Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Liberal Arts Under Attack…Consequences”
March 7. 2016
“Education is the movement from darkness to light.
Allen Bloom (1930-1992)
American philosopher, classicist
and author of Closing of the American Mind
In a message to Congress on internal security in August of 1950, Harry Truman said: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of the opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
President Truman was speaking at a time when Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy was coming to prominence with his attacks on “perceived” Communists in government. (Not all of his accusations were false, but his tone and manner were venal.) While Mr. Truman did not approve of Senator McCarthy’s harangues, he knew the Wisconsin Senator was free to bloviate. Silencing him would prove more dangerous to democracy than letting him spout off. Mr. Truman’s counsel has applicability in the corridors of our politically correct colleges and universities where demands to censor those who are seen as purveyors of “hateful” messages have gained approval of presidents and deans. “Inclusiveness,” with these folks is okay, as long as it does not include those who offer ideas outside accepted norms.
Student disruptions regarding conservative speakers is not the problem. It is the acquiescence to their demands by faculty and administrators that risks upending a free society. Students have always had a juvenile streak. I know I did. But professors, deans and college presidents are expected to act and respond like adults – to be the keepers of Mr. Truman’s precept for freedom.
Those who argue that “hateful” speech should be censored cite Adolph Hitler, a demagogue and master of invective. He spewed venom. It was not his words of hate that made him a monster. It was his shutting up of his critics. Hitler took the extreme measures of imprisoning or murdering those who disagreed or he thought inferior. But it was the silencing of critics, no matter the means, that was wrong. Keep in mind Voltaire’s admonishment: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.”
One way the young learn is by questioning conventional thinking. Socratic methods abet the self-examined life, critical to a liberal arts education. Inquiring minds seek answers, and most students are in college to learn. But they do not do so when they are pampered, when “safe” places are substituted for difficult lessons. Consider: Would the provision of a “safe” place help students at Bowdoin because they were offended by other students wearing sombreros to a tequila party? Were they truly upset, or were they pushing the administration because they knew they could? Were Cornell students really offended by the word “plantation,” that it evoked images of slavery? If so, where does political correctness end? There are 600,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, many of which are sure to be disparaging to someone somewhere. Should we rely on college administrators or government bureaucrats to determine which words to use? Who will police us and what punishments will be forthcoming? Such control smacks of the “thought police” in George Orwell’s nightmarish novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
President Obama was opting for “safe” places when his administration ran the dystopian video, “Life of Julia,” a cradle-to-grave depiction of the ideal life of an American woman; or think of the “pajama boy” ad run by the PAC, Organizing for Action, in support of Mr. Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Should not the role of education be to help people become self reliant, to take responsibility, to lessen dependency? A nation of “Julias’” and “pajama boys” is a nation in decline.
Much of what passes for “sensitivity” in colleges is simply silly, like Harvard Law School’s abandonment of its 86-year-old shield based on the crest of the slave-holding Royall family, the family who helped fund the school, or decisions to abolish the term “master” for those who oversee student residences at Yale, Princeton and M.I.T. Our history consists of the good and the bad, of that which we boast and of that which we are ashamed. But is our history; white-washing does not alter the past.
In part, this attack on liberal arts is in response to the demand for more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses. Innumeracy among college graduates is a hindrance in today’s global economy. The attacks also stem from the high cost of college – a bloating of administrative and non-teaching professionals, the building of luxurious accommodations for students and poorly thought-out government student loan programs. As well, they are a consequence of leftist sanctimony, that they, the one percent, knows what is best for the ninety-nine percent. They come from the provisioning of “safe” places for students claiming to be threatened by hateful words. College, we should remember, is not for everyone, and it does not guarantee a good income. We need the skills that trade schools offer and there should be no shame in not going to college. In fact, one could suggest that the attack on liberal arts is the corollary of a government that has done too much to ensure a college education for all and too little to assist job creation.
The most important reason for an education is to enlighten the mind – to teach one to think; to learn the sciences, to study history and to understand their relationships to the world around us; it is to appreciate beauty, whether in art, music, poetry, books, or simply the natural world. Inherent to a liberal arts education is the understanding of the concept of freedom and democracy, that, in the history of man, it is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is rare and fragile; it can be destroyed from within as well as from without. A liberal education requires an understanding of opposing ideologies and opinions. Students should learn that most people live in a world fenced in by autocrats, and that there is an inverse relationship between dependency on government and personal liberty. To anyone questioning that dictum, I suggest reading Ian Kershaw’s new book, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949.
Life is neither easy nor fair. It can never be. Government should help ensure that everybody has the opportunity for a basic education – an educated electorate is vital for the public good. Universities and colleges should see as their mission the matriculation into life of skilled, productive graduates who appreciate the privilege of living freely – that freedom is more important than political correctness. Students should understand that freedom means there are no safe harbors, no “safe” places. They must be willing to hear opposing views. But they should feel confident that their learning has given them the tools to make decisions that allow them to adapt as the world changes. They must learn to take responsibility. Finally, diplomas in hand, new graduates should understand that a degree does not mean that one is in possession of all knowledge; for learning never stops.
The manifestations of a decline in liberal arts include rising political correctness and declining educational standards. The consequences are governments that ignore self-accountability and discourage self reliance, and political candidates that appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect. The result is an electorate having the dilemma, as America does today, of deciding between two undesirable choices. “For the want of a nail…,” as the proverb goes, “the kingdom was lost.”