Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend
You don’t need to wear your childhood coat
Deirdre Condit, associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, spoke at the Richmond First Club in December and used a quote from Thomas Jefferson that is one of my favorites. It is one that I used several times in my career in Virginia’s government and when I was active in political activities.
During those years, I would occasionally realize that a position I had taken was wrong. In government and politics, it is not recommended that you change a position on an issue; if you do so, you can count on being accused of flip- flopping, folding under pressure or just being unreliable.
But when you realize you have been wrong, that you now know more than you did before, then it is more wrong not to acknowledge that, so you prepare to bear the discomfort and change.
It is apparent that Jefferson had also recognized the need to change his position a time or two because of these words he included in a letter he wrote in 1816, when he was 73 years old:
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths are discovered and manner and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Being on sabbatical from political activities while serving on the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Council and being retired from full- time government service for nearly 11 years, I have not had cause to defend not wearing the coat that fitted me when I was a boy. Hearing that quote now causedme to put it into a whole new, and much larger, context.
I occasionally teach history courses for The Shepherd’s Center of Richmond and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at the University of Richmond and the College of William & Mary. I also have the honor of serving as president of the board of directors of The Shepherd’s Center of Richmond.
What could be a better explanation than Jefferson’s words for the commitment to lifelong learning? This is exactly why we should never stop learning, regardless of our age.
Whenever I prepare a course to teach, I learn much more than time would ever permit me to include in a course. Even when I teach a course that I have taught before, I enjoy finding new information about the subject. Sometimes I even discover new information that contradicts what I thought was a fact up until that time, and that is absolutely fine.
Shepherd’s Center and Osher scholars attend our sessions because they want to learn new things, and their intellectual inquisitiveness gifts them with an insatiable receptivity to accept new perspectives and to even occasionally recognize that what they conscientiously considered to be true might require reconsideration. That is the fascinating nexus between an open mind and a changing world.
What a dull and boring life it must be for those who fear or choose to close their minds to new information and new perspectives — who dismiss anything different and intellectually insist upon trying to “wear still the coat which fitted him [ or her] as a boy [ or girl].”
As a history enthusiast, I amexcited to see so many things in a different light, a new perspective, than I saw them before. For instance, as a son of Virginia and the South, so much of the history I was taught in the 1950s and 1960s did not provide the same information and the same emphasis as we now have.
There are so many new things to learn about the different cultures, communities and conditions of the past that I never heard about during my school years. To the extent that these new things cause me to reconsider and re- evaluate opinions and perspectives, that is truly intriguing.
History is not threatened, obscured or discarded when we find facts that cause us to change the way we once thought. Learning new lessons in history is not erasing it, it is enhancing it.
Whether it is history or any other subject, learning has a marvelous immortality and there is always something new. That’s why The Shepherd’s Center’s and Osher’s lifelong learning opportunities are so valuable; each of our courses nourish, invigorate and challenge our neverceasing quest for fresh perspectives and new ideas.