David Lewis Schaefer is Professor of Political Science at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches courses on political philosophy and American political thought. Among his books are The Political Philosophy of Montaigne (1990) and Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition (2007).
One of the hoariest of twentieth-century academic clichés – Harvard philosophy professor George Santayana’s remark that “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it” – still has bite. As a political scientist and classroom teacher I see evidence of this truth on a regular basis. It was alarming to me to have discovered only recently that practically none of my students had ever heard about the Munich Agreement of 1938, in which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain “appeased” Hitler’s demand for cession of the Czech Sudetenland and then returned home to announce that he had brought “peace in our time”—while in reality paving the way for what Winston Churchill subsequently called “the unnecessary war”.
Knowing about something isn’t a cure-all. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are old enough that they must at least have learned of Munich in their schoolbooks, but their policy toward Vladimir Putin and his Russia have been one long Munich. And once again an aggressive despot has taken appeasement as a license to acquire his neighbors’ lands. But though Clinton and Obama emulate Chamberlain, my students don’t hear Neville echo in their heads when they look at the daily headlines. Their historical ignorance cripples their ability to judge today’s politics and world affairs.
I also recently found that literally none of the 43 students enrolled in my introductory political philosophy class this semester, or some 20 in American Political Thought II last spring, had ever heard of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule – the 60th anniversary of which we should all be commemorating this week. (I have long had occasion to make reference to the uprising when teaching Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, because, as I learned from the late Harry Jaffa, and as a 1956 refugee who, remarkably, wound up teaching Civil War history at Gettysburg College partly confirms in an op-ed in the October 26 Wall Street Journal, a reading of that address was the last thing listeners could hear on Radio Free Hungary – before the broadcast was ended by the sound of machine-gun bullets as Soviet troops broke into the station. Only once I learned that my students had never heard of the uprising did I realize why my telling them that fact had had so little visible impact on them over the years.)
Since the College of the Holy Cross, where I teach, is highly selective in its admissions policies, I must assume that this lack of historical awareness is typical of my students’ generation – and of its immediate predecessors. It might help explain the appeal of Bernie Sanders’s socialism to the millennial generation – who naively equate it with the welfare-statism of the democratic Scandinavian nations that maintain vigorous systems of private business enterprise. They apparently know nothing of the despotism that socialism has consistently entailed, from the Paris Commune to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and the Castro brothers’ Cuba. But how could they know of the political history of socialist states? The decline of the study of political history was the theme of a recent op-ed in the New York Times, while my undergraduate teacher of diplomatic history, Walter LaFeber, lamented in the Chronicle of Higher Education decades ago, late in his career, that that discipline had effectively disappeared from the college curriculum.
A recent indicator of how this growing and dangerous historical amnesia has spread at the faculty level is an invitation I and all other instructors at my own institution received from the director of Holy Cross's "Center for Writing" (who enjoys faculty status). We were encouraged to participate in an “interactive workshop” led by a visiting “facilitat[or]” from North Carolina Central University devoted to the theme “Hashtags, Honor, and Hope: Honest Conversations About Privilege and Racial Diversity in Our Student’s [sic] Writing and Classrooms” As the invitation explained,
participants will engage in critical self-reflection about the many privileges they may (or may not) receive on a daily basis in our society. They will examine the assumptions they have about diverse students in their classrooms and how that may impact their pedagogy and behaviors as instructors, ending the session with self-critique and reflection” (my emphases).
I responded to the director’s invitation largely as follows – although I have edited and extended my responseto accommodate this essay’s public character:
The whole notion of a public confession of one’s “privileges,” culminating in “self-critique and reflection,” is rooted in the “struggle sessions” of Mao Tse-Tung’s “Cultural Revolution.” In those sessions, all those accused of “bourgeois” status or origins (hence “privileges”) – i.e., such figures as teachers or the offspring of middle-class citizens from the previous regime – were ordered to “confess” and “reflect” as a way to humiliate themselves publicly. They had to comply on pain of severe punishment – which they often received after the confession anyway. Although I understand the College does not currently plan to command faculty to engage in, or rather endure, such sessions as the one you are announcing, and it has no legal authority to inflict physical punishment (or even tenure denials or revocations) on those who refuse to participate, the direction in which you are moving with this program is ominously totalitarian. I plead with you to reconsider. It is entirely incompatible with the principles of liberal, i.e., free and open-minded, education. Asking participants to confess to their privileges is like asking them “when did you stop beating your spouse?” It has no more proper role in a faculty seminar than it does in the classroom.
