The Education of the Vulgar
from Robert Grudin’s manuscript, American Vulgar

Not everyone is called to be a physician, a lawyer, a philosopher, to live in the public eye, nor has everyone outstanding gifts of natural capacity, but all of us are created for the life of social duty, all are responsible for the personal influence that goes forth from us.
—Vittorino da Feltre (1373-1446)

Is America the empire of vulgarity? Many journalists would seem to think so. Within a single week in January, 2005, both the American Vice President and the President himself were hauled into the journalistic world court for alleged acts of grossness. Dick Cheney attended the sober Auschwitz Memorial ceremonies in “The kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower,” while George Bush’s demeanor at his inauguration a few days earlier inspired a tirade entitled “The Emperor of Vulgarity” which characterized him and his administration as a “strutting Texan mountebank, with his chimpanzee smirk and his born-again banalities delivered in that constipated syntax that sounds the way cold cheeseburgers look, and his grinning plastic wife, and his scheming junta of neo-con spivs, shamans, flatterers, and armchair warmongers, and his sinuous evasions and his brazen lies, and his sleight-of-hand theft from the American poor, and his rape of the environment, and his lethal conviction that the world must submit to his Pax Americana or be bombed into charcoal.” —Mike Carlton in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 22, 2005.

Granted, not all journalists take such a dim view of Bush & Co. But just about all have at one point or another held his Presidential table manners under scrutiny. The cowboy boots, ideal equipment for the Executive Swagger. The bungled language. The moments of apparent disorientation. And more seriously, the self-righteousness. The phobia for dialogue. The religious idolatry. No, George W. Bush may not be wrong about everything, and those who write him off as a mere fool are making a big mistake. But his altitudes and behavior firmly qualify him to be First Citizen of American Vulgar.

Why should the world’s leading nation have reelected a man of such debilitating limitations? First off, we must acknowledge the fact of life that Presidents who engage in global conflict have always been reelected unless, like LBJ, they chose to step down. But to stop with this explanation is to ignore a huge cultural phenomenon: millions of Americans support George Bush because they think like George Bush. They are bored by information and ignore learning. They seek macho leadership and easy answers to issues. They believe that they have been saved by the Lamb of God.

How did this state of affairs arise? I would like to suggest two factors that are especially compelling because they seem to be related to each other: the rise of the religious Right and the voluntary self-destruction, by the intellectual Left, of American education in the humanities. These two factors and their culturally-erosive interaction with each other are illustrated spectacularly by a legal issue that arose in Alabama and soon gained national recognition.

The Case of Justice Moore

The year 2003 saw a momentous but rather embarrassing test of the U.S. Constitutional separation of Church from State. Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore ordered a two-ton religious monument to be placed in the lobby of the Alabama Judicial Building, using the Declaration of Independence as his authority:

The top of Moore's washing machine-sized monument is engraved with the Ten Commandments as excerpted from the Book of Exodus in the King James Bible.... The front of the monument references the Declaration of Independence with the statement,"Laws of Nature and of Nature's God."

Moore again referred to the Declaration in justifying his actions:

Rights come from God, not from government. If government can give you rights, government can take them away from you. If God gives you rights, no man and no government can take them away from you. That was the premise of the organic law of this country, which is the Declaration of Independence.

So began a battle royal between pro-Mooreites and anti-Mooreites over an engraved block of stone.(1)

What is embarrassing about this debate is that it is based on a serious misunderstanding of the history of ideas. The “Nature’s God” of the Declaration was not a Christian god, nor could it have been taken as such by a literate citizen in 1776. Instead it is a reference to the much vaguer Prime Mover as envisaged by Jefferson, Franklin, Paine and other free-thinkers. Jefferson believed neither in the divinity of Christ nor in the authority of the Bible. By using the idiom “Nature’s God” he and his co-signers were, in fact, diplomatically distancing themselves from the Christian tradition. Evidence of this distancing abounds. It was Franklin himself who brought Freemasonry, with its indifference to religion and its reverence for reason and nature, to America in 1735.(2) Washington, Adams and many other Founders were Freemasons, and the U. S. Dollar bill is imbued with Masonic imagery. The Washington Monument is itself a Masonic symbol, as is Jefferson’s gravestone at Monticello. Ethan Allen co-authored a book called Reason: The Only Oracle of Man (1784) and, at his marriage to Fanny Buchanan, when the Judge asked him if he promised “to live with Fanny Buchanan agreeable to the laws of God.” Allen refused to answer until the Judge agreed that the God referred to was the God of Nature and the laws those “written in the great book of Nature.” (Italics mine)(3)

Thomas Paine wrote a book in a similar vein, entitled The Age of Reason (in two parts: 1794, 1796), in which he wrote:

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.(4)

