Current anti-war critics claim that by attacking Afghanistan, the United States resorts to the same tactics as Osama bin Laden. Proponents of this theory recoil at President George W. Bush’s use of the words “good” and “evil” in describing America’s military retaliation, stating that such words merely inflame. Indeed, as one student noted at the engaging Oct. 13 panel organized by John Gaddis and Cynthia Farrar, the words “good” and “evil” are simply matters of perspective. Most striking was one student’s comment: “Terrorism is an idea. Since when do we fight ideas with violence?”
It is strange that at a university whose highest calling is the training of leaders and the pursuit of intellectual understanding, students are unwilling to make assertions. Under the banners of “academic freedom” and “tolerance,” they claim that the goal of a university is to explore all ideas — with little end in mind.
Tolerance of ideas has become an end unto itself. A university’s purpose is to perform research in order to discern the truth about a given issue, whether historical, literary, philosophical or scientific. Instead, the campus is filled with articles and arguments that offer empirical observations about the world. Comparing the consumptive abilities of the United States and Afghanistan may show the statistical ability of professors and students, but their litany of statistics offers little conclusion or prescription.
Intellectual waffling at Yale began in the early 1900s, when many members of the faculty returned from Europe. Those who studied at the German universities saw a model of education quite different from that of Yale. Whereas the 1828 Yale Report noted the need to train, as opposed to furnish, the mind, the German model focused upon specialization and research.
While comparing the Anglo-American education to the German education, former Yale College Dean William DeVane once said that the aim of the latter “was altogether more practical, more bourgeois, more professional. It featured the great professor giving great lectures and having little else to do with the students beyond examining them to test their professional competence.”
With this increasing professionalism came the advent of a broader scientific approach to the humanities, pioneered by the Germans. One rather controversial figure in the academy, a German emigre named Leo Strauss, noted in 1962 that “[d]uring the last 70 years, it has become increasingly the accepted opinion that there is no possibility of scientific and hence rational knowledge of ‘values,’ that is, that science or reason is incompetent to distinguish between good and evil ends.”
As a result of this attitude, the notion that all ideas are equal dominated much of University life. This philosophy found its greatest proponents in the deconstructionist movement, often led nationally by the Yale Literature Department. Forming an almost cultish obsession with the changing nature of meanings, scholars such as Jacques Derrida and Paul DeMan led this inherently futile postmodern search for Truth.
Out of a fear of being proven wrong, members of the University community are unwilling to ascribe “value judgements” to the players in this war. Instead of viewing terrorism as a political attack, people see it as an expression by an oppressed people. The United States, they argue, is not engaged in a war of self-defense, but in furthering that oppression.
Terrorism, though, is not simply another idea. It is a calculated act of murder. Murder is wrong. Terrorism is wrong as well.
Students and faculty must be willing to confront our modern world with the analytical abilities that Yale teaches. Critical inquiry, though, must have an end. Only when thinkers are willing to make some assertions and to disregard others will they contribute to the cause of the University.
Justin Zaremby is a junior in Calhoun College. His columns appear on alternate Wednesdays.