Where I’m coming from

Outside Looking In
Gordon Barlow

Education standards aren’t what they used to be, right? We’re always reading of some math absurdity understood by only three Harvard PhDs, that used to be set for twelve-year-olds a hundred years ago. The comparisons always seem far-fetched, to me. Were our grandfathers really that much smarter than us? They may have had better memories, of course.

Are we better educated than our children? Only in some facets of trivia. I used to be able to name all the monarchs of England and all the capital cities of Africa. And I was a whizz at spelling, at school. My son is dyslexic, and a semi-reformed hippy; but he speaks and reads Norwegian and Spanish. He sets his own education standards, and they’re not bad ones.

Pretty much all the important things we all need to know we’ve learned from personal experience since leaving high school. Most of us probably agree about that. We’ve learned when spelling and grammar are important and when not: when to speak “proper” and when not: when to be loyal to our home neighbourhood or country and when not. Do we all still believe in “my country right or wrong”? Maybe. When to speak from personal experience and when not…

What changes our lives, changes our characters and our outlooks. “Outside looking in” – the title Barbara gives to my essays here – requires me to write from my personal experience. I don’t even speak for my wife – never mind the whole non-American world! My personal travels and sojourns give me a background that is new to readers of Hobe Sound Currents. Not better or worse than your respective backgrounds, but different.

That difference can get me into trouble – has done already, in fact. So I feel a need to tell you who I am and “where I’m coming from”, as the saying goes. Indulge me for a moment, if you will.

The Cayman Islands are the sixth country we have called home. We could have stayed permanently in any one of the others, and been loyal to it. If that Australian girl hadn’t asked for the last seat in my VW Beetle in Greece in late 1964, we wouldn’t be married now. If I hadn’t missed the turn-off to Bulgaria on a back road the day before, I wouldn’t have been in Greece when she asked.

We all encounter seminal events that change our lives. That was one; here’s another one. Two months later, we had parked the car in the middle of Turkey and backpacked to Kuwait, in time to be invited to Christmas dinner by a family of Palestinian exiles. My casual mention of Winston Churchill (I have long forgotten the context) brought a gentle caution from my host: “you should know that we consider Mr Churchill to be a war criminal.” Uh-oh! A valuable life-lesson: there are at least two legitimate sides to every truth.

Robert Fulghum is an American writer of whimsical essays, who published a collection of them in 1988 called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. (Read it and chuckle.) In recalling it now, I think, well, they never taught me in kindergarten about there being more than one legitimate side to the truth.

The learning never stops, unless we let it stop. US television (which is what we mainly watch, down here) carries endless programs about how TV is “dumbing down” Americans of all generations. I wonder if that’s true. Whoever is getting dumbed-down must surely live sheltered lives.

In time, I outgrew my interest in the capitals of Africa and the monarchs of England. Now, slavery and freedom interest me; oppression and refugees interest me; tribal and religious prejudices interest me. I have moved on from my early loyalties; patriotism has been replaced by loyalty to the human race as a whole. The changes grew incrementally, as the realisation surfaced that no people or religion is inherently better or worse than any other, or any closer to an eternal truth.

The English poet Donne wrote: “No man is an island… Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Discovering The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was my most recent seminal event, a dozen years ago. This document is not as well known in the US as in most other nations, and not as well regarded, although an American (Eleanor Roosevelt) was the driving force behind its creation and adoption as a United Nations Resolution in 1948.

All its predecessor declarations proclaimed the rights of specific categories – usually of tribes or nations. Even The Ten Commandments were a set of tribal taboos, never intended to have relevance beyond the Hebrews of the time.

The Universal Declaration is “where I’m coming from”, as the saying goes.