SONNY SCOTT: The knowledge in the tale of the fish

It was just before sunup, a summer day in the early fifties. We were making our first visit to see Mammy at her new home in the Delta. Mother and Daddy had milked early, bundled a sleepy pair of kids into the back of the old Chevy, and set out. I had never been 30 miles from home, so I was keen with anticipation. Dawn began breaking as we entered the flat, enchanted, mysterious Delta. Just east of Webb, as we crossed Cassidy Bayou, the ruins of an earlier bridge to the north caught my eye. I absorbed the scene: glassy water, mists wafting lazily upward, massive cypress trees – and right in mid-stream, the v-shaped wake of something with a dorsal fin.

“What did you see?” a friend asked as I related this story.

I don’t know. From what I have since learned about the fish of the region, it seems unlikely that it was any of the larger fresh water fish. Gar, catfish, carp, etc., grow to great size, but don’t usually swim with fin exposed. I’ve since learned that some varieties of shark will swim upstream in fresh water, but it seems unlikely that one would tread the labyrinth of waterways required to reach this point in the interior.

Did I see anything?

If I had been older, I would suspect that I had been victimized by an overactive imagination. But I was about six at the most, and had not begun to read beyond the Dick & Jane level. I had never seen a television, and the few movies I had seen were westerns. I didn’t know about sharks.

Did my later learning trick me into projecting such an image backward onto my memory of that bayou in the morning mists? It’s possible, but whether it is a composite or complete illusion, that scene is as vivid in my mind as anything else that

I’ve ever witnessed.

When I was about to graduate from college, my teacher force-fed a brief study of epistemology – the philosophy of knowing. I was impatient with the whole thing, and the papers were useless. I was eager to share my new learning about history and economics and had not a clue as to the extent of my ignorance.

“What is knowledge? How is it acquired? What do we know? How do we know what we know, and why do we know it?” These are topics worthy of consideration at the beginning of a would-be teacher’s preparation, rather than an appendix at the end of it.

Karl Marx spent his life trying to write an explanation of how capital, workers, and the industrial system worked.

Despite ample opportunities, he never bothered to study or talk with capitalists, workers, and if he ever set foot in a factory or mill, the incident was unrecorded.

The only worker he ever had any contact with was his wife’s domestic servant, who was never paid a single penny (other than board) for her lifetime of service. Historian Paul Johnson said of him, “He was not interested in finding the truth but in proclaiming it.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a book, Emile: or, On Education that has influenced western ideas on childhood and education for nearly 250 years. Trouble is, he never spent any time with children, never taught them, and though he bragged of his affection for them, if he ever spent any time with or gave notice to a single one, it was not noted by him or any of his contemporaries. In fact, he would not abide his own. He forced his common law wife to abandon each of five children to a foundlings’ home as soon as it was born. This doesn’t stop his ideas from showing up in modern educational theory, however. Every time you hear the term, “child-centered education,” think to yourself, “Yep, Ole Johnny-Jack is still doing to kids what Karl Marx did to workers.”

We know how sound and reliable knowledge is obtained. Systematic observation combined with insight suggests a hypothesis. Tests are designed to confirm or discredit the hypothesis. Results are published so that others may confirm or discredit the results. So reasonable, but even after four centuries of scientific progress, the forces of reaction repress and intimidate scholars. The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil remains forbidden.

SONNY SCOTT is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at

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