Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Scientia et Virtus


Most people with some professional connection to American higher education probably know something about Middlebury, one of the country’s more distinguished liberal arts colleges.  Its lovely campus dominates an overgrown Vermont village, itself something of a gem, laid out along Otter Creek in the Green Mountains—a little more than halfway up the state on the left-hand side, if you’re thinking in map terms.  The school commands a national reputation primarily on the basis of several summer schools in which foreign languages are taught intensively and effectively, and for a Writers’ Conference famous among the nation's would-be scribblers.  I happen to know the place better than I might because for about fifteen years I spent most summers there on visiting appointment as a member of the Bread Loaf School of English.  Bread Loaf is the name of a mountain roughly seven miles up from the village itself, site of a one-time summer colony with a huge old hotel and a huge old barn that are now the center of the School.  Though the teaching was intense and the work exhausting, I have only happy memories of those summers, including memories of fruitful colleagiality with several Middlebury faculty members.

Accordingly I was very distressed to learn from press reports that Middlebury College was recently the site of an outrageous episode of illiberal intellectual thuggery masquerading as high-minded and “progressive” political action.  Using the proper administrative channels and receiving the appropriate administrative blessings, student members of the campus chapter of the American Enterprise Institute had invited Charles Murray to the campus to give a public lecture relating to aspects of his recent and much discussed work Coming Apart.

Charles Murray is a widely published and widely read sociologist and political theorist of definitely conservative tendency.  His work has been highly controversial because of its numerous offenses against liberal orthodoxy and, especially, because his most famous book, The Bell Curve, allegedly dabbles in pseudo-scientific racism.  In that sentence the most important word is the adverb allegedly.  He is not a college professor, but he does have a Ph. D. in political science from M.I.T., for whatever that might be worth.  He has been a fellow at various conservative “think tanks”, and is presently at the American Enterprise Institute—the organization with which his undergraduate hosts at Middlebury were affiliated.  Murray is notably more renowned, productive, and intellectually influential than any political scientist at Middlebury College or most other educational institutions; but it is doubtful that he or any other soi-disant conservative thinker could ever get a job there.  That is a simple reality of American academic life, and it is what chiefly accounts for the rise of the “think tank culture” that has provided many conservative scholars and thinkers with a quasi-academic setting in which they can work with a certain sense of  intellectual community.

 There was of course no idea in anyone’s mind of hiring Mr. Murray.  The more obvious and burning question at Middlebury appeared to be whether such scum could be suffered to stand and deliver before a lectern for fifty minutes to people interested in hearing him, or whether on the whole it would not be preferable that he be forbidden to speak, be shouted down, drowned in insults and obscenities and infantile chants.  Accounts of controversial events doubtless vary with the dispositions and predispositions of their narrators.  But somebody at the event made a video of the whole thing.  The production values are not particularly good, but it gives a definite sense of what happened.

The forewarned Middlebury College authorities were not entirely clueless.  The president, Laurie Patton, attended and gave a little pep-talk about the ideals of liberal education.  I do not know President Patton, but I wish her well.  In her unsuccessful preliminary remarks—unsuccessful in that they failed entirely to prevent a scandalous episode that will be a long-lasting stain on her institution’s reputation—she said a number of good and sensible things.  She said one or two really stupid ones as well.  After ritually but cravenly assuring the crowd that she disagreed with Murray (about what?—the man was not allowed to utter a public word) she went on to praise the “brilliance” of every precious student at Middlebury and to thank them for coming.  The protestors then released their brilliance in the form of a bedlam of repetitive chants such as “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away!”  Another was “Your message is hatred; we will not tolerate it.”  Murray, no stranger to student protest, had to credit at least the novelty of the anti-gay charge.  And of course to identify his undelivered “message” as hatred required mind-reading, which I suppose is a kind of brilliance.

The speaker’s party eventually withdrew to a supposedly safe broadcasting bunker so that Murray might give his talk via CCTV.  There he calmly, courteously, and urbanely soldiered on with a sort of off-the-cuff mini-lecture through muffled bangings and raucous fire alarms.  A partial recording preserves enough of his comments to allow an intelligent person to adjudicate their degree of capital heresy.  It was only after the whole thing was over that protesters physically attacked (by jostling, man-handling, and car-rocking) the speaker and his faculty “conversation partner,” sending her off to the hospital with a minor injury.

The Middlebury College Latin motto, a noble one, is so simple that you don’t need an advanced degree to get it: Scientia et Virtus.  On the old college seal—very recently changed to accommodate the global aspirations of the institution--this motto curves in a semicircle atop an open book.  I had many opportunities to study its Protestant iconography during lengthy graduation ceremonies at the Bread Loaf School.  The book seems to be strangely radiant.  I supposed it was sending off rays of, well, knowledge and virtue. But maybe they are just burning it.

 Past and present

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