by Ralph Lelii, English department
Jacob Bronowski, in his profoundly humane 1973 BBC series entitled, The Ascent of Man, ends the final installment in dramatic fashion. He returns to the lake behind the ovens of Auschwitz, a place of human evil where several members of his family, along with millions of others, were murdered. In the sediment of the lake lie the dumped ashes of thousands of corpses who were burned by the Nazi’s. Bronowski walks into the lake, reaches his hands down into the sediment, pulls up a handful of dripping ash, and says with great depth of feeling, “This is what men do when they are certain. This was not done by science. This was done by arrogance. When men believe they have the knowledge of Gods, this is how they behave.”
This visual moment was a powerful transition in my own intellectual life, and it led me increasingly towards a committed reading of history. Bronowski helped make me want to understand why we have become what we are, what forces created the world in which we live. In my reading, which now is mostly military history, I am struck again and again by the ideological intransigence which lies at the origin of military conflict. When men become certain, they are able to act in ways which belie the usual state of their humanity. There is a transformative quality to certainty, one which often seems to trigger the latent impulses of cruelty which reside, perhaps, in all of our species.
I mention this here because I have followed with great interest the past few years the ideological wars which seem to permeate our college campuses. In the past few months, several great universities and colleges, among them Smith, Rutgers, Brandeis, Harvard, and Haverford, have seen fit to either rescind an offer for a scholar to speak or surrender to the threats of students to disrupt the graduation ceremonies if a certain speaker was permitted. In every case, the speaker in question held views which were deemed “unacceptable” to someone or some group, and rather than risk conflict or bad publicity, the universities decide to remove the opportunity for educated persons to clash in the theatre of the mind, to confront and rebut opposing ideologies, perspectives, theories, and ideas. Instead, in an almost pathological example of confirmation bias, the colleges decided that people ought not to be exposed to ideas they don’t like. With what justification does an educated mind decide they know all that can possibly be known on a subject, and they have achieved a level of certainty which precludes any further engagement. The very idea recalls for me Dr. Brownoski and his claim, “In the words of Oliver Cromwell, in the very bowels of Christ, can you think it possible that you might be wrong.”
Aristotle once observed that, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” What might it portend for us as a culture if our universities continue on a path of avoiding engagement with those ideas which certain constituencies “know” are wrong? If students are given license to consistently mistake “passionate conviction” for a reasoned argument and thus justification for exclusion, what ultimately becomes the province of the university?
It is hard sometimes, painfully so, to sit and listen to someone whom we are certain is wrong. It feels much better to gather around us a phalanx of like minds, to mistake moral and characterological judgments for intellectual ones. When we do so, however, I think it prudent to recognize that there are others, always there are others, just as happy to isolate and deny the validity of our own ideas, just as ready to denounce from the lofty perch of moral supremacy the weakness of our character or our intellectual caste. To know where this inevitably leads, one need only peruse occasionally the annals of military history.