Failure to see

forest
Photo courtesy of Iswanto Arif

This morning, I intended to examine carefully and then write about my tendency to become oblivious to my physical surroundings in favor of the metaphysical. My writing tends to be [see note to self] is excessively analytical, rather than descriptive, because of the inward nature of my experience. To see the physical world clearly, I must leave the familiar landscape and go beyond the literal horizon.

Instead of walking out the door and off in a direction I don’t usually travel, however, I returned to the Internet seeking results of research on the human capacity for observation. By an oddly indirect course consequent to my imprecisely worded query—“fail to see + familiar surroundings”—I was directed to an Ohio University president whose eloquence is captivating:

I am neither a pessimist nor an alarmist; but I am unable, or rather I have no desire, to close my eyes to the tendencies I see about me. It is much pleasanter to commend than to criticize, but it is far less wholesome. To belittle a danger neither removes it nor makes it less. It is well to recall often the weighty words of Lincoln’s second inaugural:

I see in the near future a crisis arising which unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned, and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic will be destroyed. I feel at this time more anxious for my country than even in the midst of the war.

The destruction of the Republic as a form of government is not necessarily the worst misfortune that could befall our posterity; for history abundantly proves that nominal republics may be the worst of tyrannies. But history also shows that a society may become so corrupt and effeminate that there is no cure for it except virtual extermination. Does such a fate await any of the great nations now existing upon the face of the earth?

I can disregard Charles William Super’s use of the word effeminate where today one might insert cowardly or pampered, because he wrote his book Wisdom and Will in Education from Athens, Ohio, in 1902. (The excerpt above appears on pages 16 and 17 of his introduction.) I agree with his observations and cannot manage to overlook the natural inclination of the enthroned—applying the term broadly to all gatekeepers, arbiters, and analysts, including those of the Fourth Estate—toward both hubris and sycophancy. Super said it better.

Unfortunately, today’s superior technology provides me with the instant means to discover the bold statements Super attributed to Abraham Lincoln have yet to be fully authenticated. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library possesses a 20th-century broadside of uncertain origin on which is printed a very similar quotation. Some sources attribute it to an 1861 message from Lincoln to Congress or a letter from Lincoln to William F. Elkins in 1864. I was unable to locate any relevant documents among the digitized collection of Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. The Lincoln cataloguer at the presidential library suggested the quotation might be a record of oral history, which would not necessarily make it less credible, and offered to conduct further research. I’ll provide more information here if it becomes available.

Wisdom and Will in Education is available for purchase from the Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta, Georgia; Prairie Wind in Eldora, Iowa; and The Story Shop in Elwood, Indiana. It is catalogued by dozens of university libraries across the United States, as WorldCat shows. The full text can be downloaded from the Web for free, courtesy of Google and the library of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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