Guest, Dr. Robert Abele. Dr. Abele (Ph.D. Marquette University) teaches philosophy at Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the author of two excellent recent articles The Corporate Media Complex: Drawing Back the Veil on the U.S. Propaganda Machine and The US as a National Security State. He is also the author of three books: A User’s Guide to the USA Patriot Act; Democracy Gone: A Chronicle of the Last Chapters of the Great American Democratic Experiment; and The Anatomy of a Deception: A Reconstruction and Analysis of the Decision to Invade Iraq.
Dr. Abele is a strong defender of academic freedom and the Constitution, as exemplified by the following commentary he did for KVMR radio in Sacramento (he now does them for KPFA in Berkeley).
The Extremist Attack on College Education
Last week I talked about the Republican attack on the public education system of America by the closing of all of the public schools of New Orleans and the firing of all its teachers. Today I would like to underscore another, more recent, attack. It centers on Dr. Kevin Barrett, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, who Republican senators and even the Republican governor of Wisconsin are attempting to fire. The reason: he has included in his course on Islam an examination of the evidence that the U.S. government was involved in the attacks of 9/11 to further their aims in the Mideast. This is absolutely a legitimate issue for a professor to raise, provided it fits in with the course content. Yet right-wing Republicans are so afraid of anyone who says anything that steps out of line from the official version of contemporary issues that they are willing to harass and even attempt to terminate professors who try to get their students to think about the evidence and problems with the evidence that are contained in contemporary issues with which they disagree. That is what education is all about; yet the right-wing is attempting to excise it from the system. I have already commented on David Horowitz and the attempts of his organization to have conservative viewpoints legislated as part of the laws of various states. The stories of Dr. Barrett in Wisconsin and the teachers of New Orleans are just the latest in this frontal assault on reducing education and critical thinking in America. Now consider this: Webster’s dictionary defines “fascism” as the forcible suppression of opposition, centralized control of money, and racism, among other things. From what we have seen in New Orleans and Wisconsin, fascists are at the doors of our educational institutions. Unfortunately for the Republican party, most of these fascistic voices come from their side of the aisle.
Since I prefer to examine the thoughts of the Founders as a touchstone of my criticisms of the right-wing of American politics, I will quote James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as being representative of the Founders’ nearly unanimous view on the function of education. James Madison said: “Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty…What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty & Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?” (Letter to William T. Barry, August 4, 1822).
Thomas Jefferson drafted a bill entitled “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” which opened by stating bluntly that the only way to avoid nefarious individuals from perverting democracy into tyranny was education of the young. Most important, in Jefferson’s Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia (August 4, 1818), he stated explicitly that the main goals of college education should be “To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas…in writing…to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order…and, generally, to form them to habits of reflection and correct action...” If Republicans and religions do not want college professors to examine unpopular ideas, how are these mandates Jefferson sets for colleges to be met?
Continuing on, Thomas Jefferson said it best: “If anybody thinks that kings, nobles, or priests are good conservators of the public happiness, send them [to an American college]. It is the best school in the universe to cure them of that folly.” Even more, Jefferson said that where people replace education with what he calls an “adoration” of wealth or nobility, that country is ripe for despotism (Letter to George Wythe, August 13, 1786). If Jefferson’s admonition is true at all—and I think it is—then the Republicans who attack college-course content today are engaging in folly.
Notice the repeated emphasis of Madison, Jefferson, and the other Founders regarding two themes: the emphasis on thinking, and the connection between thinking and remaining free. As Madison put it, you have to have liberty and learning together in order to have a healthy democracy. Yet this is the very thing the right-wing in today’s political climate is attempting to sever. The question is why. The attackers all seem to think that they have the best idea as to what should or really should NOT be taught. But Madison’s and Jefferson’s ideas were good then, and they remain good ideas today. Good public schools result in a healthy democracy, and without healthy schools, democratic government is open to a take-over by despots. Such is our situation today.
So right-wing, Republican attacks on education today can only be for that most egregious of all vices according to our Founders: that is, raw political power, one of the most faction-causing vices in open government, according to Madison and other Founders. Their aim can only be to divide the country and thereby conquer it for themselves.
But we have seen that the attack of the government, both state and federal, on the public schools of New Orleans and the attack of certain legislators on the content of what university professors teach are both attacks on the backbone of a healthy democratic nation. We have seen this in the words of our Founders. In my estimation, education is the final barrier that stands between freedom in the Founders’ understanding and the despotism of a corporate and religiously-controlled culture. We need to support our schools in any way we can from such intrusion, and this starts with keeping an eye on our local schools and colleges to see if the fascists are at their doors yet. Our schools are democracy’s last hopes in America; let’s keep them free from fascist influence.