Friday, May 24, 2019

Trinity’s Descent into Illiberal Education

From the ridiculous to the reprehensible, the last month has publicly demonstrated the descent of what passes for intellectual life at Trinity into totally illiberal, increasingly monolithic, tyranny. It has culminated in hate-filled threatening acts that are only one step from the actual violence we have witnessed at Berkeley, Evergreen State and Middlebury—unfortunately to name but a few.

The recent attacks are ugly, and can be quickly summarized. A group of students have wanted to study things they think are under-represented in the curriculum. They have been attacked by others who have thrown all manner of counter-factual accusations in the name of venting frustrations that have little or no bearing to the Churchill Club whatsoever other than that its members wish to question what they see as reigning, obviously unchallenged curricular assumptions on campus.

For this audacity these students have been subjected to one-sided inquisitions. Flyers with their pictures have been circulated on campus with the heading “The new racism is as ugly as the old.” And the all too easy hurling of the phrase “white supremacist” at people who merely disagree on fundamental philosophical premises is nothing but hate speech. It will predictably eventuate in the unintended consequence of the little boy who cried wolf. The term becomes meaningless when it is a blanket curse hurled at everyone with whom there is a philosophical difference of opinion. All of this in turn has brought out actually threatening communications, some, in an as yet unexplained fashion, having made their way into student mailboxes. This has escalated to the point where students rightly feel threatened and not just mentally but physically as well. Passions have been enflamed without much in the way of moderating voices so far.

Some have even taken public documents and prior communications, doctored them to say the opposite of what they initially said, and made additions that are clearly intended to enflame passions. This behavior is not only morally and intellectually reprehensible, but since it is done in written form, with clear intent, and then disseminated, is literally libel. And all of this has been in the service of attempting to intimidate a group of students who want nothing more than to host events, read books and bring speakers to campus.

These attacks represent an escalation of what has gone on for at least three years and drawn the total silence of the Administration. Flyers for a previous colloquium were taken down within minutes of being posted. A $400 banner announcing a Churchill get together at homecoming was vandalized with the spray painting of “fascists.” A bulletin board that announced nothing more inflammatory than internships and graduate programs in political philosophy was defaced with hateful and threatening speech. The list could be expanded. The silence about these events led to the present hateful escalation. The refusal of thoughtful individuals on campus to step up and denounce the present intimidating activity will lead to further escalation. One can only hope that a faculty whose members rose up in response to a recent event on campus that has been damaging to fundraising will respond similarly to this affront to free speech. Will we hear their voices now that free speech, and simple safety, are at issue once again?

But even the ridiculous elements of what we have seen lately paint a clear picture. Our Anthropology Department has proudly announced that their discipline has finally cracked the code on racism, and presumably on the nature of the human good more generally, and any other opinion can now be rejected as false. Unfortunately these assertions are only supported by a thin gruel of selective arguments drawn from Marxist and Postmodernist sources. Their assertions of finally having grasped the whole truth are indicative of the larger problem with the current

intellectual environment at Trinity. These and related kinds of views are part of the majority opinion that now informs our curriculum. Alternate views are increasingly screened from the discussion and then attacked when they sneak through into the public view.

Going further down the path of the ridiculous, despite the attempt to disguise venomous views under alleged humor, we have the also libelous “Liepod” piece that joins the fray and, without of course any evidence, accuses the Churchill Club of being a Nazi group. Really, the name of Churchill is now associated with supporting Nazism. I know it is probably too esoteric to refer to anything as atavistic as facts, or the ancient history of 80-90 years ago, but the actual Churchill led the fight of Western Civilization against one of the greatest evils of all time. And it was one of the West’s finest moments in which it shed enormous amounts of blood and treasure to defend principles that are now cavalierly dismissed as uniformly evil. These trivial, and so easily repeated catechisms, speak to nothing so much as a limited education.

