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Daniel Bruch column: Thinking about patriotism

Daniel Bruch

Most students, of all levels, are back in school by now. One of the primary goals of all education is to pass on to the next generations the accumulated truths and wisdom that have brought us to this point. In our time, most truths are empirical in nature, often tempered by culture and religion and bias. In any case, it is a good time to remember the role that humility plays in search of truth and wisdom. It was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who, when speaking about the importance of learning, said that "I've led a school whose faculty and students examine and discuss and debate every aspect of our law and legal system. And what I've learned most is that no one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom. I've learned that we make progress by listening to each other, across every apparent political or ideological divide."

TRUTH is defined as "a fact or belief that is accepted as true." Until the late 16th century, everyone believed the "truth" that the sun and planets revolved around the Earth. Until the late 19th century, it was absolutely true that epidemic illnesses such as cholera and the plague were caused by a poisonous mist filled with particles from rotting things. And until the early 20th century, the most common procedure performed by surgeons for thousands of years was bloodletting, because the "truth" was that blood drained from the body balanced the four "humors"—blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.

To this day, there are those who believe the "truth" is that former President Obama is a Muslim and was not born in the USA; that the Constitutionally protected press is "the enemy of the people." Some also believe that it is "true" that there is no global warming. We are living in a time of such remarkable science and technology and, in spite of it, some stand firmly behind their "truths" ... even if so much of what they know to be "true" is actually wrong.

WISDOM is defined as "the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise."

Well, here are just a few examples of conventional wisdom in the past:

"Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction" said Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872.

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers, said Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of the Board of IBM (1943).

"With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market," said Business Week (1958).

"The ordinary 'horseless carriage' is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle," said the Literary Digest in 1899.

And "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us," said a Western Union internal memo in 1876.

You get the point.

So as another academic year begins, whether you are a student, parent of a student, or neither, it is good to remember that both truth and wisdom are often relative to time, culture, experience, social class, and education. In our moment of time, much of our "truth and wisdom" has become corrupted and twisted by propaganda, media framing, and the active distortion of truth for political purposes. Humility, or recognizing that "no one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom," is a good characteristic to always pursue in seeking the common good, that is, seeking those sources of truth and wisdom that provide benefits to our society as a whole, rather than to the private good of individuals and sections of society.

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