(For purposes of historical accuracy, I should acknowledge that the practices of the Cultural Revolution were built upon those used in Josef Stalin’s purge trials, with which I assume you are familiar. Aside from Robert Conquest’s monumental historical account of the latter in The Great Terror, they were movingly illuminated in Arthur Koestler’s classic novel Darkness at Noon. Numerous scholarly analyses of the Cultural Revolution, as well as heart-rending memoirs by several of its victims, can easily be found on Amazon. Although the Cultural Revolution itself claimed many more victims than the purge trials, the Stalinist precedent only deepens the repellence of such practices. Of course I am leaving aside here the tens of millions of victims that Stalin and Mao claimed on other occasions.)
I then illustrated the Maoist provenance of meetings devoted to public “self-critique” with the following quotations from Mao’s writings, both written over fifteen years before the Cultural Revolution began (thus illustrating how deeply the practices of that so-called revolution were embedded in the dictator’s thought from early on) (emphases added in both quotations):
We have the Marxist-Leninist weapon of criticism and self-criticism. We can get rid of a bad style and keep the good.
(“Report to the Second Plenary Session of the Seventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China” [March 5, 1949], Selected Works, Vol. IV, p. 374.)
Conscientious practice of self-criticism is still another hallmark distinguishing our Party from all other political parties. As we say, dust will accumulate if a room is not cleaned regularly, our faces will get dirty if they are not washed regularly. Our comrades’ minds and our Party’s work may also collect dust, and also need sweeping and washing. [Note the explicit reference to “brainwashing.”] The proverb “Running water is never stale and a door-hinge is never worm-eaten” means that constant motion prevents the inroads of germs and other organisms. To check up regularly on our work and in the process develop a democratic style of work, to fear neither criticism nor self-criticism, and to apply such good popular Chinese maxims as “Say all you know and say it without reserve”, “Blame not the speaker but be warned by his words” and “Correct mistakes if you have committed them and guard against them if you have not” - this is the only effective way to prevent all kinds of political dust and germs from contaminating the minds of our comrades and the body of our Party.
(“On Coalition Government” [April 24, 1945], Selected Works, Vol. III, pp. 316-17).
To return to the broader theme of the present essay: It has become all too common for academics and activists around the country to admonish students and non-students to “check their privilege,” meaning somehow to confront, acknowledge, and endeavor to overcome whatever real or supposed advantages they enjoy over their less-advantaged peers by virtue of their race, gender, economic class, sexual orientation, or what have you. A recently retired, distinguished scholar of anthropology at Holy Cross made a point at another faculty seminar a couple of years ago of describing how she tells all her students that “you didn’t earn the right to be here.” She thought it essential to let the students know that they had made it into Holy Cross not by virtue of effort or achievement, but simply on account of their racial, ethnic, economic, or familial background. It has also become all too common to treat such privilege-talk as unquestionable dogma. When I remarked that this sounded to me like a terribly demoralizing lesson to teach undergraduates (or anyone else) – that life is just a lottery, your effort isn’t really “yours,” and no achievement in life is ever worth feeling proud about – the seminar organizer responded with a vituperative rebuke.
The notion that critical, public reflection about the supposed privileges that some Americans enjoy on account of unearned factors will somehow engender a proper humility, or greater respect for the rights and needs of others, is a delusion. In fact, meetings devoted to such an endeavor are in reality an occasion for moral self-congratulation by the voluntary participants (I am so much juster than other people because I openly acknowledge my unearned privileges) and an occasion for re-education of the involuntary ones (I will acknowledge my unearned privileges because I have no choice about the matter). They also encourage disregard of the actual means needed to help disadvantaged Americans rise from poverty – hard work, marital fidelity, seriousness about one’s education and that of one’s offspring, law-abidingness, and civic-mindedness – since to talk about these virtues can’t be reconciled with the good-guys vs. bad-guys script. (Among the enthusiasts of self-criticism, it is also scorned as “blaming the victim.”) At the same time, such doctrines discourage appreciation of the real privileges that all of this country's citizens – regardless of their race, ethnic background, economic class, or gender – enjoy, thanks to the work of the Founders and the sacrifices that previous generations of citizens have made to secure and defend our freedom, opportunity, and civilization itself. The cant of privilege encourages Americans to luxuriate in surly ingratitude, and call it principle.
Instead of engaging in unfounded self-congratulation disguised as self-criticism, we need, as Abraham Lincoln advised, to rededicate ourselves to the cause of preserving our country’s freedoms, lest our heritage of government of, by, and for the people be supplanted by a new form of anti-intellectual, moralistic totalitarianism. Pursuing genuine historical awareness and instilling it in our students in place of contemporary intellectual and political faddism would be one significant contribution that we academics can make towards that goal.
Image Credit: FOTO:FORTEPAN / Nagy Gyula, cropped.