Gladly We Learn and Teach

Gladly We Learn And Teach is slogan of Illinois State UniversithyI always liked our university’s motto, but in an age of purposeful ignorance I’ve come to appreciate it even more.

Inspired by Chaucer’s Clerk, the motto means we bow to evidence. It means we understand the present and future by learning history. We will learn science, and weigh the claims of economic interests. We will embrace art, and find joy in human expression. And it means we are all richer for sharing what we learn.

“We” includes everyone: faculty, staff, students, citizens and visitors, men and women, genderqueer, deep scholars and wide-eyed children.

But today we live in a country where science and art are on the chopping block, where super-rich men play golf and talk about who they can exclude from the American dream. Where religious leaders try to take us back to the days when men claimed divine commission to decide what was true.

Our country is in thrall to a gospel of short-term gain. It reminds me of that story about killing the goose that laid the golden eggs: “Can’t we just cut the bird open? All those golden eggs are inside!” But that is is not how golden-egg laying geese, or society, or life, work. Those golden eggs are a product of the care we lavish on the goose.

Chaucer’s Clerk was not wealthy; in fact he lived in a way that was quite out of step with his times. But a whole society of people who are glad to learn, and glad to teach? That’s a different story.

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George W Bush speaks to Trump

GW Bush in his art studio
Photo NY Times

Many of my friends are upset by the thought of George W Bush offering advice for #45. I understand that really well; it was Bush’s opportunism in Iraq (body count, 1m and counting) that pushed his party onto my Never list. The man was a terrible president. And yet…

Not completely terrible. He was very specific about religious freedom, then and now, reminding Americans that Muslims are not the enemy. In contrast to his VP he was very quiet during the Obama years. He took AIDS very seriously. He did not attempt to shut down the press then and supports a free press now.

Do these things outweigh Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo? No. There is simply no absolution for what he did. But here’s a moral exercise for the rest of us: can we detect some good in a person whom we despised? Should we? Is there value in leavening words from a terrible president? Do those words place both Trump and Bush in some kind of perspective? There is no rule that a person who did an evil thing must go on doing evil or cannot accomplish some good.

Trump is literally an existential threat to our global civilization. Bush was not. He went into the presidency with certain ideological convictions that played out very badly. I have no idea what his convictions are now (and it hardly matters to his victims), but I am damn selective about who I honor, who I disdain, and who I actually hate. His voice in the GOP makes space for other Republicans to actively oppose Trump. That is not a small thing.

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