The Eternal Darkness of the Empty Mind

Photo by Eyasu Etsub on Unsplash

My childhood and adolescence were a paradox.

I was born in Woodruff, South Carolina, and spent some of my childhood in nearby Enoree. Both were very small (Enoree was essentially a cross roads, not far from even smaller Cross Anchor); both were mill towns that had not quite begun to crumble in the 1960s and 1970s.

Woodruff seems like parody now, an ugly parody since the town had literal racial divisions with the Black neighborhood, Pine Ridge, on the other side of the railroad tracks dividing the town.

Racism and a bitter fundamentalism were the norm among white people, although most of these cancers remained unspoken and carefully navigated.

What I heard and witnessed in white-only spaces, including my home, contrasted disturbingly with what I heard and witnessed in mixed-race spaces — notably the vibrant high school sports arenas that much of my hometown worshipped. Yes, my hometown was a high school Friday night football sort of world that, again, almost seems like parody now.

Tradition and authority governed schooling and parenting. Conservative ideology was so pervasive there was little to no evidence any other way of thinking was possible.

There was a bitterness and fatalism among white people, among my family members, that I am deeply aware of now. I see it in the far-right Trump movement, reminding me of my parents railing against Muhammad Ali and blaming Dan Rather for the fall of Richard Nixon.

A darkness of empty minds. Irrational and certain.

By some inexplicable twist of fate, the paradox, I found myself in a series of events that allowed me to rise above that emptiness, allowed me the freedom of the human mind that quite literally saved my life.

I wasn’t quite bookish as a child, but I grew up surrounded by books and reading; my mother was a very bright woman with sparse formal education, a natural teacher with a tendency toward nurturing and mothering (she spent a good bit of her life running an in-home daycare and raised my sister’s three sons).

The secular miracle of my life was that for some odd reason my parents never censored my world, especially my intellectual life. By the time I was a teenager, I had graduated from relentlessly watching science fiction B-movies with my mother to reading covertly hundreds of comic books and novels by Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven and Jerry Purnell, and other science fiction not assigned in school (and there were several assigned novels in school I simply did not read, like Charles Dickens, even though I fell in love with Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, which I read in a literal fever while home sick).

In tenth grade, the miracle of miracles, I entered Lynn Harrill’s English class. Lynn was a fairly new teacher, a kind and passionate educator who eventually became a mentor and the primary impetus for my life as a teacher, scholar, and writer.

Lynn was perceptive, and bold. I spent many days hanging out in Lynn’s room when I wasn’t in class (a kindness I learned and mimicked when I became a teacher, the first years in the exact room where Lynn taught me).

His perception was recognizing my proclivities and how traditional schooling wasn’t serving me fully. His boldness was whispering to me one day when I was taking up his valuable time that I should read D.H. Lawrence (he added that since he knew my parents the recommendation would be fine but Lawrence was a controversial writer).

Lynn was right about the recommendation and my parents.

By high school, in fact, my mother patiently wrote checks each month for my subscription to a few comic books and Playboy, delivered to my home as if this sort of thing was completely normal in 1970s SC.

Of course, as a teen, Playboy and Lawrence spoke to my sexual curiosity of adolescence, but that was a very small fraction of my intellectual life that they both spurred. I recall to this day several interviews I read in Playboy by thoughtful people dramatically unlike the adults of my hometown.

Lawrence became my first literary crush (Clark as well as Niven and Purnell was my first nerd-reading crush). Over the next few years, I read everything by Lawrence. In college as I drifted toward education and English, I gathered as much literary analysis of Lawrence as I could.

Hovering beneath all this, of course, was my comic book collecting. For almost 50 years, I have been a collector of some kind. When I discover a writer, I plow through all their work, proudly buying and displaying all their books.

From that first affair with Lawrence to the more recent obsessions with Haruki Murakami, there have been too many love affairs with authors’ works to list them all — Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, and on and on.

And as I noted many times, one of the pivotal moments of my life was finding a used copy of the non-economic writing of Karl Marx, including the foundational pieces that turned me on to being an educator.

Yes, Karl Marx inspired me to a life of service and a commitment as a teacher to foster in students a vibrant mind of possibilities and ideas — and a robust, unyielding repulsion for indoctrination, and even authority.

Many years later, I discovered Paulo Freire and bell hooks. Freire gave me an important framing — the choice of being authoritative (earning the respect of students and readers because I demonstrate authority over content) instead of authoritarian (demanding compliance because of my status).

It is 2022 and I am terrified.

That terror isn’t grounded in the never-ending threat of Covid (although that is certainly terrifying), but in the spreading threat from Republicans determined to censor and control curriculum and what books anyone has access too.

The current Republican playbook isn’t new. Consider this from 1961 in an Oklahoma newspaper:

Jack Hamm, Oklahoma City Star, 6/2/1961 (H/T Randall Stephens)

Notice the second tentacle from the left: “Millions spent for Godless literature.”

I was born about 6 months before this editorial cartoon, and today read the following from Judd Legum:

In Indiana, State Senator Scott Baldwin (R) has introduced sweeping legislation that Baldwin says is designed to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related concepts in K-12 education. During a committee hearing on the bill earlier this month, Baldwin told a high school English teacher that he should be “impartial” when discussing Nazism. It is a case study about how the frantic efforts to ban CRT can quickly lead to absurd outcomes.

AUTHOR OF ANTI-CRT BILL TELLS TEACHER HE SHOULD STAY “IMPARTIAL” ON NAZISM

Republicans all across the U.S. are introducing and passing legislation censoring curriculum (targeting anti-racism content) and banning books from classrooms, school libraries, and public libraries (focusing on LGBTQ+ authors and works); some school board members have even called for book burnings.

My home state of SC is following the lead of other Republican-led states (notably Texas) by proposing guidelines that allow anyone to censor books for others.

It is incredibly important to emphasize that Republicans are actively removing books from school and public libraries — using government to decide what books and ideas people have access to.

These actions are tyranny. The antithesis of being free people.

There is no individual freedom without intellectual freedom.

No one should be held hostage to a life of an empty mind. Everyone deserves the accidental great fortune of my youth, including the kindness and boldness of my teacher, Lynn Harrill.

But none of this should be done in whispers, or with fear.

Republicans are calling for the eternal darkness of the empty mind, and we must resist because censorship erodes both American freedom and human dignity.

Also in 1961, Lou LaBrant recognized the failure of education as conformity:

Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools. By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire….Only a teacher who thinks about his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. “They” — the public, the administrators, the critics — have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. Speaking and writing and exploring the books of the world are prime fields for freedom. (pp. 390–391)

LABRANT, L. (1961). THE RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE TEACHER OF ENGLISH. ENGLISH JOURNAL, 50(6), 379–383, 391. STABLE URL: HTTP://WWW.JSTOR.ORG/STABLE/810824

We must rewin our freedom.

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P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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