly a relic of bias or a singular world view. In the 20th Century, it has expanded with feminist writers, African Americans, Africans per se, Asian, North African and Latin writers and thinkers. It is this inherent diversity and makes it so shaping a force. The central issue is if being widely read has asset value to the society.

By any measure, elementary and high school US education fails, both in the absolute and relative to other countries. The systemic reason, I believe, is a return to the atavistic Know Nothings. You needed to know only what you believed. Not only were any ideas contrary to that belief rejected, but the level of knowledge about the very ideas you supported are kept both narrow and shallow. We have substituted being a student for being an advocate. Knowledge has became personal and lost its inherent utility to educate. It just feels too good to be passionately ignorant.

We have become “certain” and that is a barrier to wanting to learn. We use selected facts as chips in a morality poker game. We see those who have different facts as lesser people. Tribalism is not limited to race or class. It is just as separating when a belief system is encased in concrete. Most unsettling is the conflating of a particular belief with other “characteristics”. It is a dangerous brew when the national flag is captured by one group or reviled by the other. When ideas transform into being symbolic, we hold on to them far more tightly.

It is exciting to learn and wonderful to be wrong. This is what keeps us intellectual young. When we are not adventurous in our learning, we lose the capacity or need to create. If technology becomes the only thing that we look forward to as “new”, we are in for a very disappointing life.

Finally, reading cannot become the province of the “ elite” classes, leaving the rest of us with the bias of any “ media”. Reading a book is a transforming experience. We are carried away in ways that any screen cannot duplicate. We become more secure within ourselves and less dependent on what we are told. We soon see our commonality, wherein we were once focused only on the difference.




Professor of Medicine , essayist, practitioner, basic research and education ; reflections on medicine and modern society

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Joel B. Levine MD

Joel B. Levine MD

Professor of Medicine , essayist, practitioner, basic research and education ; reflections on medicine and modern society

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