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.
By Patrick Lawrence
Special to 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.
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.
Winter Fund Drive!
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–Tawarikh, Collector 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.
Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
Winter Fund Drive!
Donate securely by credit card or check by clicking the red button:
Had the American youth been properly educated, challenged to be free thinkers it would create a conundrum for the MIC. Where would the military find the needed soldiers for all these wars. Not those who’ve been taught to discern why our military is in never-ending-wars. Not if they saw profits made by the weapons industries.
As Bertrand Russell said, an ignorant populace is easier to govern. It appears a few decades ago the officials in charge of education agreed to a deal with the officials in the State Department and voila! a country always at war for— whatever lie Congress and the corporate media decide what excuse to use this time, it is an insult. Too bad most Americans are gullible, obedient and indoctrinated. Why not, most Americans feel that what makes America Exceptional.
The problem probably begins in our primary and high schools.
I’m not an academic, journalist or otherwise qualified as a writer, but to me one of the most obvious signs of the ‘dimming the lights’ is the gradual reduction in the quality of writing in journalism. Few mainstream media editors seem to make much effort to maintain a high standard of writing in their publications.
Often I see what used to be considered quite basic grammatical, and occasionally. spelling mistakes. This is compounded when I see an English or Australian publication use American grammar and spelling, and still make the same mistakes.
Everywhere you look, in government, business and elsewhere standards of writing have dropped markedly.
Tell that to James Joyce.
Misspelling to the point where ‘some people would have no idea what the word is meant to be’ would be a rare occurrence.
An awareness of the ever changing palate of spelling and grammar should encourage toleration. I remember an exhibition of examples of pre and primary school writing, I was bowled over by the invention of expression.
I guess WD your referring to the ‘content’ and propaganda problems, which I think the above article covers.
Organizations are like fish, the head rots first.
Discernment is definitely what we must be teaching our students.
Much resonance again, Patrick, down here in Orstraya (the outer reaches of the same flock of sheep).
Another who seemed to see value in discernment;
“Man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.”
So glad you described Kenneth Roth’s general orthodoxy in the service of his masters, or those who master his mind, that is, those who think the West decides the measures of all things, including what counts as human rights and offenses against them. Agree with you that HRW’s declaration that Israel practices apartheid was far too late, but was nonetheless admirable–within its cramped world, even heroic (although, Jesus, how low we have sunk over what qualifies as heroism: you are a hero if you call a shovel a shovel). SHAME ON HARVARD, shame, shame, shame.
a college education is necessary in order to run the anti-disernmence of capitalism…as perfect example we have only to look at one of the most brilliant scholars ever to serve as president, george bush the second…he had degrees from both yale and harvard. irest my case.
Universities operate as corporations – the bottom line is everything. Cut costs by hiring less full-time professors and more part-time ‘adjunct’ teachers. ….. Law schools accept huge donations from the likes of the Koch Foundation is exchange for hiring more Federalist Society type professors. University presidents make HUNDREDS of thousands of dollars to steer their institutions to greater profitability – greater enmeshment with corporate objectives is now perfectly acceptable. Schools COMPETE for corporate backing/involvement.
The state views an ‘education’ as a means to produce business functionaries, middle managers and machine operators. Critical thinking? Not so much.
About thirty years ago, Coke and Pepsi were in competition to place their poison-dispensing-machines in high schools, in exchange for a few dollars to boost athletic departments. ——– While the corporate control of governance is near complete, corporate capture of academia is not far behind.
Thank you for this! My partner attended the nursing program at a local community college, and it became clear that even 15 years ago the college was run as a business. Students who could not do the most basic math — a very easy, 10-question quiz — were just passed on, hopefully not to poison patients with their inability to calculate dosages. Students are customers; they are not there to learn, they are there to get a degree and “have the college experience.” Anyone who thinks our “elite” universities encourage critical thinking is living in an imaginary past.
Patrick Lawrence, a recent discovery for me, has become one of my three favorite journalist/commentators, along with Chris Hedges, Thom Hartmann and, alas, the late Robert Perry. Mr. Lawrence is always trenchant. Mr. Perry may be gone, but his reporting continues to enlighten, no matter how long ago it was written.
It’s not at all clear how the author considers “anti-intellectual” his own revelation that “HRW became, accordingly, a chief sponsor of ‘humanitarian interventionism’ as a cover for many of America’s UNLAWFUL (my emphasis) intrusions abroad,” were it to be the basis to reject the responsible HRW director for a position at other human rights institution.
Is everything “anti – mass-murderous empire” also “anti-intellectual”?
What occurred to me was Diana Johnstone’s writing about HRW in A Fool’s Crusade; HRW’s board was staffed by war criminals.
Great points, this reminds me of some fitting lyrics, written by a man with a sixth grade education, yet more wise than many with PhDs.
