The premise for this essay was to consider how knowledge is constructed, and sometimes remodeled by the wealth of information around us through consideration of our personal knowledge. Using one chapter from Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, we were to consider the knowledge we brought to the reading of that topic, including what ideas, prejudices, or questions we already had, where they come from, and how various sources of knowledge influenced us. In addition the paper was to discuss specific elements from our experiences with knowledge, making sure the essay maintain an academic tone by reflecting on past knowledge in light of careful consideration and with the application of new knowledge. (summarized from 'Knowledge Making' essay instructions)
The greatest shifts in what I understood about the opportunity the United States provides both citizen and immigrants, and how social class, poverty, and inequality are largely surreptitious parts of this system, came throughout my youth from my own life experiences. The basis of my knowledge and beliefs about social class in my country was heavily influenced by religion, and the conflict between what I knew from church and Christian elementary school, what I experienced entering into a rural public school system in middle school, then later a city high school, opened doors to new knowledge. Reflection on the different ways people treated me in different schools at various (perceived) economic stages of my family’s life, challenged me to questioning the very belief system imparted on me.
The premise that America is the “Land of Opportunity”, and the generalized notion that the United States is “special” because “anyone” a part of it can make it to the “top”, was not something I grew up believing, but rather it was something I grew up knowing. One can know and understand a concept, while not believing it to be true. Knowing that I lived in what many have perceived as the “greatest country in the world” where “with enough hard work any person could be successful/wealthy” was an idyllic premise that had no foundation in my real life experience. In my preteen youth, my father was a full-time factory worker and a “sustainable farmer”, sometimes selling grain at the grain elevator and using the rest of the crops to feed livestock. My mother was a small business owner, owning a home-based health food store in the country; she was also a stay at home mother, tending animals and a garden so we could eat through the winter. They were hard workers, but remained poor.
In the beginning, church on Sundays and studying five days a week in a Christian school created a very narrow understanding of poverty and class. Living in a remote area cut off from many influences, being very limited to what television programming was allowed, even having the television removed for brief periods, and strict guidelines on what types of books were permitted, insulated my knowledge from the reality of social inequality. Never imploring openly in my childhood about why my parents worked so hard, yet never got ahead, why the toys were never new, why our clothing were second-hand and ill-fitting, and why in middle school I was made fun of for it…these things remained undiscussed and I was left to consider the answers on my own. Even today, when confronted with the topic, my father will deny we were poor, or low income, despite having infrequently been able to afford new clothes for his children, having toddlers enrolled in WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] and Head Start (government programs reserved for low-income families), and intermittently being on public heating assistance through frigid winters. Therefore, when Loewen says, “the tendency of teachers and textbooks to avoid social class as if it were a dirty little secret only reinforces the reluctance of working-class families to talk about it” (212), supporting his theory of a “subculture of shame” (211), it reinforces what I already know; but creates a deeper understanding of why that shame lingers for some, even after they manage to become successful much later in life.
Two major events caused a change in the base of my knowledge about social class, happening almost simultaneously - the experience of entering the public school system after years of private Christian education, and being aware of and questioning the underlying role of religion in relation to “my” country. Entering the public school system for the first time in the 6th grade, my exposure to distinct social stratification was experienced through ridicule and bullying largely in part due to, based on the names called and things said, my ill-fitting second-hand clothing. This wealth of new knowledge based on personal experience about how income plays a part in the way people treat and think of other people, began to painfully shed layers of false understanding built up by years of insulation from the reality of this truth. That same year, my Dad would sit my brothers and me in front of the television, and discuss with us Revelations, the final book of the Bible that deals with the “End Times”. It was 1990, the height of the Desert Storm war. He equated this political war that was taking place with foretold warnings of End Times, not offering up any other real foundation for understanding what was occurring. Initially fearful, being only about eleven years old, I recall confusion and skepticism. These are two of my very few clear memories of childhood. The impact of information given, and the things experienced in school, planted seed for inquiry about my family’s economic station in life and how God relates to the politics of my country. The questions grew, lingered long.
It would not be until many years later, as a teen in the mid-90s, after two missionary trips to inner-city Monterrey Mexico to preach to, and feed the poor, still trying to cling to ingrained religious ideals, that the lingering skepticism started to bloom. While the poverty in other countries like Mexico is hard to juxtapose with the poverty of United States and other “developed” countries, the people there were/are no less hardworking than many of the poor and low-income of the United States. I began to consider the impoverished state of the world. Taught that all people are the Children of God, all of the world’s people belonged to Him, why did the inequality exist, why was there such a sharp contrasts between the classes everywhere? Why would “my savior” would want his “children” to be so poor that they lived in shacks built of garbage and refuse on abandoned train tracks, languishing in the dirt? Why had the United States been the one “blessed” by God; why were the people of the United States his people and why did he allow his own “chosen” people to go hungry? Why. Why. Why. There are no answers for questions that you are not supposed to ask.
