Vice President Joe Biden has apparently starting doing standup comedy. During his recent visit to China, he urged Chinese youths to “challenge the status quo” and “break the mold of what was old,” because in America we “breathe free” because of our “inherent rejection of orthodoxy.” After I did a double-take reading that, I wondered: What orthodoxy is he talking about? Is it the sacred truth that the invisible hand of the market solves all social problems? Is it the time-honored practice of taxing the working poor and not corporations? Or the idea that we need to spend half of our nation’s wealth on war and weapons–like the drone that killed a two year old boy in Afghanistan last week? We don’t breathe free here–we ingest the toxic fumes of nationalist piety and absolute certainty. Years ago, when I was living and teaching in the Slovak Republic, I was talking to some students, who had only recently been living under a communist regime. “What’s it like,” I asked them, “to watch the news knowing it’s all lies?” They said, “The only difference between us and you, is that when we watch the news we know it’s bullshit.” For Americans, as George Orwell wrote in 1984, orthodoxy doesn’t mean thinking a certain way about the world, it “means not thinking–not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
The antidote? Philosophy–which is a fancy name for what Sam Keen calls “living the questions.” I teach philosophy to high school students, the same age as the youths Joe Biden admonished in China. And I find that here as well as there, our young people are schooled (coerced) into leaving questions unasked and acquiring ready-made answers that benefit those in power. This vulnerable moment is the turning point for many, many people. Whether they go to college or not, they’ve mostly decided on their worldviews by the time they graduate high school. And those worldviews, by and large, are not their own but those of authority, the “mold of the old,” as Biden put it. There’s a reason why philosophy is not one of the “core” subjects in our schools. Because if it were, students would learn very quickly that they didn’t have to put up with an unjust system that incarcerates more of its people than any nation on earth. They would learn that wars are not noble sacrifices for just causes, but seedy, murderous scrambles for power and resources. They would learn that the world is the way it is because we let it happen and that we have the responsibility and the power to change it. They would, in short, learn what it means to be free.