A Toast to Learning

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton, J. A. 2010. “Learning to Learn, Not Drink.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (October 13): 11A.

When I was a little boy growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, my mother used to take me downtown to the city’s lovely old public library. I’d roam through the stacks of this 1908 building designed in a neoclassical style by Tachau and Pilcher Architects looking for books that interested me while staying out of my mother’s hair. In my earliest days (as best I can remember) the first book that really caught my eye was Hardie Gramtky’s 1939 Little Toot, a children’s story about an energetic, fun-loving little tugboat that would rather play than work but which grew up under pressure to save the day for his father and all the other tugboats of the town. Just a few years later, though, my eyes were drawn to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe, a general’s story about defeating the Nazis in World War II.

How did I get from Little Toot to Eisenhower’s crusade?

The answer has to do with learning. My mother – daughter of a hardscrabble coal mining family – instilled in me a love of learning that has not abated over time.

Though that love continues to burn strong, it has gone through some rocky moments. In college, for example, where I drank too much. Alcohol, that is. Under 21, I would sneak into bars that either didn’t check our IDs or else tolerated feeble imitations of valid ones.

Drinking too much, my grades plummeted. More to the point, my ability to learn dissipated. Go figure.

Luckily for me, this deep dive into Strohs beer lasted only a couple of years. And I actually learned something profoundly important, even though that learning had nothing to do with libraries and books. I learned that when I drank too much I was almost certain to do something stupid, embarrassing, or dangerous. (Readers should feel free to imagine the details.)

Now 45 years later, I still drink. But not too much. I love a good pint of beer or two, a glass of wine in the evening, or occasionally a nip of the Irish or a swill of good Scotch. A little toot, one could say.

So what, you might ask, do I think about the forthcoming referendum about rescinding the 21-only after 10 p.m. ordinance?  In brief, I’ll be voting NO. Why? Partly because I don’t want youth in this town to grow up stupid or harmed from drinking too much. Or to do stupid, embarrassing, or dangerous things when they do.

And I don’t want them to grow up ignorant about the world in which they live; for example, about where Afghanistan and Yemen are, about how many politicians promise voters anything to gain and retain power while others (such as Dave Loebsack) strive mightily to do the best they can under difficult circumstances, and about the ways in which cable TV “news” shows (Sean Hannity’s, for instance) treat viewers as if they were mere puppets on a string.

In a much more positive sense, I want the youth of this town (your children and mine) to learn how to learn, to learn how to think for themselves, and to learn how to test, refine, and maybe even change their views through engagement with others who hold different views.

Does this lust for learning make me, the son of a coal miner’s daughter, an elitist? I don’t think so. But – if we are doing our job and applying our critical skills to the world around us – it does make people like me dangerous to the real elite: the tiny fraction of people who control the vast majority of this country’s wealth and are constantly pulling strings to make sure the political and economic system is rigged in their favor.

Some of you will surely disagree with me. If so, let’s talk.

So, here’s a toast to learning: May we always share a beer together, learn from one another, and dedicate our hearts and minds toward making this a better place in which to live. For all of us!

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