How I Got My Education

When filling out an application or answering a survey, I have no trouble responding to the “Education” box, checking “beyond college” or “post-graduate”, or however it’s phrased. But I always feel that the answer is incomplete, because the question has ignored the wiser parts of my education.

After college, I served my two years in the Army. By fortunate circumstance, I became a typist at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. My supervisor, Sergeant Harry Edinger, was considerate and easy-going; his favorite expression to his subordinates was, “Take your time.” I learned that Sergeant Edinger had led a hundred men to safety across a frozen lake in North Korea during the great retreat following MacArthur’s Folly. I asked myself, “Could I, waving my Harvard B.A. in my hand, have led a hundred men across a frozen lake under combat conditions in the Korean winter?” Hell no.

And my education began. 

During the 1960s, I was a member of the Boston Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). My role was to put out the chapter bulletin. One edition was to have an insert consisting of reports of canvassers from the Housing Committee on conditions in the various rental properties in Roxbury, the black section of town. Late one night, I found myself in the CORE office, poring over these reports (at that time, a white person could do this with no thought of danger). Over and over, I read descriptions of leaky roofs, failed heating, roaches, and rats attacking babies in their cribs. The feelings of anger and outrage that came over me were so strong that for years and even decades, I would still feel a remnant of that anger when I thought of that night...

And so my education continued.

Some time later I had a part-time job as interviewer in Boston for an academic research firm. One of our projects was a survey of alcoholics at a facility called the Pine Street Inn. I interviewed one resident after another, all down-and-out, all under the domination of alcohol. Somewhat to my surprise, they all had a certain dignity, for what reason I don’t know, unless it arose from their candid self-understanding. In any case, it led me to feel some admiration for them all, except one. This man had an education, which in his eyes put him head and shoulders above the others, and he kept harping on his educational superiority to the detriment of everything else. Finally I asked myself, “Is that ME?”

And so my education continued.

What conclusions do my educational experiences lead me to? I have only one: Universal service. Of course the nation has had that before in the form of a military draft, but that’s not the way to go: a universal draft is out of the question for practical reasons if nothing else. But there are many ways a young person can serve the country besides the military--teaching in inner-city schools is often cited. The common feature of all types of service is that the individual would see the world beyond his own particular environment and his own particular preconceptions. To repeat the familiar truism, the service rendered society would be less than the benefit to the individual.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one other experience of a different sort. This occurred when I was in Army basic training. Bayonet practice was a required part of our training, consisting of running through a course of straw dummies and thrusting our bayonets into  them. It will be no surprise, I am sure, to know that of all the ways of killing and being killed, bayoneting is near the top of my list of horrors.

Company C, of which I was a part, had to wait for the course to be set up. While we were waiting, the cadre decided to rouse our martial spirits by leading us in a chorus of “Kill! Kill! Kill!" We all joined in enthusiastically – why not? We all chanted “Kill! Kill! Kill!” under the leadership of the cadre for a few minutes, until they decided we were revved up enough and stopped the cheerleading. But we didn’t stop. The whole company continued to shout “Kil! Kill! Kill!” with renewed enthusiasm, at the top of our lungs, until the time came to go through the course and bayonet those vicious straw dummies.

The question that is in my mind, and will always remain, is this: What was our state of mind – what was our attitude – when we were spontaneously exhorting each other to “Kill! Kill! Kill!”? Were we merely going through some sort of group activity, taking part for the sake of the ritual? Were we being sarcastic? Or on the other hand, were we transformed for those few minutes into a mob that really was ready to kill anything that stood in its way?

I really don’t know the answer. Thinking back over the decades, I can’t remember my exact state of mind, not to mention the states of mind of the others. But what I do remember leaves open the possibility that we in Company C had been transformed for those few minutes into something we had never been before. And that leads me to believe that under the right circumstances – or, wrong circumstances – almost anyone can be influenced to do almost anything. In this time when we too often see a mean-spirited narrow-mindedness, this is a lesson worth thinking about.

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Volume 7, Issue 3, Posted 4:07 PM, 02.08.2011