But the ignorance runs even deeper. The rejection of the Western Tradition in toto descends from one specific historical moment within Western thought itself. And that is the moment when Nietzsche and Heidegger wrote about their despair regarding encroaching modern, urban, democratic, homogeneous, technological civilization. And that moment had more than a little embedded nostalgia for the moribund, aristocratic remnants of feudal European civilization—which itself was but one moment within a larger 2,500 year old Western Civilization. Despite frequently repeated assertions, Western Civilization clearly exists and has shown a complicated array of different, competing moments. But of course the majority seem determined only to deconstruct and “decenter” the phenomenon in the service of an ill-defined ultimate good that will allegedly take the place of Western Civilization. The rest of us are not allowed to take part in that discussion regarding the outlines of the future.

It is from Nietzsche and Heidegger that our present deconstructive, “decentering” moment of Western thought descends. It is that one, small, isolated moment that informs the present rejections of Western Civilization as entirely evil and with no redeeming features. From 19th and early 20th century dissatisfaction with Modern civilization comes the fashionable rejection of the entirety of Western Civilization in which the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. The baby in this instance is the open-minded Socratic questioning that is so quintessentially Western. And what we then see is the priests of our new inquisitions who are so determined to kill Socrates once again. These things are well known in the larger intellectual world. That announcing them in public at Trinity causes such consternation is a sign of our increasing provincialism.

Apparently, very few of our students know anything about the fundamental issues that have actually led up to the opinions that dominate their age. They apparently have very little in their curriculum that would give them the liberating knowledge that would moderate their hate and its concomitant inclination to simply reprehensible behavior. What appears to be the monolithic victory of one position on campus is signaled by the vituperation that is expended to shut down any discussion of ideas that would question what can only be called the increasing orthodoxy on campus. “The audacity that someone might have a different opinion,” has been the mindset of the priests of orthodoxy throughout history.

Where do we go from here if we wish to move beyond our present divisive hatefulness? The Administration has put forward the possibility of discussions of needed curricular initiatives. I concur. I know that there are serious and thoughtful people on the faculty. But their deafening silence in recent weeks has been anything but reassuring. So I have to believe that if there is any chance to get a diversity of ideas into the curriculum it will have to come from initiatives supported by the Administration directly. And we need those curricular expansions because it is

imperative that all students come to have a broader understanding of the range of ideas that exist in the larger world. Only that broader knowledge will mitigate the narrow minded, and ultimately hateful, actions spurred by a lack of the real understanding of the diversity of ideas that could spawn actual toleration.

Until we actually hear from the faculty and Administration, we are left with the primary necessity of appealing to the majority of our students. I truly believe that the vast majority of our students are still young, open-minded and unformed enough that they carry with them the true principles of American and Western Civilization. I truly believe that most have been shaped by intrinsic notions of justice, fairness, openness, genuine toleration and the desire to find individuals like themselves beyond any closed and segregated enclaves that can’t, or aren’t allowed in so many ways, to reach out to each other.

If as a society we do not live up to our principles, it is unfortunate even if in the nature of things it is predictable. But as long as we share the same principles, we have a common cause to bring us together. Making our society live up to its principles is entirely different than a total rejection of everything that has been life-giving and informed the aspirations, and the literal loss of blood and treasure, of untold generations going back to Socrates. A civilization should not be judged by the fact that it has yet to succeed in bringing heaven down to earth—that would require divine assistance. A civilization should be judged by its highest aspirations and the things for which it shows that it will stand and fight, both intellectually and literally. But first we need to study what those aspirations are, not exclusively how we have failed to live up to them.

Here at Trinity, in a reasonably small environment, there exists the possibility to reach out to actual flesh and blood individuals rather than relate to abstractions with whom one can never build bridges. The hope is that the students of Trinity will open themselves to a diversity of ideas and to each other as individuals. And I have this much faith in human nature—each generation brings forth minds who long to question the reigning opinions of the day. The regnant majority opinions at Trinity have been clearly expressed in the monolithic speech of recent weeks. I hope the Administration and faculty are genuinely willing to foster the kind of open questioning that each generation desires and needs. Our students deserve it.

Professor Gregory Bruce Smith

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