More Than a Million Mogadishus, We Need One Good Chicago

Terrence Moore

April 1, 2003

The now infamous remarks of Assistant Professor Nicholas De Genova of Columbia University calling for "a million Mogadishus" are appalling enough in their own right. Even some of the leftist faculty with whom De Genova shared the stage in this anti-war teach-in, such as historian Eric Foner, have prudently distanced themselves from his comments. What his sentiments reveal about higher education in this country, where professors at Ivy League institutions come from and what they are doing when war does not offer the occasion to publicly denounce America, is far more alarming.

Now in a tenure-track position in anthropology at Columbia, De Genova studied as an undergraduate and graduate at The University of Chicago. Many people still remember Chicago as the home of a great-books liberal education as espoused by the university’s long-time president Robert Maynard Hutchins. According to Hutchins, the aim of liberal education is "human excellence, both private and public (for man is a political animal). Its object is the excellence of man as man and man as citizen." This liberal education takes the form of a "Great Conversation," according to Hutchins in a book by that same title. The great thinkers of the West (for the Great Conversation is unique to the West) have engaged in an ongoing philosophical and rhetorical dialogue over the ends of human life. "Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind." Such an education is liberal since it is most suited to "free men."

For some time I have fancied that I attained such a liberal education at Chicago. I have often illustrated the seriousness of purpose of and amusing exchanges between Chicago undergraduates with this anecdote. As a first-year student taking the Core course "Soc" (Social Sciences), I sparred over the economic theories of Smith and Marx with another student, a very thin young man who always wore a pea-green trench coat. To his credit, this young man knew Marx cold. I would occasionally point out that his theories did not prevent him from attending a university that was largely started with money donated by one of the great capitalists of the nineteenth century, John D. Rockefeller, and that was sustained by further donations by other capitalists. One day after class, this student politely and very insistently invited to take me back to my dorm in his car. This offer was somewhat silly in my view since the dorm was only a ten-minute walk from the Quads, and we had to walk about five minutes in the other direction to get to where his car was parked. Few students on campus had cars, and he seemed very proud of his: not because it was a bourgeois toy but because it allowed him to go to his "party meetings" on the South Side. (Why he did not take the EL was never explained). After hearing this business about party meetings several times, I finally took the bait. "What party?" I asked. "The Communist Party." "So are you a neo-Marxist, then?" I ventured further. "No, an orthodox Marxist." "So, what are you?" he queried as we approached my dorm. After a moment I responded, "A Federalist." Unfortunately, I did not have time to explain the advantages of a balanced government, the rule of law, and other principles of our nation. You can travel pretty quickly in inventions pioneered by such arch-capitalists as Henry Ford. The young man who gave me that ride was Nick De Genova. He was well known on campus, seemingly harmless, and most of us thought he was a flaky ideologue. For years I have figured that he had shed his pea-green jacket for a business suit and taken a job in a Chicago bank or on Wall Street, as did the hippies of the sixties. Communism fell, after all, when we were upper-classmen.

Dr. De Genova’s sudden rise to infamy has caused me to reconsider my abilities as a career forecaster. More important, his remarks have compelled me to rethink the Great Conversation as then understood and practiced at Chicago. Can "everybody" speak his mind, no matter how "idiotic" (Foner) his comments, and still attain excellence as a citizen? Can institutions of higher learning, whose mission ought to be to educate the future leaders of this country, pack their faculties with professors who are not only hostile to American principles of freedom and law but who claim truth is only a construct of those in power? Some will claim that Americans in uniform are now fighting so that people like De Genova can say whatever they want comfortably from academic chairs. Yet the differences between the profession of arms and the profession of letters in this country, judged by the standard of citizenship, are alarming. Fortunately, I also have experience in the Marine Corps, indeed in Mogadishu (where I am sure De Genova has never been), to contrast with what passes for education in higher academe these days.

This country began with a healthy fear of the damage to life and liberty standing armies can do when employed by cruel dictators. The pages of history are littered with the ravages of such regimes. Saddam Hussein has certainly employed new discoveries in science to oppress the people of Iraq, but nothing about his politics would have surprised the Founding Fathers. To allay the people’s fear of military dictatorship, General Washington assured the fledgling nation at the onset of Revolution, "When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen." Following the noble restraint of Washington, America’s Cincinnatus, he and the other Founders later formed a government in which citizens, or civilians, would give orders to soldiers rather than the reverse. As a continuation of this principle, before being given arms today, young men and women in the armed services must swear to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

Thus the American Founders solved a political problem as old as Plato: how to control and direct the potentially dangerous energies of the "spirited" men of the political order. Plato, you will recall, urged that the guardians of his imaginary republic be like good watchdogs, able to distinguish between friends and enemies. Accordingly, they must also combine two qualities seemingly opposed in nature, fierceness and gentleness. This ability and this combination Plato called "philosophic." Over the last three weeks, Americans have been viewing from their living rooms the actions of philosophic warriors that would astonish even Plato. Young men and women fighting in the desert heat, going without sleep for days at a time, not knowing whether an artillery round from the enemy might carry deadly chemical or biological agents, knowing very well that the Iraqi civilian waving a white flag from an oncoming car might be delivering explosives, these young warfighters are sparing foreign civilian lives, sometimes at the cost of their own, as they are defeating the enemy in proportions reminiscent of the Persian Wars. These troops matter-of-factly attribute their success to their rigorous training. They have been trained how to shoot and also when not to. They have been trained how to work in large units and small. They have trained for combined-arms and special operations, as that seen in the heart-warming recovery of Pfc. Jessica Lynch.

