Education Opinion Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: Dimming the Lights

Two U.S. universities have recently taken the cultivation of ignorance to new lows, although at this point one hesitates to make any assumption as to where the bottom lies.
“Lies, Vice and Ignorance,” Aquitaine, France. (Bernard Blanc, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By Patrick Lawrence / Consortium News

Somewhere along the line, the thought seems to have taken hold among the cliques who rule America that an ignorant populace is more easily governed. Good old Bertie Russell made this general point with an eloquence almost too piercing to take in “Free Thought and Official Propaganda,” a lecture he delivered in London 101 years ago:

“But the utility of intelligence is admitted only theoretically, not practically; it is not desired that ordinary people should think for themselves, because it is felt that people who think for themselves are awkward to manage and cause administrative problems.”

You see the consequences of this perverse belief every day in the mainstream press and among the corporate-owned broadcasters. You can read headlines such as “10 Ways to Be Happy in the New Year” or “Where Did All the Bargain Bourbon Go?”

But you are not going to learn much from these media about the world in which you live. Your intelligence will not be enhanced or elevated; insult is the norm.

But mass media are merely mirrors reflecting the established ethos of the polity in which they operate. They do their best to keep Americans ignorant, certainly. If the ruling cliques wanted America to boast an intelligent populace, the press and broadcasters would do their part — as Jefferson understood this part to be — to inform them.

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No, even a press critic as severe as your columnist must look further down in the factory to understand where the process of manufacturing American ignorance truly begins. It begins in our schools and universities, with the administrators, teachers, and professors who run them.

The New York Times or The Washington Post would have the damnedest time getting readers to take them seriously, I am certain, unless those who take them seriously were not first conditioned to become “excellent sheep” — a phrase William Deresiewicz picked up from one of his students at Yale and later used to title his 2015 book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

Russell, who singled out America “not because America is any worse than other countries, but because it is the most modern,” was again savagely to this point:

“It must not be supposed that the officials in charge of education desire the young to become educated. On the contrary, their problem is to impart information without imparting intelligence.”

My thoughts on these questions are not new. I have for many years found the state of young people’s brains — a generalization with many, many exceptions — to be not short of appalling for their want of knowledge, of depth, of subtlety and especially of history. And I am quick to note in conversing with those of my own generation that the fault here lies very largely with us: It is we who have imparted so poorly the principles of “free thought,” known among the Jesuits as discernment — we who have insisted everyone gets a prize and no one ever fails, we who have sent young men and women who cannot read off to universities, where no-one-fails remains the norm. It is we who have failed.

Let us now give two more well-deserved “Fs.” One goes to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and one to Hamline, a small Methodist university in St. Paul, Minnesota. Both of these institutions have recently taken the cultivation of ignorance to new lows, although at this point one hesitates to make any assumption as to where the bottom lies.

Harvard & Kenneth Roth

The Harvard case concerns Kenneth Roth, who stepped down last spring after 29 years as executive director of Human Rights Watch. Sushma Raman, executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School, shortly thereafter offered Roth a senior fellowship.

It seemed a perfect fit, Roth’s notion of human rights conforming very closely with the American orthodoxy. All went well until the offer landed for formal approval on the desk of Douglas Elmendorf, the chinless wonder who serves as the Kennedy School’s dean.

No, Elmendorf replied to the Roth candidacy. It soon emerged that it was Roth’s record on Israel that sank his ship, notably HRW’s report last April, “A Threshold Crossed,” wherein the organization officially designated Israel an apartheid state.

Michael Massing reported all this in great detail in “Why the Godfather of Human Rights Is Not Welcome at Harvard,” published in The Nation’s edition dated January 2023.

Let us be instantly clear about various matters. HRW made some admirable judgments in the course of Roth’s years running it. The designation of Israel as an apartheid state is a standout among these and took guts given the howls of “anti-Semitism” Roth had to know were to come. But there have not been overmany of these good calls, and some of them have been so obvious and ideologically safe as to resemble shooting at the side of a barn.

Roth, a former Justice Department lawyer, is in truth a creature of the American imperium, an apostle of its right to judge the conduct of all others and intervene when it sees fit. It was The New York Times that honored him as “the godfather of human rights.”

It is true, as Massing reports, that HRW grew hugely in size and ambition during his 29 years atop it. This does not interest me in and of itself. Roth’s were the years the national security state shifted the subversion and coup functions from the C.I.A. to the National Endowment for Democracy and the “civil society” scene, and when HRW became, accordingly, a chief sponsor of “humanitarian interventionism” as a cover for many of America’s unlawful intrusions abroad.

It is, in the end, a matter of where one stands on the question of American righteousness. I have long mistrusted the position on this that HRW assumed under Roth’s stewardship.

Having said these things, let us now set them entirely aside. Under no circumstance would I count my criticisms of Roth as ground for rejecting his candidacy. It is the same with Elmendorf’s objections:  They are profoundly anti-intellectual.

