Sunday, March 14, 2010

Textbook Tyranny in Texas!

"If we are so timorous of ourselves, and so suspicious of all men, as to fear each book and the shaking of every leaf ...if some who but of late were little better than silenced from preaching shall come now to silence us from reading, except what they please, it cannot be guessed at what is intended by some but a second tyranny over learning." ~John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644

Conservative factions of Texas' Board of Education recently announced a revamping of its textbook policy, mandating that content delivered to school children reflect the conservative values possessed by a majority of Texans, with an emphasis on Judea-Christian principles championed by our nation's founding fathers.

Well, some of them. Thomas Jefferson's enlightened thoughts, musings and questions, which arose from his profound curiosity, would be eradicated from Texas' textbooks and students would not be permitted to appreciate that there was great debate in the beginning and aftermath of forming our nation's identity. The founding fathers represented a diverse group of men, who constantly re-evaluated their thoughts, tested their principles and endeavored to consider equal, all forms of religion, freedom of speech and exchange of new ideas.

John Milton was before their time, and never set foot in America. But he was a revolutionary. The famous English poet and essayist of the 17th century, and practicing Puritan, was no stranger to censorship and thought control. He lived in angry and revolutionary times. Decades after kicking out the Catholic Church, Protestant England sought to control all publications through its chief agency of censorship, the Stationer's Company.

If Milton were today's Texan, how would he react to this news? Would he be for the Texas textbook decision? In very simplistic terms,one might think so - the Puritans were the Renaissance version of the Tea Party movement. They were against big government, were suspicious of the liberal arts, and preferred to live plain and wholesome lives, practice their faith, and have direct participation in their governance. They viewed the English monarchy as excessively hierarchical, and the state religion, the protestant Anglican Church of England, as corrupt and full of needless pageantry. If Milton were a Texan, one might assume he'd be the Matt Drudge of his day, blogging furiously to advocate the return of the state to the people.  Well, think again!

Today, Milton is remembered as the poet who wrote the great Epic poem, Paradise Lost. Few realize, most of Milton's early notoriety and written work was issued in the form of self-published pamphlets-the 17th century's version of the modern blog. He lambasted what he observed to be crooked governmental excess. He wrote about controversial topics, religion, and revolution, and during the reign of Charles I, did so anonymously for fear of serious (execution) retribution. He was difficult to shut up. To look at him in the few austere images of him that exist, in his plain Puritan-like garb, one might assume he was a virulent ideologue, an at all cost  champion who mixed up the political Kool-Aid of the day and served it convincingly.

But as ardent as Milton was with his personal religious beliefs, he did not preach, advocate, or practice intolerance. As Milton ventured into written communication he was horrified to find that getting anything published in England required state/church approval. He was disturbed when fellow Puritans, when they assumed control after the regicide of Charles I, tried to control society in a similar fashion.

The act to control printed material and censor heretical ideas was, in itself, heresy to Milton. Staunchly protestant, Milton nevertheless devoured everything he could get his hands on - all tenets, all history,all points of view. Fluent in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Italian and English, Milton committed to memory original texts not tainted by the slant of dubious translators. He appreciated the old with the new, weighing the classical lessons with modern literature and opinion.  He read everything! More importantly, he wasn't afraid to yield to his unquenching curiosity by reading everything!

Any position Milton eventually adopted was proclaimed after a full investigation and solid course of academic study of all sides in debate. By doing so, when Milton would argue his point, he did so convincingly, with facts at his disposal. Few could match his wit and method. Those who vehemently disagreed with him still tipped their hat in respect for the manner in which he presented his positions.

Ideas other than his own - those materials that the ruling power regarded as controversial, subversive or heretical, fueled his curiosity and bolstered his credibility during civic debate. As the Puritan movement gained momentum, eventually causing England's most enduring revolution and regicide of King Charles I, Milton was initially encouraged by a new day when intellectual freedom would reign instead of kings. The commonwealth, led by Cromwell, would finally serve the people!

Reality did not play out as Milton might have hoped. When the Puritans gained power, absolute power corrupted absolutely.  Censorship began anew and the Puritan leadership was as intolerant as the Anglicans they had replaced. The Puritans shut down theaters, were suspect of most entertainment and freedom of expression, and imposed their culture and way of life on the entire population. One evil was replaced by another. One extreme replaced another - and rational thought in the middle had few defenders.

Milton detested the micro management of expression. A physically demure man who was going blind, he treasured every form of written word and understood the power packed in language. Milton's personal faith was so resolute - he did not feel threatened by the beliefs of others.  He argued passionately and reasonably for the inclusion and availability of all thought, even heretical opinion, for the "whole people."

His message to censors: What are you so afraid of? If you live your life by your standards, if you are true to your tenets, why should you be worried about those who think differently? Shouldn't your faith provide ultimate protection from heresy?

Milton's famous essay, Areopagitica, still taught in law schools today, is a freedom of speech masterpiece. His reasoning is well-positioned and warrants a modern audience. Milton writes that censorship ultimately has the opposite effect in a society- that suppression of creative thinking and expression breeds rebellion, and removes the ability to choose freely.

"A man may be a heretic in the truth, and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the Assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy," Milton wrote.

Censorship, he continues in Areopagitica, "hinders and retards the importation of our richest merchandise, truth."It is the greatest discouragement and affront that can be offered to learning."

Milton argues that if societies wish not to be comprised of "backwater scholars" then citizens need to hear all sides of debate and thought. If not to agree with other points of view, then at least be familiar with them, and be able to talk intelligently about them.

Part of learning and expanding one's mind (and I would argue, to be intellectually competitive), is "to be still searching what we know not by what we know," but what is still out there to be discovered. Milton recognized the need, and encouraged his readers, to move forward to the "light which we have gained was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things."

In his epic poetry, Milton expanded on characters familiar to all Christians. Adam, Eve, God, Christ, and Satan.With his extraordinary and well-fed imagination, Milton created complex and multi-layered protagonists and antagonists.These characters have intrigued scholars and students for four centuries. The reason Milton is still read, studied and admired today, is because he included real life conflicts and ideas into his stories and plot lines. Milton could write about evil because he studied it. Christ's rejection of Satan's temptations in Paradise Regained, is all the more compelling when Satan is explained and understood. If your faith is above reproach, then nothing ought to threaten it.

On the face of things, 10-gallon hat notwithstanding, Milton could have been a Texas kind of guy. And while he might agree with Texas' endeavors to maintain a wholesome, conservative, back to basics lifestyle, he would likely decry the Texas method of trying to get there.  Milton would view their Board of Education as yet another institution using censorship to further a singular educational, cultural or theological agenda.

There was no place for censorship in Milton's world. The vast reservoir of philosophies filled Milton's mind with incredible visions and passages - ideas swirled inside his brain and illuminated his vision, so that when his eyes finally did fail him, this plain and simple revolutionary, was able to compose his masterpiece in total blindness. He had access to every point of view. He worked diametrically opposing philosophies into his drama. Milton drank no one's Kool-Aid!  He grew his own tree of knowledge, with many branches, rooted in in the soil of objectivity and fertilized by study. That tree fed his brilliance, his angst, and cemented his expertise and enduring respect. Letting it all in for consideration never damaged him, except perhaps to his eyes.

But with physical sight removed, Milton continued to see and appreciate the spectra of voices that brought enlightenment. He did not fear the exploration of diverse thought nor the exchange of ideas. He advocated the seeking of not one singular truth, but of finding light in the common truth of many.

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