“There is a tone of ugliness creeping across the world, as democracies retreat, as tribalism mounts, as suspiciousness and authoritarianism take center stage.” -- David Brooks, The New York Times
Excuse me for interrupting the third year of superheated committee meetings on a minor change in requirements, but has anyone noticed we are at war? Not with terrorists, not with this or that nation, but with something larger and deeper and still more consequential. And has anyone further noticed that we are losing?
The greatest advantage in battle occurs when the target is unaware of being under attack.
The oblivious “we” here are liberal arts educators, but beyond us, all advocates of reason. And the attacking forces consist in the fundamentalist dogmas that have arisen to an alarming degree over the last several years in the world and as populist dogma in the United States.
A rejection of science, reason, understanding and even facticity itself threatens not merely the university but the crumbling of civil liberties into the primitive life that Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
As a leading example, if extremist Muslims now selectively and reductively read the Koran to justify massacres, sexism, intolerance and slavery, our own extremist Christians now selectively and reductively scan the Hebrew and Christian Bibles in just the same way to promulgate just the same rationalizations of evil. Holy books present a full spectrum of attitudes, and international and national conflict today is fueled by choosing the most illiberal passages as the sole word of Allah/God. Millions of people now follow tyrants, justified, they believe, by their “anger” -- the new euphemism for irrational hatred.
What’s threatened by the new savagery is not just the college campus but also the Enlightenment in its most capacious sense: the values of skepticism, empiricism, scientific and philosophic rigor, and the tolerance that affords individual liberties. Even objections to Enlightenment values -- that they ignore the irrational or mask self-interest -- can be considered only in a setting established by those values. Such values -- the ones that our national founders signed onto in the Declaration of Independence and that undergird higher education as a guarantor of the republic and of human dignity -- are under a special intensity of attack while we academics seem preoccupied with the little stuff.
The biggest and worst surprise of my life has been this worldwide regression to bigoted ignorance and the gullibility or desperation that has enabled that ignorance such noxious success. Perhaps it was my own gullibility that had led me to assume the forward march of humanity toward a sunny spirit guided by reason. But all over the world they are turning out the lights.
Is time running backward into the darkness? The various nations in which Islam predominates spent the 19th century secularizing so rapidly that each decade “telescoped” a European century, in historian Juan Cole’s phrase. Christopher de Bellaigue has noted that in The Guardian and said, “In the middle of the century, the Ottoman sultan declared equality between Muslim and non-Muslim subjects, the slave trade was outlawed and the harem fell gradually into desuetude …. Culture, too, was transformed, with a surge in nonreligious education, and the reform of the Arabic, Turkish and Persian languages -- the better to present modern poetry, novels and newspaper articles before the potent new audience of ‘public opinion.’” With all that came representative government in the most populous nations of Egypt, Iran and Turkey. It isn’t that there has been no enlightenment in the Arab nations, he added, but rather that it has been pushed back, as many Arabs have “expanded their distaste for the curled colonial lip into a more general critique of modern life.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, a leading presidential candidate has characterized this same Arab world as filled with hatred for America, condemning billions of people when in fact a Gallup survey of Muslims in more than 30 nations found that 93 percent denounced the attacks on Sept. 11 -- probably a greater percentage than Christians. Indeed, de Bellaigue writes, “Many millions of Muslims live in harmony with the modern values of personal sovereignty and human rights; another self-evident truth in need of reiteration.”
In need of reiteration, that is, because of the disinformation campaign that has taken the liberal arts values of relative and competing truths and distorted them into denials of fact. Thus we have Holocaust deniers, climate-change deniers and hate-fantasy inventors who fabricate nonexistent events like New Jersey Muslim celebrations of the attack on the World Trade Center. When did this deliberate ignorance, incivility and savagery become acceptable? Every newscast produces a sense of disheartened astonishment until we barely know the highly imperfect yet slowly improving modern world we thought we inhabited.
But there is no time for shock. This moment requires that we -- educators in particular -- push back the encroaching darkness. The only question now is, how do we win the war for freed thought, for cognition’s real deal, heuristic and brave?
Mark Salter suggests a first obligation: to win battles within ourselves, for no one of us is immune from shutting off reason in a season of rage. In other words, we academics must be aware of our own closed mindedness. In a confessional essay in Esquire, Salter, a former aide to Senator John McCain, admits that the nasty bigotries of a presidential contender have caused him to forsake his enlightenment ethic. “I’ve always distrusted people who never question their assumptions or test their opinions against their critics’ arguments. I believe empathy is the starting point of wisdom, and imagining things from an opponent’s point of view is essential to solving problems ….” But now, he explains, disgust and indignation have overtaken his reason, that requirement of liberal education that we consider all views -- not just technically but with feeling -- before we earn our way to our own conclusion. “Nothing anyone could reveal about Trump could get me to change my opinion that he’s an asshole.”
Much as the emotional release afforded by an obscenity is enjoyable, Salter’s usage is striking: “My mind is closed. Slammed shut. Triple bolted. Sealed like a tomb.” This degree of dismissal is deathly, whereas, as Salter is aware, the life of the mind requires openness. “The soul,” writes poet Emily Dickinson, “should always stand ajar.” What Salter is describing is the victory of the reductive dogmatist to make over his opponent in his mirror image. When he has contempt for Trump like Trump exhibits contempt, darkness descends.