“…Building church and university, wo-o-ooh, yeah!
Deceiving the people continually, yea-ea!
Me say them graduatin’ thieves and murderers
Look out now they suckin’ the blood of the sufferers…” (Robert Nesta Marley, 1977)
Anti-intellectual indoctrination and preservation of power is the focus of most elite higher education – especially in the economics and politics departments. That may sound more harsh than ol’ Bertie but I believe there is mountains of evidence to support it.
As a Canadian, I have noticed my entire life how uneducated Americans are about the history or the world around them. In fact, they are also quite uneducated about their own history, unsurprisingly to the benefit of the 1% who benefits from such ignorance. For example I have commented to several American acquaintances that they should not be upset there are so many Hispanics in California, given its history. I get blank stares. Then I go on to explain that California was part of Mexico before the US took it in a war. More blank stares. This example is well known among many friends I met in universities who are from many nations of Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South America – they also noticed the ignorance of world history. Americans have purposely been uneducated about the rest of the world, and I would go as far as to say misinformed about the rest of the world, to give credence to another great misconception – the myth of “American exceprtionalism”. I do understand the columnist’s intent is to explain how that manufactured ignorance has a purpose – to manufacture ignorant compliant “sheep” who won’t question aggressive and unjust and illegal foreign policy, because an educated populace would be “too awkward” to support foreign wars of aggression. Having knowledge about other societies creates respect and understanding, and that respect would interfere and be inconvenient when plundering foreign countries and killing vast numbers of their citizens.
The insane wokeness is just a new twist on the dumbing down of America – but a very dangerous one. This trend has been ruining the country as it foments violent disagreement among uninformed self-righteous groups that will destroy the cohesiveness of the population. In the end I am very concerned it will result in the disintegration of the country, backsliding into a dangerous, divided third world nation governed by the 1% who hide in their Palaces and fear a return of the French Revolution, but this time that revolution would occur in the USA. Using ignorance to hide and protect grotestque privilege will not work forever.
As an American, I have also noticed my entire life how uneducated Americans are about their own history or the world around them…
Personally, I have a very large library of books spanning decades for their publication dates. And many such earlier publications are as right on the mark as their later counterparts.
Find another person reading an equivalent tome in and around town is a rarity. On the trains, most people have their heads stuck in their smart-phones. And the few that read the news believe that they are actually getting accurate data.
Most of the truth of things is buried in well researched books, articles, and alternative media sites that are trying to get to the bottom of things.
But most Americans have long ago forgotten to think for themselves and do their own research.
They just accept what is in front of their faces.
Our own son-in-law once told my wife and I, he doesn’t read (maybe he can’t). But he actually believes he knows what is going on outside his front door.
In a discussion on the US stock market a few weeks back I told him that at one point that the DOW had hit 39 ,000+. He said that never happened in history.
But what he proceeded to show me was a single year timeline.
Personally, I started to wonder if what I saw in a daily stock report had been my imagination since this peak was so fleeting. But I found it sure enough with a little research into a much longer timeline. The market had actually reached an all time high of 38,500+ sometime in 2021. Not the 39,000+ I thought I had seen, but close enough.
The point is, my son-in-law never noticed that his timeline was too short and just insisted that what I had told him had never happened…
I appreciate Colonel MacGregor’s point that lying to Americans about what is going in Ukraine is a benefit to Russia, Americans thinking that the Russian military is weak and incompetent (a “paper tiger,” according to Chomsky). People’s willingness to parrot the lowest propaganda is very depressing, and it seemingly crosses all socioeconomic lines. There is no room in the U.S. anymore for great speakers and tellers of truth.
Patrick Lawrence, masterful once again!
As a product of Jesuit education, Fordham Prep and Boston College, I took some pride in Lawrence’s twice mentioned Jesuit concept of “discernment”. (It is also not surprising that brother, Ray McGovern, is a product of Fordham Prep and Fordham University).
However, I certainly wish that the Jesuit administrations at Fordham and Boston College had used some “discernment” in two relatively recently instances. The first is Boston College’s awarding Condoleezza Rice an honorary degree soon after her no-turture-techique-too-extreme tenure in W Bush’s administration! (Thank goodness a number of faculty and students turned their back at the awarding of the degree). The second was Fordham’s not only awarding alum John Brennan a honorary degree, but having him be the commencement speaker. And to add insult to injury, Brennan, instead of sitting in a slammer in The Hague, now sits as a “Distinguished Fellow” at Fordham University Law School’s Center on National Security – really!!! Ray’s and my father, Joseph McGovern was a revered professor at Fordham Law, and reportedly is rolling in his grave.
Quite right. Thanks for the contribution.
Crucial points, eloquently made. Thank you.
