• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


The Veneer of Civilization

And why it matters.


February 5, 2017

The three most important issues for education this past week, at least to me, were: the status of the DeVos nomination; the incident at UC Berkeley; and Trump’s tweet about that incident.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised by my positions. The DeVos nomination should fail. On the merits, she is an embarrassingly unprepared candidate with little more than the Billionaire’s Club membership to recommend her. Politically, she is an extremist, someone who has used her wealth to privatize American education – an entrepreneur’s dream – at the expense of the public. A vote against her need not be political, however; someone of such astoundingly limited experience or credentials in one of the most vital roles for the future of our country is disqualified before we even get to the political discussion. Anyone who cares about education as a fundamental value to American society, no matter what his or her politics, should reject her appointment to this vital position. Only a cynical entrepreneur who cares more about making money than educating today’s youth for tomorrow’s America could rationalize a vote her way.

The Berkeley incident is serious. Chancellor Dirks canceled a talk by the notoriously controversial Milo Yiannopoulos only after a bunch of off-campus thugs created violence among peaceful mostly campus protesters. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, the chancellor did so for health and safety reasons, not in violation of free speech. The real issue lies, however, in the intention of the thug actors to frame the peaceful protestors. Both campus and local law enforcement should be bringing considerable resources to bear on an investigation. Good money can be put on either Milo Yiannopoulos or his supporters. If it is true that Breitbart is an anti-Semitic, racist journal – I don’t read it so I don’t know for sure, but extracted quotes sure do make it sound that way – than all I can add is that if those connected with the journal or Yiannopoulos personally were involved in any of these disruptive activities, they are very unoriginal in their tactics. Purposeful disruptions designed to frame peaceful protestors was a favorite of twentieth-century fascists. 

 Let’s reflect on that observation.  The late history professor Eugene Genovese caught my attention so many years ago when I was an undergraduate taking his Western Civilization II course with a statement about genocide. It occurs repeatedly in history, he observed, but noted that part of what shocked people about Nazi Germany was that the Nazi party and German people, who passively or actively went along with the criminal acts of vandalism, violence, forced appropriations, trumped up arrests, forced kidnapping and mass murder, did so not against some tribe of people half way around the globe who looked and acted very differently from them but against the very people who had largely assimilated to the cultural norms, professions and everyday life of other Germans. How and why inhumane horrors were possible is the stuff of volumes of important sociological, ethical, and historical studies; I will not reproduce that literature here. I will draw from it to make one point. In some significant measure, it was possible because most people couldn’t believe that a civilized society and its government would behave in such shocking and brutal ways.  Indeed, 20th-century Western history teaches us that, in the words of a consummate conservative, Margaret Thatcher, “the veneer of civilization is very thin.” 

 And now what is that quote about those who fail to learn from history? Let us not be so ignorant as to think that just because someone has an education or speaks at colleges or writes for a journal or somehow gets public recognition is beyond acting like a thug. Or that a society, while for all intents and purposes appearing to be rational, is without malevolent forces. One of Freud’s last books, as he fled Austria in the wake of the Anschluss, “Civilization and Its Discontents,” speaks to these social-psychological aspects. No one should take civilization for granted, or assume that its very structures are an insurance against irrational hatred and violence, oppression and power for its own sake. Nothing about our Constitution or rule of law preternaturally guarantees a democratic future. Citizenship is not a given. It must be achieved every day.

 Higher education is a keeper of memories’ flame, but, it too, is not immune to self-destructive social forces. With notable individual exceptions – but more often not – university administrators and professors went along with twentieth-century fascistic movements in their home countries. Colleagues, let the scales fall from your eyes, cast the illusions awy. As keepers of memories’ flame, we shed light on what history teaches.  “You can’t believe how fast it can all fall,” was the wisdom on Thomas Africa, esteemed professor of Ancient Rome.  He referred to the Republic, and then later the Empire, but he spoke to a universal truth about change over time.  Consciously or unconsciously, as participants in our drama, we make decisions about our fate every day. It is now time that we become more conscious of what is going on around us. There are plenty of warning signs.
The last of the three most important issues about education this week appeared as a tweet. “If UC Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS.” From the President of the United States. Everyone in higher education should be outraged by this act. No rationalization will suffice. “He doesn’t understand how the law works in this area.”  “It is just Trump.” This perversion of the truth of what transpired in Berkeley, this delusion of grandiose authority and power, this threat, in fact, to free speech is the single most menacing statement I have ever heard in United States history about higher education especially given the office and personal reputation of the author.

Association and campus leaders must take it seriously, organize to confront this threat to our missions and remain vigilant about the integrity of our institutions.  DeVos is incapable of being a leader in this kind of effort. But the concern is far greater than her nomination: it goes right to the heart of who we are, what we think we are doing in higher education and why it matters.



Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top