Monday, June 16, 2008

The Best Comic Strip To Learn From

I'm a little embarrassed, sometimes, to admit where my knowledge comes from. I'm seen, in my family and job and circle of friends -- which these days amounts to the exact same group of people; my family and my job comprise my circle of friends -- in that group, I'm seen, pretty much, as a total genius because I know about things like white dwarf stars and history and baseball players.

The problem is, while I know those things, the source of my knowledge tends to be either comic books or comic strips. Sometimes TV shows, too, but mostly comic books and comic strips.

On the one hand, that might be seen as a good thing: I've managed to learn stuff that's useful in my life. At least, I've managed to learn stuff. I'm not sure how useful it is to me right now to know what a white dwarf star is, but someday I might need that knowledge.

On the other hand, ask yourself this: do you want to trust your life to something a guy learned from Spider-Man? Say you're in a lifeboat and you're low on water and food and the ocean currents are carrying you somewhere and you have to pick a leader and decide how you're going to get to land, and the guy who seems to be the smartest in the boat says Everything I know I learned from "Doonesbury." Are you going to pick him?

Make it any life-threatening or serious situation. Your stock broker tells you his investment strategy is derived from his memories of "Bugs Bunny cartoons." The doctor, just before he puts you under for surgery, says "So I was reading 'Peanuts' this morning." In either case, you'd bolt out of there so fast you'd leave a you-shaped hole in the wall.

From this we can see that knowledge, like people and food and Saturday Night Live skits, comes from better and worse sources, and if your knowledge comes from one of the sources that are down on the list, if your knowledge is based on reading Mad Magazine, like mine is, you would be wise to just know things and not tell people how you know things. It doesn't matter how smart you are if people think you got that smart watching Hee Haw.

That's why I never tell people that my encyclopedic knowledge of history in the second half of the twentieth century comes mostly from reading Doonesbury, which is The Best Comic Strip To Learn From. I have a phenomenal grasp of politics and current events and minor Washington D.C. scandals and pop culture from 1971 on-- I even know what the American Samoa is -- because of Doonesbury.

I had to, after all, get it from somewhere, and that somewhere was not going to be school. Schools did not, when I was a kid (and don't now) focus on recent history; they focus on boring history like The Gilded Age because that's easy to teach and because everyone knows that in the long run, quotes about people being doomed to repeat things notwithstanding, history doesn't have much of an impact on our lives.

It's my sad duty to have to say that. History can be fun to learn (if you learn it from Doonesbury, at least)(just like you can learn science from Calvin & Hobbes), and it can be inspiring and sad to see (if you go to Gettysburg after reading The Killer Angels, as I did), but history isn't really any use to anyone anywhere. Not history in specific, anyway. When whoever said it said that those who don't learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them (or whatever it was whoever said that actually said), he didn't mean that unless kids learn that George Washington Carver invented the peanut, they will never themselves invent the peanut; he meant that in general history can teach us things.

But those things that history in general teaches us don't make history all that important, for two reasons. First, the things that history in general teaches us are available as lessons from other sources, too. History can, for example, teach us that it's hard for a superpower to fight a guerilla war against an insurgent native population. History taught us that in 1776, and it taught us that in the 1960s and early 1970s. (It's teaching us that now, too). But that lesson is not only available from history, it's available from other sources like "common sense" and "Colin Powell," if people care to listen.

Second, the things that history teaches us in general are overpowered by a force of nature that I'll call boringosity. That's the force of nature that takes things that could be cool and interesting and dramatic, like the founding of the United States of America with the missing colonies and tiny boats traveling without much navigation across huge oceans, and armies sneaking around New York City to attack each other, and turns it into the mundane and tedious, with textbooks on churning butter and log cabins.

When we were kids, we studied history by going to a place called "Old World Wisconsin," and "The Octagon House." The key point of the latter was that it was a house that was also an octagon. Wow! History was really coming alive as we watched a blacksmith smelt things.

I was 17 when I found out that people re-created battles from the Civil War. I was 21 when I read The Killer Angels. I was 34 when I found out that Camp Randall stadium, where the Wisconsin Badgers play, was a Civil War training post. Each of those things would have been a far more interesting way to learn about history and to inspire me to learn even more from that -- because if you make something interesting and fun, then people will want more of it. So if you spend a lot of time thinking that "history" means "people telling you how to make candles," you don't want to learn history. If you spent time, instead, looking across a field and picturing what it was like for the southern soldiers to march into battle getting picked off one by one in defense of a cause that was unjust, you're likely to want to know more about that.
I never got to see a Civil War battle or read an interesting book about history in school. But, boy, did I know how to churn butter and count the sides of old houses.