This is not to say that we are to live in what author Herman Melville termed “the eternal If.” Although one obligation of a liberal education (not the opposite of “conservative,” but Cicero’s term for an education befitting a free citizenry) is to scout honestly all positions, another is to reach a conclusion and act without compromise upon it. That conclusion may be one of the considered positions, an amalgam of them or a fresh alternative -- just as long as it is earned. In that regard, liberal thought is contrary to talk radio or electoral politics, which both depend upon a barrage of assertion and hyperbole, a parade of unearned confidence in simplicities and catch phrases.
A second obligation, just outside of the self, has to do with the life of the campus. We educators hate hearing a politician call colleges “indoctrination camps” and want to remind politicians like Marco Rubio that we stand for exactly the opposite -- and that it is those on the extreme right who tirelessly seek to indoctrinate and who search for those campus aberrations when we fail to fulfill our ideal of open inquiry. And yet, to the extent that Senator Rubio’s accusation contains any truth, we need to be bold in protecting academe from all forms of indignation that indiscriminately censor opposition.
As Robert Boyers, a professor of English at Skidmore College and editor of Salmagundi, wrote recently, “I find it impossible to imagine a social order I would want to live in that isn’t built around a continuing, even interminable series of arguments,” and that is exactly the social order the university must model. Feeling “unsafe” (granting that at times students experience such a sense authentically) can never justify refusing the right of others to possess a different perspective. Nor should we promulgate the sense that any side of a debate has a monopoly on demagoguery.
Ad bellum purificandum -- to purify war -- is the motto of literary critic Kenneth Burke’s great work, A Grammar of Motives. By that, he meant that we lift conflict, which is inevitable and even potentially fruitful, out of the squalor of physical violence and into the arenas of thought and debate. That’s our job and nothing else. Advocacy is inevitable in our formation of courses and our assignments of readings and experiments, but our task in higher education is to minimize our solipsism, not to roll around in it. Discovery remains the only legitimate side to take.
A third obligation for academics is to further keep the door of the mind ajar by expanding the liberal arts perspective. De Bellaigue backs up his title, “Stop Calling for a Muslim Enlightenment,” by demonstrating that such an enlightenment in fact already took place, with many of the same goals as the European and American versions. But that leads to a requirement of mutuality: “Talk of teaching [Muslims] Voltaire is a joke as long as they cannot teach us back.” Globalism requires far more than promulgating study abroad or admitting wealthy international students to our campuses. It means extending again and again beyond the West and its traditional canon.
The other new reach for the liberal arts should be toward the public life. Many of us entered academe as an alternative to the larger society in which we grew up. Our collective disposition may make it difficult for us to leave that academic grove to apply what we know and to learn from messy experience. But so we must, as poets have taught us for centuries.
In Renaissance pastoral literature, the poet leaves the city for a rural retreat to acquire a calmer and broader perspective, but then he must return to the city of social challenges to apply the attained wisdom. And while we may fear that our engagement will sacrifice the distance required to perform our traditional duty of critiquing society, surely it is far better to constitute reality than merely to condemn it.
For example, when I presided at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, our Humanities at Work program provided small stipends to graduate students in the humanities to work with institutions beyond the academy. We were amazed by the initiative of the students: the comp lit student at Columbia who worked on hate literature with the Anti-Defamation League, the history student at Virginia who started a camp in Mississippi for African-American kids to learn about their heritages, the Texas literature student who wrote capsule biographies of the astronauts for NASA, and another student at Texas, who used many aspects of her discipline of anthropology -- autobiographical writing, folk telling, dance and drawings -- to help teenage girls who had been abused as children to discover a more positive self-image.
The trends toward making scholarship more available and exploring round-trip exchanges between learning and engagement are crucial and hopeful. The most learned among us must not remain mere bystanders to history. Not just a chosen few but all of us, in a variety of ways, need to become public intellectuals.
The Continuing Fight for Enlightenment
But let me turn our value of skepticism against my own argument here. Are we really at war with fundamentalist dogma in an unprecedented manner? Is it not always with us? Yes, but also no. It always exists in the world, but it has rarely been so aggressive. Just as a mudslinging politician may undermine a free thinker’s reason, so too terrorism can call forth our own demagoguery.
The present is particularly dire -- and the situation is not unrelated to the long decline in government support for education or the absence of a strong liberal arts ideal in public K-12 schools. When Senator Rubio asserts that we need more plumbers and fewer philosophers (as if those are exclusive alternatives when every plumber I know is a strong everyday philosopher), he is forwarding not just career advice but a frightening adjuration: do your work and stop thinking. Don’t you dare question. But questioning is academe’s value of all values, and that is why we are indeed at war.
Even if this is a worst of times, however, we also should acknowledge that domestic and international dogmas and demagogues have and will always exist. “The mistake,” my friend Larry Benjamin replied when I made this argument, “is that people think the Enlightenment is a past event that was securely achieved. But it has to be won at every moment.”
Indeed, the key lesson of peak virulent moments, like this one, is to remind us that, every day and forever, we will need to forgo passivity and fight for the values of the liberal arts as we would fight for our most cherished politics -- because they are themselves the deepest politics and the most in need of defense. Assume nothing, these values teach us. And especially now, do not assume the guaranteed continuation of a cheerful and loving reason. Instead, enact it.
Robert Weisbuch, a former president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and of Drew University, now leads Robert Weisbuch and Associates, a consultancy for liberal arts colleges and universities.