Almost a half century ago Kathleen and I drove into remote southwest Uganda sneaking precious, banned textbooks (on mathematics) to one of the few schools that until then had managed to survive under Idi Amin.
We drove past a football field littered with the bodies of 48 teens, their bodies torn apart by dum dums. Our hosts were in hiding. When one young teacher snuck into the room where we were he pleaded in whispers to steel him away. Did anybody read Eugene Robertson’s op-ed in the Washington Post today? “How Dumb Can a Nation Get and Still Survive?”
Anybody watch Chris Hayes’ montage of Sen. Josh Hawley charging our assistant attorney general for trying to silence school board debate?
Kathleen and my trip was in 1973. It was hard to explain to people outside East Africa at the time why we were sneaking contraband into Uganda from Kenya. Our contraband consisted of Bibles for Bishop Luwum (who was later executed), dog biscuits for missionary Sisters (‘pets) in Mbara (later discovered and the dogs macheted to death) and algebra textbooks for the few Prince of Wales Boarding School teachers who were left.
I astounded myself with how much I could hide under the floorboard of my safari van. I packed it very carefully and then topped it off with bags of rice and flour and sugar so that I could bribe – as I ended up doing – the soldiers who stopped us all along the way.
In fact the greatest terror we had was that we would run out of our topover bribes before we delivered all the contraband.
The school was our last stop and fortunately so, because we had run out of bags of flour and rice and sugar. Didn’t matter. All the kids had been killed.
Unfortunately, we were as far away from Kenya as possible and now spent with terror. As we prepared to leave one of the Ugandan teachers pleaded with us to take him. Most of the teachers had fled. He was on his knees. My ancient memory has him foaming at the mouth and pulling at my pants but you know how terror grows with time. Anyway, he knew he’d be killed if discovered.
His crime was being educated — actually worse, being an educator.
I remember explaining to him that he couldn’t fit under my floorboard and that even if he could, I didn’t have any more bags of rice and flour and sugar to cover him up with.
I couldn’t get myself to explain to him that if we took him we’d probably be killed, too.
Years later I listened to a lecture at the beautiful Newmark Library in Chicago given by one of my science heroes, E.O. Wilson. His book, The Ants, had just been published. He said America should be terrified because it had “empowered the ignorant.”
I remember wondering what this had to do with ants. But because I hadn’t yet read the book I calmed down and demurred enough to scatter my thoughts so I could get through the lecture. Glad I did. Ants are probably the most successful biological creature to have emerged on earth. Why? Because they as a society have empowered their ignorant individuals.
Each ant is really dumb. But collected and doing their jobs blindly and unrelentingly, the society of ants creates a tribal success that ensures preeminence over so many other more intelligent things… like pest exterminators.
Beware when the ignorant are empowered is what E.O. Wilson wanted to but dared not say. Because why shouldn’t we empower the ignorant? How can they become unignorant if we don’t empower them?
What my science hero failed to understand is that there’s nothing wrong with empowering the ignorant particularly so that they can become unignorant … IF there aren’t evil doers ready to pounce on them and manipulate them.
Mistake 1. Property taxes funding education dumbed down the majority of society.
Mistake 2. Obsession with personal over social freedoms delivered the ignorant masses to Josh Hawley and other evil masters.
Not yet but we’re heading there, just as Kathleen and I drove into the jungles of southwest Uganda on a mission of educational mercy to find instead the most horrific slaughter of humankind still in my memory.