Strangely, but perhaps not, the movie The Devil’s Advocate (1997) finally created the jolt needed to accept that there were no answers, except for one. One cold afternoon I went to a local second-run theater alone, as I often did, to see any movie that happened to be playing. Alone in the warm theater, snug in my comfortable seat, I became grossly offended by the character John Milton, played by Al Pacino, and his passionate oration:
“Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He's a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does He do, I swear for His own amusement, his own private, cosmic gag reel, He sets the rules in opposition. It's the goof of all time. Look but don't touch. Touch, but don't taste. Taste, don't swallow. Ahaha. And while you're jumpin' from one foot to the next, what is he doing? He's laughin' His sick, fuckin' ass off! He's a tight-ass! He's a SADIST! He's an absentee landlord! Worship that? NEVER!”I was offended. I nearly left the theater. But I stayed. I stayed primarily because it was cold outside but also out of intrigue. I stayed and watched, almost reluctantly accepting this new “experience” and thought about why I was offended. It turned out I was offended because what he was saying rang true in my heart. It helped me form the answer I had long sought. Suddenly I understood that the only logical answer was that my knowledge of God was a lie. All things being unjust, God’s existence became highly questionable.
I felt free. In the admission that the very basis of my knowledge may be wrong, may be a lie, I realized I now had the freedom to question all of my knowledge, where it came from and why. If I now felt free to question God’s existence, could I not also question why government would mislead populations about the opportunity it can afford them, while at the same time hard working people’s struggle to stay out of poverty continued to persist and society increasingly deemed them inadequate citizens.
The very thing Loewen states about why social stratification remains minimalized by special interest groups, that “[…] what American society needs to stay strong is citizens who assent to its social structure and economic systems without thought” to “[…] defend our economic system mindlessly” (216) rings true. Critically thinking citizens revolutionize societies. Being aware of how definitive Patriotism and definitive Christianity parallel in begging
to be unquestioned by their members, and how patriotism and religion in the United States often embody each other, I came to understand how the two persist together in maintaining class structure issues. The common notion that “The United States is blessed by God” inherently ties patriotism and religion together, so then, as a Christian American, questioning your family’s position in the social structure, if it even occurred to a person to do so, may be considered unpatriotic, and unchristian.
The ultimate patriotic ideal persists further, unquestioned in textbooks and classrooms, viewed through the lens of the religious eye. For example, true Patriotic ideology tells you that you can do and be anything because you live in the greatest country on earth, full of endless opportunity as long as you worked hard enough. It explains away failure to achieve by equating it with lack of personal effort, creating shame, yet it does not provide an answer for why people who work hard often don’t get ahead. In a turn to Religion you discover that the Bible often tells you that poverty isn’t so bad, that in many of its teachings you can find it is perhaps God’s will for his people to be poor.
20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:20-21 ESV)
18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. (Ecclesiastes 5:18-19 ESV)With verses such as these the Bible appears to explain away “failure to achieve in the face of opportunity” by equating it with God’s will for you to inherit “The Kingdom of God” and accept “his lot for you”. Occasionally you can find the Bible equating wealth with danger, a slippery slope whose potential end result is an abandonment of your savior, as indicated in Hosea 13:6 (ESV) 6 ”but when they had grazed, they became full, they were filled, and their heart was lifted up; therefore they forgot me.” These messages then, encourage complacency. Alternatively, in the scant verses that do touch on the topic of poverty, causation linked to sloth or laziness reiterates the message of ideal patriotism, that poverty is the effect of “lack of personal effort”. Ultimately, left unexplored, the messages about poverty and social stratification created through the means of patriotic and religious idealism does not address causation, further propagating the negative standards caused by “brushing the issue under the rug”.
The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn by Diane Ravitch, another key influence on my evolving knowledge, has provided me the insight to understand why Loewen says History textbooks “minimize social stratification” (216) throughout history. Special interest groups who influence textbook publication, those who decide what topics are allowed to be included, how information is allowed to be presented, and which get used in their schools, are heavily invested in the outcome of formal education and suppression of revolution. The tendency to completely omit topics, such as income distribution and class structure from classrooms and textbooks, prevents having to teach or discuss “the events and processes in our past” (Loewen, 209) that have impacted social class. This lack of acceptance to the correlation of historical and current government influence on social inequality creates a dissonance, which insulates the populations from important information, making it easier to explain away class inequity with false religious and patriotic notions, creating enduring archetypes of social class and poverty.
It is through these experiences and influences on the information I already had, that my foundation for the acceptance of knowledge continually grows; shaping me and how I come to understand the world and people around me. The liberation through accepting new information in opposition to existing knowledge, and challenging learned prejudices is important on a grand scale. To fear new knowledge, to fear change, only works against social transformation, works against any real progress as a person, and as a country. People should be encouraged to question things, to seek real answers, to let their knowledge evolve. Therefore, knowledge should not be hidden away, it should be celebrated in order to maintain a solid democratic foundation, to minimize the persistent negative social structure paradigms, and let true freedom flourish. A countries thoughtless unquestioned ideal of economic social structure, i.e. “The Land of Opportunity”, built on lack of information, misinformation, and/or lack concrete answers is dangerous; dangerous in that it restricts its members of the knowledge and understanding and in doing so undermines freedom, undermines progress, and undermines Democracy.