Well, one needs to follow the money. The decision of the Kennedy School isn’t surprising when you realize who’s funding it. First thing you see when visiting the school is the Leslie Wexner Building, as well as the Wexner Commons, funded by the eponymous unindicted co-conspirator of Jeffrey Epstein. This of course doesn’t reflect on the rest of Harvard University. As former president Pusey said, the university is a collection of separate schools united by a common heating system.
Excellent points. In that vein, any mention of Israel’s terrorism, despite its thorough documentation, is absolutely forbidden.
And support of Wall Street economics.
But hey, what about John Stuart Mill.
”Our merely social intolerance kills no-one, roots out no opinion, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active element for their diffusion. With us, heretical opinions do not perceptibly gain, or even lose, ground in each decade or generation; they never blaze out far and wide, but continue to smoulder in narrow circles of the thinking and studious persons who among whom they originate without ever lighting up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or deceptive light.
And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining, or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed, whist it does not absolutely interdict the exercise of reason by dissentients afflicted with the malady of thought. A convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world, and for keeping all things going on therein very much as they do already with the malady of thought.
But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification is the sacrifice of the entire modern courage with the malady of thought.”
”He that knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”
”The majority, being satisfied with the ways of mankind as thy are now are(for it is what they make them what they are) cannot comprehend why those should not be good enough for everybody; and what is more, spontaneity forms no part of the ideal of the majority of the moral and social reformers, but it is rather looked upon with jealousy, as a troublesome and perhaps rebellious obstruction to the general acceptance of what these reformers, in their own judgement, think what would be best for mankind.”
Yeah we sure get the picture J.S.M.
“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.”
This was very disappointing from Patrick Lancaster whom I have otherwise great respect for. As if all the problems of academia stem from the long-defunct so-called “self-esteem movement” (much less some non-existent “age of vicious wokery”) rather than right-wing and establishment power censorship and thought control. The HRW episode is simply what we see in media every single day – you simply can’t criticize Israel or any aspect there of without being silenced for “anti-semitism” because Israel is one of our most important client states. It has nothing to do with participation trophies or “wokeness”. And, while I think the Hamline University situation is tragic, it is one instance in one very tiny college that literally no one besides current and former students and staff have ever even heard of before, much less cared about. It’s just a typical right-wing move to find one incident that supposedly trumpets some mass problem (much like the alleged “sexualization of children” at drag events, proclaimed by people who support the Catholic, Baptist and/or Mormon churches which are child-sexualization factories).
Do better, Mr. Lancaster. Or stick to ukraine.
Perhaps you don’t like Mr. Lancaster’s work, however, the writer we publish is Patrick Lawrence.
Dimming the lights, indeed. But as Brecht noted there will be singing in the dark times and Patrick Lawrence is one of those voices.
I’d read about Roth. I’d not heard anything about the Hamline incident. Truly appallingly bizarre! As a graduate (nearing 50 years ago) of a small, “Christian,” liberal arts university, I have reflected over the years how an institution that seemed to be ever-expanding its world view when I was there has instead contracted year-after-year ever since. (Ten years ago, I told them to get me off their mailing lists. They could mark me deceased if that’s what it took.) I reflect especially on my Old Testament professor who opened my mind tremendously. He was a bit of an odd-fit even then from the expectation of many students coming to the school, but I found him truly inspirational. He wouldn’t be given a voice there now even for a guest lecture–let alone a tenured position. Such are the times in which we live.
‘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.”’
The humanist and feminist author, 60-year-old Taslima Nasrin, who was born in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh, from where she is banished, her books banned and bounty placed on her head) would likely agree, having stated: ‘The Quran can no longer serve as the basis of our law. A thousand years ago it may have been useful for fending off barbarism. But we live in modern times, the era of science and technology. The Quran has become superfluous. It stands in the way of progress and the way of w
Hmmm, as the author explained, this is not a problem with the Quran, but with the idiocies of the modern “liberal” mindset, which in many ways is the antithesis of the liberalism of Voltaire.
Well said, Patrick Lawrence. If ignorance is bliss, then American cultural life is a retrograde Nirvana based upon the endless accumulation of darkness and greed. As it turns out, the “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” only lacked sufficient money, not faith in humanity amid increasing light.
Ahh america we so cherish our freedom of speech. Oh wait better put an asterisk on that and add some footnotes. The dumbing down of the population includes equating criticism of the Israeli government with anti semitism. Other common terms heard in the u s. Need asterisks and footnotes as well … Law and order, rule of the law, democratic principles, war crimes …
….unprovoked war, $2000 check, progressive wing of the democratic party (that’s a twofer). Someone could write the DoubleSpeak Dictionary of the USA, circa 2022. I’m sure it would get banned after having to be self-published.