We seem to be experiencing a brief cultural moment, in cinema, at least, to look back at slavery. Lincoln and Django Unchained at least, take place in a six-year period where people enslaved each other with all the brutality that involved (Django) and orated on the moral imperative of doing so, or not doing so (Lincoln).
For me, of course, it is a pleasure to imagine, as writer Tony Kushner did, that a mathematical education had something to do with finding the moral clarity required to do the right thing, as in this pivotal scene in the movie.
For centuries, learning Euclid was considered essential for the proper development of the mind, his axiomatic take on geometry the cornerstone of logical thought, argument, and for some, even morality. (Plato famously wrote “Let none who have not studied mathematics enter here,” on his University, and advocated for the study of geometry as a pathway to understanding “the Good.”) And at its best, I do believe true mathematical experiences can lay a foundation that allows us to imagine what is possible beyond the ethical blindness of our own time.
How often it actually serves that purpose is another question. I don’t know if I’m ready to argue that mathematicians are more moral than anyone else.
Serendipitously, after I saw these two movies, I came across a powerful portrait of an escape from slavery and rise to becoming the towering figure he became in American history. I was reading Carl Sagan’s paean to science and skepticism, The Demon-Haunted World, which is quite good, if occasionally a bit longwinded; in chapter 21, he starts with the story of the slave boy Frederick Bailey struggling to learn the alphabet and eventually, with the help of the wife of the man who owned him, learning simple three- and four-letter words. When her husband found out, he chastised his wife, and—in Bailey’s presence!—said the following:
[Since this is a family blog, I’ve blotted out the “n-word” in the passage above.]
A n***** should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n***** in the world. Now if you teach that n***** how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.
And in that moment, Bailey saw the great secret: “I now understood… the white man’s power to enslave the black man. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Bailey later escaped and changed his name to Frederick Douglass.
And here is the great truth of true education: it is the path to freedom. Learning unshackles the mind and opens the world. In the words of the slaveholder, learning “unfits” us to be slaves.
The hard question is, then, when do we see this kind of learning happen? Different lessons are taught in schools. For some, there is the elation and struggle of real learning; in others, the primary lesson is to obey, and schools shackle the mind rather than free it. Jean Anyon’s groundbreaking study of what is taught to kids of different social classes in schools should be a wake-up call to anyone paying attention. Ditto with Jonathan Kozol’s entire body of work, especially his bitter The Shame of a Nation (I haven’t read it, but I heard him speak about it when he was in Seattle some years ago), which underlines the shocking fact that schools are more segregated now than they were fifty years ago, when Kozol started writing.
There is no doubt in my mind about the power of education to lead us to freedom. It is the path to freedom. Paradoxically, we may sometimes resist this freedom, but real learning is too potent and too seductive not to win out in the end. As Douglass wrote about his experience of teaching other slaves, “Their minds have been starved… they had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul.”
The delight of my soul. That’s what teaching can feel like. That’s what learning does feel like.
(By the way, if you want to see a brilliant moment in acting and direction, take a look at Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln again, and note the pause around 20 seconds in… “In his book… mmmm”. What’s happening in the mind of the character? He’s connecting Euclid’s “self-evident” first axiom, that two things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other, with the Declaration of Independence’s opening salvo, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” A great moment.)