I remember the Pentagon Papers — a time when disclosure of government documents revealed key government secrets. The absolutely crucial step that led the revelation of the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO program came when an activist group broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, grabbed documents and published them. The word COINTELPRO happened to be on one of them, which ultimately led to the Congressional investigation that exposed a good many of the FBI’s layers of illegal secret activities. So I certainly see the importance of air, light, exposure. And yet I think the whole Wikileaks program is not only wrong in itself, it is a prime symptom of so much that we here have been describing as wrong in education and our time.
Here’s why: the assumption of the current dump of diplomatic documents is either that we the public have a right to know, or that the government has no right to hide, the conversations and calculations of diplomats. That strikes me as completely wrong. It is the total Now Is What Matters attitude of a moment that places more value on immediate contact than depth. I’ve mentioned Zadie Smith’s piece about Facebook, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/25/generation-why/ Well it strikes me that Wikileaks is exactly what she decries in the piece — the flatening out of lives into bits and exchanged data. Anyone who knows the slightest thing about history, politics, government, anyone with the merest smidgeon of adult sense, knows that diplomats are required to speak one way in public and another in private, that they must provide cover to their home consituencies while exploring what actions can be taken somewhat out of sight on the world stage. That is a baseline assumption about how the world works. Wikileaks seems so immensely childish — an endless leftout scream of the child whose parents have gone out to the party.
One obvious reason for students to learn history is that they need some grounding, some depth, some sense of context — which is precisely the opposite of Wikileaks — they are All Now All of the Time — as if their great pleasure in finding this stash is all that matters. It is just so immature. But it is the immaturity of a time in which we are far better at creating digital connection than we are at crafting deeper meaning. And that is why our work with young people matters. Everyone else is selling connection, we have to give them the experience and pleasure of depth. If I were teaching a high school class I’d have them read Metternich or Kissinger or Machiavelli or Sun Tzu now while the headlines talk about Wikileaks. While the whole world learns that rain is wet, my students would be unfolding their umbrellas.