September 13, 2016

Learning How to Think: A Gateway to Freedom

This week, we continue our series with Charles Sutherland. In this post, he shares about his high school years and how learning to question everything became a gateway to freedom.


As the time approached to go to high school, my mother and her sisters wanted me to attend Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha, which was a strong academic Catholic school run by the Jesuit priests.  My father and our parish priest were against it, saying that once the Jesuits taught me how to think I would “lose my faith.”  They wanted me to go to a regular Catholic school across town run by Catholic nuns. My father also said that the tuition at the Jesuit school was nearly five times as the other school, and he would not pay it.  

However, when I tested, I received a small scholarship.  In addition, one of my aunts, on my mother’s side, was the Mother Superior of a large group of Catholic nuns in the Mid-West, and she wanted me to go to the Jesuit school.  With her Catholic connections, she even arranged to get me free books for my entire set of courses!  

Since my father and the parish priest knew I was ‘already thinking too much’, they gave up, and resigned themselves to the fact that I might “lose my faith” and go to hell.  So they relented, but my father refused to provide me any financial support or pay any of the tuition, or even the bus fare to get to school.  So, I got a job, and then another job, and another job, all the way through high school.

On my first day of high school, the Jesuit principal assembled all of the freshmen and told us, “With your cooperation as students wanting to learn, we intend to help you become thinking men – but not just to think, and do nothing.  We intend to make you ‘Contemplatives in Action’ so that you use your mind for something, and are always acting… and thinking.”  Then he said, “Look around at those sitting next to you. Before this is over, one out of the three of you won’t make it here.”  Everyone got nervous.

When he concluded, he said, “One thing you will need to survive around here is a good sense of humor.  Humor is one of the earmarks of intelligence. And, of course, without humor life is boring.  It also enables us to observe stupidity without anger.  The older you get, the more stupidity you will encounter.  So make sure you have fun while learning.”  Then he added, “Even God has a sense of humor.  If you don’t think so, just look around again at your fellow students.”  Everyone laughed.

With that, at the age of 13, we embarked upon four years of classical studies, Latin and Greek, history and literature.  Then, because the Soviets put a satellite in orbit, study intensified.  The Americans wanted to get ahead of the Soviets, the Catholics wanted to have better schools than the public schools, and the Jesuits wanted to have the best academics of all.  So we were the academic ‘victims’ – now with extended school hours, learning advanced mathematics and calculus.  That was in addition to our extra-curricular activities, clubs, and sports.

The principal focus was on thinking, and challenging every thought, idea, and even every religious belief we were supposed to have.  It was clear that the Jesuit priests did not believe everything the Church was teaching. One religion teacher said, “God is truth. Just pursue the truth, and let the Vatican have its own approach to things.”

There was also strong discipline, and no tolerance for bad behavior. All students had to carry ‘Demerit Cards’ with them, and would receive a demerit for doing anything wrong.  Once five demerits were obtained, the student would have to stay after school and do an assignment in literature or math, which sometimes took several hours.  The priests would simply call the parents and tell them the student would not be ready to leave school until 6 or 7 o’clock.  Parents knew that if they ever objected to the discipline, the student was expelled from the school.  And, in those days, parents knew that teachers imposed morality, not permissiveness.

Throughout my high school days my father would not allow me to date girls, or even use his car.  His physical discipline declined as I grew larger and more willing to confront him.  Then he stopped when my cousin, a boxer in the Air Force, was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha … and intervened. My father did not want to get into a fight with my older cousin.  My cousin also allowed me the use of his car, and became my friend and role model.

Because we were Catholics at an all boys prep school, and regarded as the ‘brainy boys’ in Nebraska, other schools wanted to beat us in debate tournaments and in sports.  However, our academic training enabled us to win many State contests in debate and public speaking, and our sports teams regularly won the State Championships.  We even played against Gale Sayers, who later became a football Hall of Fame legend (That famous high school game with Gale Sayers brought nearly 15,000 people to the stands, and was a tie.) Sayers also became famous for the wonderful movie Brian’s Song.  Many of our students later became important figures in America.

With the Jesuits there was no question ‘off limit’ on any subject, as long as we asked the question politely, and engaged in follow-up analysis to make sure we were actually interested in learning and not ‘just being cute or confrontational.’  As a consequence, we developed a pattern of questioning everything, and analyzing whatever was told to us… by anyone… and being polite in arguments.  Ultimately, as my father and the parish priest predicted, that caused me to abandon many of my religious beliefs – many of which I had already abandoned anyway.

The entire atmosphere was intellectual honesty. The excitement of learning and thinking made me ignore the pain of personal abuse in our household. Jesuit priests became our friends, to whom we could confide anything and discuss anything. The entire experience was a feeling of intellectual and emotional liberation.  And, many of us maintained those friendships for decades, until our former Jesuit mentors and friends passed away.

During the philosophical discussions we learned to challenge our most cherished beliefs, and to discard many of them.  An intellectual pattern was set, to experience the joy of learning something new, rather than fearing the loss of traditional religious beliefs. We regarded ourselves as part of ‘American Exceptionalism’ and we enjoyed knowing that there were many renowned Jesuit-trained people throughout history, some applauded and others despised. Our class cartoon was a montage of Voltaire in Paris writing anti-clerical diatribes, a priest in Central America with a Latin textbook in one hand and a rifle in another, and Fidel Castro in the Escambray Mountains of Cuba. The caption on the cartoon was, “Jesuit educated men are active everywhere!”

When my high school days were over, I knew I had been trained and educated better than most students ever could be.  It was then that I became the first in my family to ever go to college.  Of course, my father did not approve, and wanted me to go to work for the Union Pacific Railroad where he worked and was a major labor leader.  The Union Pacific was an important company in Omaha, the town of its headquarters.  However, I knew this was just a way for him to try to control me again … and another frustrating attempt to keep me Catholic.  

So, I left town for college, with a small scholarship to a Jesuit college in Denver, and not enough money to even complete the first year.  But, I knew I had the education, and the stubborn Scotch-Irish determination to succeed at whatever I tried.  Like my desire to go to a Jesuit high school, it was the beginning of another adventure against the odds.

An analysis of what this all meant, and the result of this intellectual fermentation, will be in the next post!


Charles Sutherland was educated at schools and universities in the United States and Europe, including the University of Vienna and the London School of Economics and Political Science. As a student and international businessman for over 40 years, he has lived, studied, worked in, or traveled to over 60 countries. He has sat on numerous Boards of Directors and has launched a wide variety of business ventures and philanthropic organizations in the United States, Latin America, Europe (including the former Soviet Union), Asia, and the Middle East. He has also been Director of Development of The Washington Times, and author of numerous articles and several books, including Disciples of Destruction: The Religious Origins of War and Terrorism; Character for Champions; Red Tape: Adventure Capitalism in the New Russia (co-author); Clash of the Gods (co-author); The Poison Planters, and GMO Food Poison Handbook. He has two sons and lives in the Washington, DC area.

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