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Tom Chaney R722: The evil of ignorance

Of Writers and Their Books, An essayThe Evil of Ignorance First printed 7 August 2005 .
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column, a review of Melissa Clark's Find Courtney

By Tom Chaney

The Evil of Ignorance

"You know, I just don't like to read."

"I've never been a reader."

"History is so boring!"

These refrains of the same song are sung daily in The Bookstore. Usually the singer is the bored spouse of a book customer. The reader has drug the non-reader in by the ear. And the singer speaks with pride about his (or her) lack of interest in reading.

If the interested spouse stays long enough, the non-reader will often pick up a book, thumb through it if nobody is looking, check out a few pictures, and perhaps read a line or two before putting it back.

Daily life among the books!

And then comes Harry Potter number six!

Seven million copies sold the first two days! Can you believe it?

In a piece recently in the Washington Post, David Broder told of his three granddaughters getting their copies and vanishing into their rooms for the next 24 hours until the books were finished.

A local young and avid reader bought a copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the day our bootleg copies were delivered. He devoured the book in three days -- providing me with daily updates on his progress.

Young folks are reading it; teachers are reading it; I even spotted a copy a few days back down at the nursing home.

So, where does boring come in?

David McCullough, my favorite historian, spoke to a Senate hearing the other day about his examination of school history textbooks. No surprise: larger print, more pictures, shrinking content. Those who write and teach from these textbooks "seem to assume that students don't like to read," he observed.

And along comes Harry Potter.

It is not that students don't like to read. They don't wish to be bored by badly written textbooks. They are of the modern age of electronic communication. This is not to be bemoaned.

Faced with the challenge of scores of television channels and the limitless internet, those who write and teach history cannot afford to let their work become a matter of rote learning and drudgery.

But, you reply, Harry Potter is not history.

Oh, really? We cannot be slaves to the petty classifications of storytelling.

What Harry Potter has going for it is a well-written, compelling story. That same quality is part of the work of McCullough or T. Harry Williams or Thomas D. Clark or Robert Penn Warren or John Grisham.

McCullough continued before the Senate to observe that in teaching boring history, the schools are denying their students "a source of infinite pleasure. . . . We human beings are naturally interested in history. All our stories begin, 'Once upon a time. . . .

'"To make history boring is a crime."

It is a serious crime to be ignorant about the past of ourselves and our nation.

Last year, according to Broder, the Smithsonian enabled some 57,000 teachers to work side by side with Smithsonian scholars doing primary source research -- that kind of experience can be shared with students.

In the late 1950's a valedictorian of a local school traveled one thousand miles to university. When she enrolled in her first science class there, the professor was impressed that she was from the Karst area of southern Kentucky. She barely knew what he was talking about. Her education was incomplete.

We shall all be witnessing a fine history lesson over the next couple of months as the Senate considers whether to confirm a justice on the Supreme Court. It has been eleven years since the last vacancy. Opinion will be divided on the matter.

For those who have not read history and are ignorant as to how our system works -- who do not know about Marbury vs. Madison [go look it up]; who don't know the practical and philosophical ideas in the Constitution and their growth for the last 200 and more years -- the process will seem to be meaningless.

In ignorance we can be easily led astray.

As the playwright, Brecht, remarked, "What is the difference between evil and ignorance?"

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-08-07 09:17:09
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