e-mail us


A ‘defense’ that civilization can do without

It is difficult to tell exactly what Lynne V. Cheney, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and others who constitute the American Council of Trustees and Alumni are trying to accomplish with their project, “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It.” The title is as overblown as the sentiment that drives the effort: No one should ask questions of the American war effort.

“In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans across the country responded with anger, patriotism and support of military intervention. The polls have been nearly unanimous -- 92 percent in favor of military force even if casualties occur -- and citizens have rallied behind the president wholeheartedly,” begins a report by the staff of the organization, which claims it is dedicated to “academic freedom, quality and accountability.”

“Not so in academe,” the report continues, saying that while students waved American flags, professors sponsored teach-ins “that typically ranged from moral equivocation to explicit condemnations of America.”

The report goes on to list 115 examples, mostly quotes, that the report implies undermine America’s interests and the greater cause of Western civilization.

A few of the quotes are intemperate, some are tired leftist cant from another era and some might even be viewed as absurd. But those, in sum, would have made a rather thin report. By far, most of the examples are thoughtful, if provocative, statements about the deeper causes of the Sept. 11 horror and about violence or raise difficult questions about U.S. foreign policy and whether war is the best response.

So, for instance, the report quotes a student from the University of Oklahoma: “Intolerance breeds hate, hate breeds violence and violence breeds death, destruction and heartache.”

Certainly a subversive thought.

Or this Brown University student: “I consider myself a patriot. I think this country does wonderful things for its citizens, but we must acknowledge the terrible things it often does to the citizens of other countries.”

The report makes a strong case for more study of American history and Western culture. No argument with that. The suspicion, however, is that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni would not want our college and university students tainted with the kind of history that would lead to students acknowledging the “terrible things” the United States does to other countries.

“What you have to look at is the underlying reasons,” another “Ivy League student” is quoted. “Poverty breeds resentment, and resentment breeds anger.”

That quote is immediately preceded by a report of a sign at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that read, “An eye for an eye makes the world blind.” Presumably those history courses the American Council of Trustees and Alumni advocates would not include a semester on Gandhi. But then, of course, he might not make it into a study of Western civilization except by way of his association with the British.

There is no need to go on. The absurdity of this exercise is clear. The full text of the report is available at www.goacta.org

It would be absurd, indeed, if this “report” were not indicative of a dangerous fervor stalking the country, a fervor intolerant of questions and dependent on ignorance of recent history. If something doesn’t move us to ask serious questions about our role not only in the Middle East and Central Asia, but throughout the world, we can bomb Afghanistan to dust, kill Osama bin Laden and every al-Qaida member and we still won’t get at the heart of the problem.

Those behind this report may have some legitimate arguments with the world of academe. However, they make a very weak case in the report. Citing survey numbers and arguing that professors should get in step with the prevailing public mood contradicts the purpose of free academic discourse. This is a thinly disguised bit of bullying.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001