During my teaching career, my students and I looked forward together to story time as much as we did any time of the day. I particularly loved telling fairytales and fables to children. Allegory is one of the greatest methods for teaching a moral truth. Jesus told parables for a reason; people remember the deep truths that such tales tell.
Which brings me to Hans Christian Andersen’s ancient fairytale/fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes.
So off went the Emperor in procession under his splendid canopy. Everyone in the streets and the windows said, “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection?”
Everyone in the crowd could plainly see that the Emperor was naked. But since they had already given themselves to believe a lie, their pride kept many of them from admitting they were wrong.
Finally, a little child shouted out, “The Emperor has no clothes!”
A friend of mine called me last night and expressed his sincere remorse at being so profoundly and thoroughly fooled for his previously believing that the American emperor had on beautiful clothes, so to speak, when he in fact had on none.
I reassured my friend that he could take some solace in the fact that so many of my other friends and family were victims of a similar self-delusion, as well.
As were tens of millions of my fellow Americans, who somehow were hypnotized by the emperor to believe in wild and unfounded conspiracy theories regarding his removal from power by what was repeatedly and independently verified to be a remarkably free and fair election by the people of the land.
But how is it that so many good people were so remarkably fooled by the lies and deceit and smoke and mirrors of the American emperor?
When enough minds close themselves to reasonable thinking and choose to fill themselves up, instead, with unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, societal self-delusion can happen anywhere at any time.
Which is precisely why the topic of this column, education, is so all-important to us all if we want to remain free.
Once upon a time, the insanity of Great Britain’s King George fooled many good people in that magnificent country. A great deal of the British citizenry went along with whatever their ruler said, largely because they had “invested” themselves so much in the belief that he wore such beautiful clothes, so to speak.
Pride in our most preciously held beliefs can keep us from admitting when we are wrong. All of us are susceptible. None of us are immune to such a thing. We are human. We are fallible. We can tell ourselves that something is very much one way, when all reasonable logic tells us it is, indeed, not that way at all. We can become hypnotized. Much like the emperor, we can eventually begin to view ourselves (however unwittingly) within a false reality show. We are then, in effect, utterly blinded to the obvious truth.
Indeed, at the end of this wonderful and ancient fable, the eyes of the people were opened. Slowly and strangely, for many. But open, they did.
Lies often travel fast. It is the way of lies. But in defense of many good people; lies, especially when repeated to us time after time after time, can appear to be true. Therefore, good people, even the best among us, can be fooled.
Truth, in contrast, is often painstakingly slow. It is the way of truth. But the truth eventually strips us bare of any fake news and shows the whole world who we really are.
The Emperor’s New Clothes is a timeless fairytale with a wonderful moral to teach all those who are willing to learn it; Our own self-pride should not prevent us from acknowledging something that is plainly and irrefutably true.
As a lifetime teacher of little children, I found that discovering a new truth (even one that would alter a previously held belief, no matter how strong that belief may be) comes quite easily for them. They are quite “eager” to learn new things and, therefore, are much more readily able to process and accept new knowledge than we adults.
May we all learn to be so big.
Ben Talley is an inductee into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, a former Virginia Teacher of the Year, and a McGlothlin Award Winner for Teaching Excellence.