Were he any kind of intellectually qualified administrator, he would have run a mile in the opposite direction — declaring Roth a welcome addition to the faculty because he would fertilize the school’s discourse on matters such as Israel and prompt its students to seek their own conclusions on Israel and numerous other matters.

“Education,” to cite Bertrand Russell once more, “would aim at expanding the mind, not at narrowing it.” Elmendorf, I will give odds, has never read Russell. He has lumped education together with “propaganda and economic pressures,” just as the British philosopher had it with Elmendorf’s kind.

Harvard got poorer with the Roth decision last year — poorer in the ways that truly matter.

Hamline University did, too, in a very different context. Both institutions, eager to protect endowments and tuition income, impoverish themselves and their students such that deepening ignorance, and so a weaker nation, can be the only results.

Hamline & Erika López Prater

Erika López Prater, is that most pitiable of scholars, an adjunct professor — underpaid, expendable, defenseless against any and all attacks on their teaching methods, the complaints of discontented know-nothings in their lecture halls, on their academic freedom altogether. If her story is smaller bore than Roth’s, it is at least as craven in its details.

Last autumn López Prater was giving an art history class wherein she proposed to widen the field of study beyond the Western canon to give “world art history” something closer to its true meaning. In this cause she determined to show students slides of various non–Western images, some of them religious.

Among these was a 14th–century painting, an acknowledged masterpiece of Islamic art. It was a depiction of Muhammad found in a book called Jami al–TawarikhCollector of Chronicles. This was written by a Persian statesmen, historian and physician named Rashid al–Din, who was a curious figure: He was a Jew who converted to Islam and rose high in the court of the Mongols who ruled Persia at the time.

López Prater took all the precautions that could be expected of her in our age of vicious wokery, political correctness and censorship. She advised in her syllabus of her intent to show such images. She invited students to go to her with any misgivings they may have.

No one approached her. When the day arrived to show the painting from Jami al–Tawarikh, she announced her intent a few minutes in advance and invited students who might object to sign out of that day’s lecture, which was online. No student did so.

Then she showed the image. Then a student named Aram Wedatalla, a Sudanese Muslim, complained. And then the Hamline University administration fired Erika López Prater.

“It was important that our Muslim students, as well as other students, feel safe, supported, and respected both in and out of our classrooms,” Fayneese Miller, Hamline’s president, said in a statement, having by then signed an email message saying respect for Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom.”

I invite readers to follow the logic of these statements out to the horizon. There you will find not only is Hamline University in trouble, but that we all are.

The jaw drops. First, given all the hoops López Prater jumped through to clear the way — more than I would’ve bothered with — this looks awfully like a case of entrapment fashioned by a student desperate for attention and overflowing with misplaced righteousness. Second, the administration at Hamline seems at least the match of students such as Aram Wedatalla as measured by weakmindedness.

As a scholar named Todd Green, an expert on the subject of Islamophobia, put it, Hamline’s administration “closed down conversation when they should have opened it up.” Well said, Professor Green.

López Prater’s case was well-reported in The New York Times on Sunday under the headline, “A Lecturer Showed a Painting of the Prophet Mohammad. She Lost Her Job.” I waited in anticipation to see if the Times would publish the image in question or duck out the side door. It did the right thing. And the painting is indeed a splendid work of art.

At this point, the people advocating all this reprehensible conduct are tripping over their own feet. We must “decolonize the scholarly canon,” they say, but we must oblige those who insist that certain images must not be shown.

The Qur`an, I should note, contains no prohibition against images of the Prophet, as should be obvious given the provenance of the painting in question. These proscriptions were added in the teachings of later centuries.

The human rights program at Harvard, the art history department at a small liberal arts university in the Midwest: Where are we headed here? Are we opening American minds or closing them?

In an address to some seminarians six years ago, Pope Francis, a Jesuit, took up the question of discernment, which I count among the vital topics of our time given how short of it we are. Here is a little of what he had to say:

“Discernment is a choice of courage, contrary to the more comfortable and reductive ways of rigorism and of laxness, as I have repeated many times. To educate to discernment means, in fact, to flee from the temptation to seek refuge behind a rigid norm or behind the image of an idealized freedom; to educate to discernment means to ‘expose’ oneself, to go out of the world of one’s convictions and prejudices… .”

López Prater seems to me a discerning professor, and may she find work at a worthier institution. She is, in the way Russell used the term, an awkward person. May she remain one.

And Kenneth Roth? With reluctance born of the aforementioned mistrust, I suppose I must acknowledge he has proven capable of discernment on certain occasions. But he is too much the bureaucratic player, too easily managed, to be counted among the admirably awkward.

Two different kinds of people, they both should nonetheless be defended against the forces that arrayed against them this past year, those dedicated to dimming lights and reducing American minds to their narrowness.

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Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

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