The National Association of Scholars observes with solemnity the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Al-Qaeda’s murderous assault on the United States changed the course of history both in the macrocosm and the microcosm. George W. Bush was changed overnight to a wartime president; international alliances shifted; the American nation as a whole entered a period of somber clarity. Our vulnerability and the unfathomable dangers ahead called forth a long season of patriotism—almost everywhere.
The microcosm of 9-11 consisted of a great deal of baffled suffering. Almost all of us in the northeast were touched directly. We knew people who were killed, or we knew their kin, or we knew a rescue worker, or we… Well, anyway, our lives are different today because of what happened that September morning eight years ago.
Higher education was also, for a season, jarred from its usual cynicism and reflexive anti-Americanism. I remember a few months after the attack reading in the Los Angeles Times a reflection by a professor of foreign relations at San Diego State University, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, who observed:
The fall of the twin towers shook the twin assumptions of a generation of scholarship: that America’s relations with the Third World are essentially wicked and our country’s domestic history can only be understood as a continuing battle over race, class and gender.
The new tone, however, was not to last. It had hidden fault lines exposed here and there by more radical voices. David Graham, the Du Bois Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, for example, was one of those determined to preserve the old culture war. In November 2001 he declared:
This “war against terrorism” is in fact an open declaration of war against the peoples of the developing world…It is a desperate attempt to meet and overcome this developing world’s growing challenge to the continuation of four centuries of European and American hegemonic domination, exploitation, suppression, insult and injury by its executors in America and Europe.
In time, voices like Graham’s grew more common and voices like Hoffman’s more rare. Higher education drifted back to its comfort zone of indignation at imaginary oppression, from which it could comfortably forget about the actual thuggery of despots and Islamic militants.
In the wake of 9-11, NAS president Steve Balch wrote to our members in the NAS newsletter. His comments bear another look:
The Shame of the Campuses
by Stephen H. Balch, President
The appalling events of September 11th are concentrating the American mind. Naturally, most reflection has been on core issues of national security. But if the ghastly carnage at the Twin Towers has awakened us to the world’s realities, certain civilian habits of thoughts will also have to be reexamined. Metaphors cannot be destroyed physically. But that of the Ivory Tower shouldn’t escape unscathed from terrorism’s shock. The tower stands upon the same bedrock as do other American institutions. If that cracks, it crumbles.
The Ivory Tower is a valuable metaphor. It suggests a proper distance between the intellectual concerns of the academy and those of everyday life. Yet it is also insufficient. Though academe should keep itself some steps removed from quotidian realities, its doings profoundly affect them. What happens in the classroom, the lab, or the scholar’s study may not have an immediate impact on the street, but it eventually directs the traffic’s flow. And this vast, collective consequence is everyone’s concern.
Unfortunately, a great deal of academe lives in a cartoon world whose reigning assumption is that behavior has no consequence. For some academics, this childish fantasy has become a matter of philosophic principle; reality is whatever you, or your “epistemic community,” would have it be. But even outside the fever swamps, many believers in the laws of physics carry on as if they had a personal dispensation. Harvesting the fruits of a free and prosperous civilization, they daily sow salt in its furrows.
Much of this recklessness is banal, as in the neglect of teaching. But the worst inheres in attitude and professional style. Apart from that of the zealots, for whom it is a matter of mission, academic recklessness is usually a quite casual affair, manifested in a variety of small but telling ways. Raised eyebrows, arched tones, a quick dismissive wave of hand, that sophisticated smile, all mark commission. In short, it wreaks its damage through the air of superiority which so many of us—all of us occasionally—affect toward the society from which derive our comforts, freedoms, and lives.
It’s not difficult to mistake our campus for Olympus, even when its failings are transparent. We and our friends (and most of our foes as well) seem so clever, tasteful, and lofty. We work at home, travel abroad, summer in the mountains, and can name our wines and cheeses. Before our students we brim with intellectual confidence, hoping they’ll think “what doesn’t he know?”— while fully aware how much that actually is. Our modesty is like that of Socrates, grounded in a recognition of ignorance, yet leading to continual self-assertion. We often find ourselves becoming a little Socrates, effortlessly demolishing anything that smacks of convention, tradition, or received wisdom. Questioning authority, we steadily advance our own.
And yes, there is a place for this—it stimulates “critical thinking,” that much prized goal. And, yes, without doubt, we should follow truth, according to our lights, wherever truth may lead. (Though few of us are pathfinders, and those who are almost always trace a narrow one.) But surely, in addition to all the useful provocations, we should, together with our charges, stop every so often to look around. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice, we may remember, applying far more to the edifice of civilization, than to the works of Mr. Wren. Our civilization—so easily taken for granted—rises about us, the labor of millennia, lifting us within it, nourishing our intelligence, spirit, and humanity. Civilization is our sustainer, especially as men of mind, and, if our sustainer, surely something to be treated with a measure of respect. Who’ll gainsay? And yet we all (or almost all) too often do, more eager to serve fashionable flippancy than any greater power.
It would do us better to feel the lightness of our being. Our civilization’s force and grandeur dwarfs private pretensions as the sea the ship it bears. Yet civilization is ultimately as insubstantial as those it carries. It lives only in their minds, and derives its force only from their hearts. Should these minds and hearts fail, it will vanish along with its creatures. As academics, it befalls us, more than any one else, to keep minds and hearts from flagging. And most of all it befalls us here in America, who have so richly enjoyed civilization’s blessings and abundance. We ride its crest, its forward surging point, carrying mankind’s hopes with us. Because of this, we must never forget that we are its chief stewards, and that this status imposes obligations.
The shame of our campuses lies in their rejection of this stewardship, in their reflexive
disdain for so much of what makes their defining activities possible. Shaken out of complacency, perhaps the time has arrived to restrain hauteur and, in descanting on our civilization’s ills, start doing so with a decent respect. Of course, not all our colleagues will heed this advice. And toward them—while upholding their right, our civilization’s greatest gift, to go their chosen way—we should direct both argument and disapprobation. Our stewardship demands conviction, and they should feel its moral energy. The shame of our campuses will only be removed when those most responsible for it themselves become ashamed. Good colleagueship and good stewardship demand that we help them toward this painful self-awareness.
It isn’t as if 9-11 didn’t happen. It just didn’t happen to us.
But, of course, it did.