In my experience as a teacher, I have generally found that there are very few surprises when predicting which students will succeed or fail in school and beyond. The students who succeed and become leaders are inevitably the ones who work hard, follow the rules, and take relatively few risks. The students at the bottom and who are the most likely to drop out are the ones who refuse to work, break the rules, and disrespect authority. While feel-good movies like Good Will Hunting or Stand and Deliver show unsuspecting misfits succeeding, this rarely happens in reality.
Or at least, it doesn’t happen in same way. Every so often, there have been a few unsuspecting students who will surprise me by showing an unusual ability—despite their bad attitudes and lack of a work ethic. However, it doesn’t come out of nowhere like it does with Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting, nor does some heroic teacher bring it out of them like Jaime Escalante does in Stand and Deliver.
This ability comes from the student teaching himself in his free time. While he sleeps in class, he will read and write tirelessly on message boards online. As his textbooks and papers remain sealed in his backpack for the whole year, he will read his articles and posts voraciously. While he ignores his teacher’s lectures in class, he will attentively consume every word of a podcaster or YouTube producer on his smartphone at home. When the time comes to take a test like the SAT or AP Exam, these habits trained into his mind will enable him to score much higher than many of his peers. He exemplifies Mark Twain’s famous quote, “I have never let my schooling get in the way of my education.”
But it’s worth asking, “what happens to these students?” Does their brilliance win them the support of their teachers and respect of fellow students? In most cases, it does the opposite. Teachers (not me) usually feel undermined and threatened by these students, and classmates are jealous of them. Consequently, many of these promising students still struggle in school; often, they will never make it into college because adults refuse to help them. Adding to this tragedy are those same teachers and classmates later looking down at such students for not following the prescribed path.
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Even if these students never made it to college, many of them do find jobs, start businesses, attend Mass, and have families. Even if they never showed much ability in school, or prove to be late bloomers, they make their way in the world; they develop opinions based on experience and common sense, and continue learning on their own.
Defying conventional wisdom, they are not uninformed voters going along with their “tribe” or mindless consumers, addicted to lowbrow entertainment. Unlike their college conditioned neighbors, many of whom make up the Church’s elite (who often dutifully outsource their thinking to experts on CNN and New York Times), these unschooled intellectuals will seek out alternative sources (like Crisis) and remain skeptical about received news and commentary. In addition to current events, they put more thought into moral and religious questions, and appreciate life’s complexities because they feel like it’s their responsibility to do so. They accept that most media and academies are biased, and that fake news and pseudoscience are problems—a claim furiously rejected from those with college degrees.
At no time in history has the difference between schooled and unschooled Americans been more apparent than in the last four years. During Trump’s presidency, Americans had the opportunity to learn the minutia of campaign laws, law enforcement procedures, balance of power, free speech regulations, public health statistics, and many other issues. This has extended into the Catholic world, as many laypeople brushed up on Church teachings and Church history to check the newest head-scratcher from Pope Francis. Unlike previous generations, they had alternate means of accessing information online, and could bypass the gatekeepers who wanted to distract them with irrelevant stories about Joe Biden’s cat and Harry Styles cross-dressing on the cover of Vogue.
More importantly—at least, from the perspective of a person who teaches rhetoric—these past four years (and the propaganda efforts of progressives) have trained people in logic. When people form habits of questioning, they begin to scrutinize the actual strengths and weaknesses of a given argument. The Left’s ad hominem attacks on Trump and his supporters, their appeals to discredited authorities, and their constant mixing of correlation and causation have become increasingly ridiculous to today’s self-educated Americans. The arguments that worked so well in the past with everyone, now only work for those who have been conditioned not to think, which happens all too often in today’s schools, both public and private.
And yet, the people in charge of the country’s cultural, political, and academic institutions continue to ignore these unschooled intellectuals. Like the teacher and students who looked down on the child who learned on his own, today’s elite, or the “clerisy” as Joel Kotkin calls them, do the same with Americans who dare question them.
In practical terms, this looks like politicians making nonsensical rules for public health along with violating those same rules, and legacy media outlets pushing false narratives that are easily disprovable. Church leaders are teaching their flocks to be faithful and care for the vulnerable, yet they endorse politicians who support abortion and threaten to eliminate religious liberties, and back other such policies that conflict with Church teachings. Corporations signal their commitment to human rights, while simultaneously using slave labor and creating dehumanizing products.
More than a few commentators will periodically bemoan America’s “dying institutions,” as though average Americans are failing in their civic duty to support them. It never seems to occur to them that these institutions could recover if the people running them return to their missions of serving and showing respect for their community, which means not insulting people’s intelligence or censoring them. If they actually tried to engage with all people, not just members of the clerisy, they might be surprised at how much they can handle, despite (or more because of) their lack of formal schooling.
Donald Trump rose to prominence because he was one of the few people to take normal Americans seriously. Pundits often like to say that people voted for Trump because they hated the elite and wanted a “fighter,” but this is only partially true. People liked him because he was open and didn’t follow a script. Sure, he said he would drain the swamp, but most his supporters were already happy he wasn’t part of that swamp—which has proven to be so deep and wide that there doesn’t seem to be any place to drain it.
For today’s Trump supporters, many of whom are unschooled intellectuals, the hurried push to declare Biden the president-elect and dismiss the numerous claims of fraud and irregularities was yet one more instance of the elites ignoring the will of normal Americans. What they seem to miss is that normal Americans are much smarter and more persistent after four years of this kind of treatment. No matter how dry and tedious, they will educate themselves and become their own experts, whether it’s over election fraud, global pandemics, impeachment proceedings, FISA warrants, or any other subject. Instead of fighting it, society’s leaders should celebrate it as a true blessing of liberty—a reason to place hope in the future.
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