Were we to put embedded reporters in the classrooms of our most prestigious colleges and universities, would we see a civilian education comparable to this rigorous military training, one that produces such heroic citizens? To what do the nation’s professors owe their allegiance? What rules of engagement do university presidents set for their campuses? Does what is taught and learned contribute in any way to the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of the American people for which those in the armed services are willing to risk their lives? The Soc class De Genova and I took apparently allowed us to emerge with equal chances of being Smithians, Marxists, Freudians, or Weberians. Indeed, he probably got a higher grade than I did. Despite the efforts of Professors Bloom, Tarcov, Lerner, and others, classes in American history and government, Western civilization, and moral philosophy were not required by the vaunted Chicago Common Core, a core curriculum which has only been further emasculated over the last two decades. I remember little discussion upon graduation of our responsibilities as citizens, though I do recall being welcomed to the "community of scholars." But what is scholarship? Judging from Professor De Genova’s c.v., scholarship is further graduate work in anthropology with a Marxist bias and the publication of such useful contributions to knowledge as "Check Your Head: The Cultural Politics of Rap Music."

Plainly scholarship allows, indeed encourages, a very different appraisal of friends and enemies than that seen in the military. To De Genova, the United States (he constantly points out sophomorically that "America" can also refer to countries in South and Central America) is the enemy. His work on Hispanic communities in Chicago purportedly "interrogate[s] U.S. nationalism, political economy, racialized citizenship, and immigration law." That most Hispanics who have immigrated to America were leaving failed socialist regimes to find opportunity in the U.S. and that a significant proportion of them actually vote Republican are facts that seem to have eluded De Genova, for all his research and party meetings, as well as eluding his dissertation committee, the journals that publish his articles, and his hiring committee at Columbia. In short, "scholarship" has replaced truth as the aim of teaching and learning. As a result, while the U.S. military has over the last century lived up to its mission of protecting this country and often freedom across the globe, and while military leaders have assiduously learned from their mistakes by studying mishaps in Vietnam and Mogadishu, the academy has become a celebrated purveyor of failed ideologies from Marxism to Freudianism to radical feminism to "queer theory." Does anyone doubt that a new race of "scholars" is already at work martyring such victims of U.S. imperialism as De Genova and Saddam Hussein and soon will be teaching the principles of jihad as a viable response to the "American" empire’s alleged quest for oil?

The American Founders feared and properly controlled for the abuse of military power. They took fewer precautions against the abuse of intellectual power. Perhaps they thought higher academe would ever follow in the footsteps of Princeton’s President John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration and teacher to a generation of responsible revolutionaries, whose course in moral and political philosophy prepared his students to act as citizens in the new republic. Up until Vietnam, certainly, Ivy League graduates were not only taught to be good civilian leaders but also were over-represented among the fallen in this nation’s wars. Today, military recruiters cannot even canvass for officers on many of this nation’s leading campuses because of student protests. Today under the protection of "academic freedom," a concept unknown to countries outside the West, a known ideologue can attain degrees at one of the most reputable universities in the country, land a coveted job at another prestigious university, and thereby preach his own brand of anti-Americanism to students whose parents are paying a small fortune, in a city where three-thousand people were killed only a year and a half ago by dangerous young men who also hated America. The Chicago-Columbia connection, formerly the axis of great-books intellectualism, has become, at least in De Genova’s case, a research partnership in anti-Americanism. The military would never think of training young people to use weapons against fellow Americans or to undermine the Constitution. Yet higher academe trains young people to use their minds, as dangerous as weapons, against the very principles upon which this nation is founded. Certainly, De Genova should be allowed to speak his mind in some forum. But that is a far cry from saying that his intellectual idiosyncrasies should virtually guarantee him a position at an Ivy League institution. We can only wonder when liberal education might again mean not "say anything you like in the name of academic freedom," but rather "teach young men and women to be good and to love and defend the truth." When shall we see some brave academic, perhaps an Ivy League or University of Chicago president, stand up and say, "When we assumed the scholar, we did not lay aside the citizen"?

Terrence Moore studied history at the universities of Chicago and Edinburgh. He taught as an assistant professor of history at Ashland University in Ohio and is now Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado. He also served as a Lieutenant in the Marine Corps and was deployed to Somalia on Operation Restore Hope.