By Sonny Scott
It is fashionable to heap terms of opprobrium upon the defining icon of the 20th century culture: television. As it has been utilized, TV deserves the scorn heaped upon it. As it might have been utilized, it contends with the printing press and religious fervor for the title of “Most Wasted Resource of Our Time.”
While unwinding by casual channel surfing, I happened upon a PBS program about William Bonney, aka “Billy the Kid.” Through the masterful use of image manipulation, interviews with scholars, journalists, and assorted advocates, a “portrait” of a complex man in a chaotic era was created. Entire books on the personalities, the economic upheavals, and political changes in the Territories would have to be digested to capture the sense of time and place meeting dynamic individual conveyed in a single 60 minute program. What a powerful tool!
Of course, the efficacy of teaching via such a medium depends on the learner bringing a lot to the table in terms of factual knowledge and analytical skill. Scholar and advocate tend to blur and dissolve one into another. A certain detachment is necessary to keep one from being led by propaganda. Still, the potential of the medium is awesome.
The desire to bring order out of chaos and simplicity out of complexity is the seminal impulse in the quest for knowledge. Beginning with the “why” and “where did” questions of childhood, this desire has spawned our most prominent institutions – universities, organized religion, and empire among them. I recall my sense of relief and empowerment when the old leather-bound AV was described as “having the answer” to all my questions. So, all was known and recorded – hence accessible when my reading skills developed. What a sense of empowerment!
It didn’t work that way, of course. I discovered the narrative to be incomplete, and sometimes contradictory. Nevertheless, I gained a basis of understanding, a window of reference from which to view my world.
If education’s goal is to simplify, it has been a dismal failure. Every educated man I know has gained an appreciation for the fact that reality is more complex than our childhood nightmares imagined. Was Billy the Kid a homicidal maniac with anarchist sympathies, or an authentic folk hero supporting a beleaguered and powerless people against the tide of a changing economic order? Seems to depend on who’s telling the story, but I have to believe that truth is not subjective.
The history buff experiences a chill of déjà vu as he recognizes the same ambiguities in other heroes/villains: William Wallace, Oliver Cromwell, Bonaparte, and Nathan Bedford Forest – to name a few. The student of political science can appreciate the same dialectic as he ponders the careers of Jefferson, Hamilton, and FDR. The social scientist must envy the mathematicians and logicians their privilege of stating their axioms and testing their conclusions. Real life, as any canary owner knows, gets messy.
As I view an anthill or a bee colony, the activity therein seems choreographed – almost machine-like in precision. I wonder what it’s like on the level of the individual ant or bee. Maybe we are too close to our society and its institutions to accurately discern its patterns and order. Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” remains one of history’s best inquiries.
“Civilization is a journey, not a destination.” The statement has been attributed to almost everybody except Billy the Kid. Apparently it’s one of those aphorisms so self-evident that legions have uttered it independently of others. It is the destiny of humankind to continue the quest, to strive for order and beauty, to seek understanding. There are the giants among us on whose shoulders (like Newton) we stand – the likes of Galileo, Einstein, et al, but it will be the lot of most of us to wash the beakers, weigh the samples, sweep the floors, build the equipment, transport the supplies – hewers of wood and drawers of water, as it were. Enlightenment for us may come in flashes of inspiration, or in miniscule accretions of knowledge. It is the journey that is our life and our glory, not our destination. Lower forms of life pursue goals bringing immediate satisfaction, but to work tirelessly at goals to be realized by our posterity generations hence is the ennobling and defining virtue of humanity.
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.