Concerning Academic Ignorance
by Alexander H. Joffe
September 21, 2005
William Polk's recent installment of his series "What America Needs to Do to Achieve Its Foreign Policy Goals … Concerning Public Ignorance" over at History News Network is eye-opening, in the sense that if one wishes to actually read it, one must unfortunately be awake rather than asleep.
Having settled other matters, such as the reform of America's intelligence system by refreshing our memories regarding Kermit Roosevelt's exploits in Iran in 1953, or the similarity between al-Qaida and the "mindset of the European and American Puritan movement which similarly adopted the notion that they were delegated by God to cleanse the world," he now turns his attention to the ignorance of the American people. In this context he sees fit to excoriate Campus Watch.
He complains that "Poll after study illustrates how bad our educational system is." Indeed. But:
"To make matters worse, an attack has been mounted in our colleges and universities to silence those whose avocation it is to teach us about other peoples and other cultures. Called `Campus Watch,' it aims to implant in America a form of denunciation for unorthodox opinions - getting students to `report' on teachers — that its creators among the Neoconservatives must have learned from Communist Russia, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. It is profoundly `un-American,' destructive and detrimental to our national health and security."
Crafty neocons learning from the commies and fascists is old stuff, but Polk's phrase "implant in America a form of denunciation for unorthodox opinions" is a novel one. We used to call this "dissent" or simply "complaining."
Apparently Polk is so appalled by the idea of students "complaining" and so afraid of the evil that lurks outside the university that he must resurrect poor Pavlik Morozov, the boy who denounced his father, head of the village soviet, for hoarding grain and was lynched for his trouble. Well, it seems Pavlik's denunciation was an invention of the secret police. Myths of students denouncing their teachers are handy for those who like to see Campus Watch as some sort of vast neo-conservative machine, grinding up the bones of hapless professors.
"Similar to the way that the McCarthyites attacked specialists on China who (correctly) predicted the fall of Chiang Kai-shek, Martin Kramer has attacked specialists on the Middle East in the Department of State (in Ivory Towers in the Sand, Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy) while Daniel Pipes, astonishingly recently appointed to the board of the United States Institute of Peace, has orchestrated campaigns against professors in American universities who have been critical of American and Israeli policy in the Middle East. Inspired by Pipes and Kramer, Senator Rick Santorum has written a bill which only George Orwell could have imagined, entitled "Ideological Diversity" to cut federal funding from colleges and universities that permit teachers and students from criticizing Israeli policies. Santorum's colleague Sam Brownback wants to go even further, to create what would amount to an ideological police force. (Michael C. Piper, www.americanfreepress.net April 21, 2003).
Leave aside the fact that Daniel Pipes's tenure on the board of the US Institute of Peace expired some time ago. Apparently news reaches southern France, where Polk is based, rather slowly. More curious is Polk's citation of Michael Collins Piper, now the editor of americanfreepress.com and former editor of anti-Semite Willis Carto's The Spotlight. Piper is best known for his assertion that the Mossad assassinated John F. Kennedy, as well as the claim that Ariel Sharon instigated September 11th in order to provoke America to attack Israel's enemies. One can read Piper's defense of his JFK thesis here. Or perhaps better yet here. These are comments originally presented at the now closed Zayed International Center for Coordination and Follow-Up in Abu Dhabi, reproduced on the "Palestine Chronicle" section of the web site of the "Adelaide Institute." That neo-nazis and Muslim anti-Semites stand shoulder to shoulder, in reality and on the web, also appears to have eluded Polk.
Let us defend the right of Dr. Polk to say whatever he wants and cite whomever he wants, disreputable though they may be. We must then be excused, however, for suggesting that he has less than complete credibility. Let us also examine Polk's background, courtesy of his web site:
He taught at Harvard University from 1955 to 1961 when President Kennedy appointed him a Member of the Policy Planning Council of the United States Department of State.
On the Policy Planning Council, he was responsible for planning American policy over much of Africa and Asia and for a number of specialized issues such as development, refugee problems and cultural exchange. Dr. Polk was also the head of various interdepartmental Task Forces on America foreign policy and was a participant in the "crisis management committee" during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During this period, he was asked to become Deputy Commissioner-General of UNRWA.
In 1965, Dr. Polk resigned from government service to become Professor of History at the University of Chicago. There he also established the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and was a founding director of the Middle Eastern Studies Association. In 1967, he also became President of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs which, among other things, hosted the 20th Pugwash Conference on nuclear weapons problems, helped to organize the "Table Ronde" meeting that laid the groundwork for the European Union and did much of the planning for the United Nations Environmental Program.
He was called back to the White House briefly during the 1967 Middle Eastern War to write a draft peace treaty and to act as an advisor to McGeorge Bundy, the former head of the National Security Council, who was the president's personal representative during that crisis.
Being a founder of the Middle East Studies Association and the European Union is some kind of cosmic convergence, albeit a fitting one, which lesser men would not trumpet loudly. Where else do such great strands of anti-Israel bias align? Add to that helping to run UNRWA
, thereby successfully keeping Palestinians refugees for generation after generation, and writing a "draft peace treaty" and we have a portrait of a man in full.
But there is something both uncomfortable and unhappy about watching undistinguished middle level bureaucrats pretending to be statesmen and diplomats. George Kennan had at least been on the ground in Russia and knew the players, and if, later in his life, he tended toward crankiness about American society, he was no mere apparatchik turned kibitzer, merely an elitist. It is true that in the past many spouted off, but the unaccomplished usually had better sense than to advertise their vast experience as head of various interdepartmental Task Forces and expect us all to fawn.
Beyond that, there is also something infuriating about ex-professors in the south of France complaining about America's lack of success at creating an informed society. First of all, who set up and ran this lamentable educational system, that produced Americans who can't tell Canada from Mexico, which is a polite way of saying, one presumes, their elbows from other parts of the body? All I can say is, it wasn't me. I never established a Center for Middle East Studies, for example. On this front Polk's comments are both elitist and evasive.
But Polk's opinion of America gets worse: "In large areas of the country newspapers pay little attention to world or national events and television offers little more. Perhaps there are sound commercial reasons for this since approximately 50 million Americans cannot read above a primary school level. So, dulled by television snippets of news, politicians' `photo opportunities' and radio `sound bites,' the American public appears to have little appetite for analysis of complex issues."
This is the old "television made us stupid" argument, which presumes that before David Sarnoff (a Jew!) Americans lived in some intellectual idyll where people read Proust and Plato on the trolley cars whilst on their way to the box social. I suspect, however, that it repeats a timeless elitist and vaguely French lament, that Americans are stupid or at least incurious.
Some might read Polk's comments as implying America needs to be run by a cabal that hides its anti-liberal manipulations from the ignorant public. Obviously many believe that followers of once obscure political philosopher Leo Strauss already do (see for example Piper's new book The New Jerusalem: Zionist Power in America). Polk, however, would appear to believe in some gauzy version of crackerbox democracy, where the rough-hewn stand equal with the high born thanks to McGuffey's Readers or some other artifact. More likely he simply hasn't a clue as to what Americans do or don't know, how people get information in the Internet Age (hence his Michael Collins Piper misstep), and most of all, how to fix anything.
If American universities are failures it is because Polk and his ilk made them so. And if Americans are uninformed, a debatable point that cannot be settled by a geography quiz, Polk must similarly take some measure of responsibility. But his condescension is too deep, and his elitist distrust of American common sense too obvious, to go unnoticed. They underpin, and undermine, his analyses from beginning to end.
Alexander H. Joffe is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.
Related Topics: Academia | Alexander H. Joffe
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