That's boringosity. That's the tendency of everyone in the educational sector to take anything interesting about anything you have to learn and squeeze it to death. It's like teachers have decided that if they have to be in school even though they're adults, they're going to make darn sure that the kids don't enjoy it, either.
The culture of boringosity has not just dampened interest in learning so that people grow up wanting to know about Paris Hilton but not Paris, France; it's also created adults who look down on those who learned things in any kind of fun way, which means that if, like me, you know about history because of Doonesbury, you have to hide where that knowledge came from and pretend that you learned a lot about Watergate by reading books. And not the good books, either; the boring books.

I didn't, in fact, learn about Watergate from reading books. I learned about it from reading Doonesbury, which I read as a kid by checking out of the library those large collections of comic strips that would be published periodically. I eventually bought my own sets, and I own, right now, every collection of Doonesbury strips you can buy, and I've read them all a couple of times in my life. I still read Doonesbury every day, even though my local newspaper won't print it because the dumb people who like Garfield feel it's too controversial and the smart people who like PBS won't read comic strips, so it exists in a netherworld of comic strips and I have to go to the Internet to find it.

Doonesbury was instrumental in my growth from a kid who read comics to an adult who reads comics but also who reads the business section, the main section, and even reads Newsweek sometimes (and not just for the funny quotes section.) I started reading Doonesbury because it was a comic strip; I didn't entirely get it at first. When Duke was going to invest in a farm because he wanted to make laetrile, I had no idea what was going on. But I learned, because I wanted to get the joke, and to do that I had to go find out what "laetrile" was and why it was shameful to Zonker that Duke would want to do that -- and I had to do that back when the "Internet" consisted solely of those little handheld games where you played "football" by making one little red LED run between a bunch of other little red LEDs. I couldn't just google things to get an answer, back then and "Yahoo! Answers" and "Wikistupedia" didn't exist (and it's a good thing they didn't, or I'd think "Laetrile" was a Sinbad skit.)

I did that extra research and reading -- at age 12. At age 12 I was trying to find out what "laetrile" was. (The short version, to save you time: Laetrile was supposed to cure cancer. It didn't.)

I also learned, like I said, what "American Samoa" was and about the Nixon tapes and Cambodian bombings and about cultural forces in the 60s and 70s and on into the 80s and 90s, watching as Gary Trudeau -- who I don't often agree with, I should note-- outlined his world views and commented on American society through a world that was not quite entirely fictional and not quite entirely real, but was entirely well-rounded and kept apace with the real world while also poking fun at it and explaining it.

All that, while remaining fun, too, and making jokes that ranged from subtle to broad, with little side-trips into the bizarre (like inanimate objects talking or Duke becoming a zombie or Zonker scuba diving in "Walden Puddle." )

Doonesbury has remained a relevant, interesting, force in social commentary for probably longer than I've been alive, and more often than not, it's done so by being funny while also being smart. I can't think of any other comic strip that does that and that manages to change with the times and have its characters grow and evolve and still fit into the tiny comic world while at the same time fitting into the real world, also.

But that's not what makes it so great. What makes it great, to me, is that Doonesbury, in three small panels, manages to each day encapsulate a bit of the world and not just make me chuckle or smile or laugh at it, but also manages to explain it to me and make me think about it a little more. Doonesbury makes me want to learn more and experience more and get more out of life, because to really understand it and to keep up with it, I've got to know what's going on around me and understand what's going on around me.

I didn't just learn history from Doonesbury; I learned how important it is to learn. And because of that, I've learned more from Doonesbury, The Best Comic Strip To Learn From, than I learned from any three history classes, or even from most of my schooling.

I can't tell anyone that, but it's true. When we're caught in a lifeboat together and I'm giving you stock tips, don't ask where all my knowledge comes from. We'll both feel a little better about that. But do read Doonesbury.

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Thinking The Lions is the hilarious compilation of the adventures of a guy with a lot of kids, a lot of love of 70s music, a lot of time to watch Battlestar Galactica, and a very patient wife. Life, only funnier.

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