Op-Ed: When politicians claim professors like me are the enemy, what are they really attacking?
On Tuesday, J.D. Vance, author of the bestselling “Hillbilly Elegy” and now candidate for the U.S. Senate from Ohio, gave a keynote speech at the National Conservatism Conference titled “The Universities Are the Enemy.”
In the speech, he told his audience: “I think in this movement of national conservatism, what we need more than inspiration is wisdom. And there is a wisdom in what Richard Nixon said approximately 40, 50 years ago. He said, and I quote: ‘The professors are the enemy.’”
Nixon actually said these words to his then-national security advisor, the Harvard professor Henry Kissinger. He added, in a professorial flourish, “write that on a blackboard 100 times and never forget it.”
This hatred of professors and their universities seems to be a big deal for Vance. On his campaign website, under the heading “Protect Conservative Values,” he complains that “hundreds of billions of American tax dollars” get sent to universities that “teach that America is an evil, racist nation.” These universities “then train teachers who bring that indoctrination into our elementary and high schools.” He doesn’t want any tax dollars going to institutions that teach “critical race theory or radical gender ideology.” Instead, he wants them to deliver “an honest, patriotic account of American history.” Other sections of the website extol the glories of the 2nd Amendment, while ranting about immigrants and COVID-19 regulations.
Vance’s complaint is at least as old as the trial of Socrates in the Athens of 399 BCE. Socrates was sentenced to death for teachings that supposedly corrupted the youth of Athens and mocked the city’s gods. Vilifying professors has been the theme of a certain kind of politics ever since.
Ironically, the same Henry Kissinger who heard Nixon’s 1972 rant about professors made his own academic reputation writing about Prince Klemens von Metternich, the top minister of the Austrian Empire from 1809 to 1848. Metternich was a conservative strongman, perhaps the Vladimir Putin of his day. He didn’t like professors either.
In 1820, Metternich wrote that the main evil of his time was “presumption,” his word for the habit of educated people to question authority. “Experience has no value for the presumptuous man; faith is nothing to him,” he said. Ordinary working people, he said, did not fall prey to these illusions because they were too busy with the hard labor of their own lives. Not so the professors who were his target: the “real cosmopolitans ... men of letters, lawyers, and the individuals charged with public education.”
Just like Vance, Metternich thought the only counterweight to such errors was to be found in “wisdom” — which meant accepting Metternich’s authority and all conservative values with it.
The fascist movements of the 20th century were notoriously anti-intellectual and anti-professor. In a relatively unscripted moment in a 1938 speech, Adolf Hitler said he regretted that his regime still had some need for its “intellectual classes,” otherwise, “one day we could, I don’t know, exterminate them or something.”
Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, was irritated by academics’ tendency to examine political statements for their truth value. But he concluded that “I do not believe that university professors make history.”
Why is it that professors have always drawn the anger of authoritarians? Authoritarians themselves will always claim that academic activity is subversive, unpatriotic and immoral — and thus a serious threat to society. But let’s be real for a moment. Goebbels actually had a point.
The great majority of scholarly publications are read by only a tiny handful of professional colleagues. Academics who somehow reach a broader public audience are usually highly untypical of their profession. As for our nefarious activity in the classroom: I can assure Vance that I could never indoctrinate any student into anything, even if I wanted to. I keep a file of amusing exam answers. To put it gently, students don’t always listen. Any indoctrination I tried would surely backfire.
If Vance were to be honest about who he thinks his enemies really are, he would have to say minorities, immigrants and others who don’t fit into his vision of American values. These are the people hurt by the kind of politics he advances. But it doesn’t sound quite so good to say this out loud.
Professors, on the other hand, are a perfect target, and perfect scapegoats. The work they do is often obscure and mysterious for people outside the academy. They are easy to caricature as out of touch, or worse. Most importantly, they do not have the power or media reach to fight back.
Vance is right about one thing, though. So long as he pursues a politics of division, fear, hatred and mass death from COVID and guns, I will oppose him. I will probably be an ineffective enemy. But I will do my best.
Benjamin Carter Hett is a professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the author of “The Death of Democracy” and “The Nazi Menace.”
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