When also I am told that a woman called the Virgin Mary said, or gave out, that she was with child without any cohabitation with a man, and that her betrothed husband, Joseph, said that an angel told him so, I have a right to believe them or not; such a circumstance required a much stronger evidence than their bare word for it; but we have not even this — for neither Joseph nor Mary wrote any such matter themselves; it is only reported by others that they said so — it is hearsay upon hearsay, and I do not choose to rest my belief upon such evidence.(5)

Thomas Jefferson considered himself an “Epicurean” (I. E., free-thinking non-Christian). He admired Jesus as a moralist but used rough language to describe the writing of his original “biographers” (Matthew, Mark and Luke):

“As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. ... But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man; outlines which it is lamentable he did not live to fill up.”
-Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819

Jefferson actually edited out the religious parts out of the Bible, leaving only those passages that he deemed conformable to reason.(6) Among others of the Founding Fathers who were sharply critical of Christianity may be numbered James Madison and John Adams, and the list of avowed non-Christians includes Abraham Lincoln.(7)

What makes the Moore case significant is that there would have been no Moore case at all if America and its press, almost without exception,(8) knew anything about American history. Nothing illustrates our educational poverty, or justifies Gore Vidal’s phrase “The United States of Amnesia,” so aptly as Justice Moore and his Ten Commandments.(9) Ignorance of this magnitude can lead to dangerous misunderstandings of law and misuses of power. Ignorance of this magnitude, moreover, can only spring from an epidemic failure of national education. From the very inception of our democratic system, education was seen as its indispensable underpinning. As Thomas Jefferson himself put it,

I do most anxiously wish to see the highest degrees of education given to the higher degrees of genius, and to all degrees of it, so much as may enable them to read & understand what is going on in the world, and to keep their part of it going on right: for nothing can keep it right but their own vigilant & distrustful superintendence.(10)

Jefferson repeatedly returned to the idea that liberty is viable only if it is protected by an educated electorate, and he embodied this view in action by helping found and design the University of Virginia. Jefferson realized, as few realize today, that our schools and colleges are not just training camps for the Marketplace. They are the staging grounds for Liberty.

It is especially urgent, at this stage in history, to remember the foundational and Constitutional bases of education. Only an education in liberty can equip Americans to respond to the massive and evolving challenges posed by global leadership, national development and a vulnerable environment. But most teachers and administrators at the secondary and higher levels seem to have forgotten that they are supposed to be educating for liberty. In consequence of this, an overwhelming majority of our B.A.’s and B.S.’s are sallying forth into the world as political ingenues. As citizens, they are cluefully challenged.

This lack of training is vulgarity at its worst. There is no excess so gross, no abuse so unjust, as popular ignorance of the practice of citizenship. Other ills we can reform or alleviate, but not without a reasoned awareness of our own rights and responsibilities. Citizenship in a free society demands that we should be able to tell truth from lie, able to access and comprehend key information, able to evaluate new initiatives in terms of history, able to read critically and express ourselves coherently. Our education, or lack of education, in these matters ultimately informs our marketplace and selects our leaders. Yet it is precisely this form of education that current curricula ignore.

Higher education has come to this pass through an unfortunate combination of factors. Most colleges cannot afford to staff writing courses. Professors, who must publish in specialized fields, have grown more unwilling to teach the sort of generalized lower-division courses that make up a core curriculum. Current academic wisdom dismisses core curricula as arbitrary and simplistic. College catalogs and college budgets are crowded with the pedagogy of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Lecture halls buzz with the rhetoric of literary theorists who dismiss American liberty as subjective and fictional. The discourse of liberty has fallen victim to the free marketry of Academe.

This crisis is unintentionally illustrated by an article entitled “The Postmodern English Major: A Case Study,” appearing in the Winter, 2003 ADE (Association of Departments of English) Bulletin and written by Professor Lawrence Schwartz. Schwartz claims that, at least on his campus (Montclair St. U.), literary studies are “more alive than ever,” and credits this happy state of affairs to the work of a faculty task force that swept away the old major and brought in a new order of things. Its 1992 report “made the context of dissatisfaction clear:”

There is the general perception that the structure of the old major no longer meets the challenges of shifting faculty interests, a student constituency undergoing broad sociological change, and an academic discipline in the midst of dramatic conceptual and institutional transformations.

Schwartz then goes on to show how the new English major speaks to these considerations by destructuring its requirements, redefining its parameters and allowing for more curricular variety, all of which tend to make it more “postmodern.”

I have no issue with Schwartz’s conclusions. “Postmodern,” for better or worse, is indeed what the new major is. My question is whether “shifting faculty interests, a student constituency undergoing broad sociological change, and an academic discipline in the midst of dramatic ... transformations” are more important considerations than the basic issue of how much students should know, and what they should be able to do, after completing the English major. We must assume that the English major should be part of a B.A. degree that in some sense prepares students for life in a complex and challenging world. How will altering the major to conform to “shifting faculty interests” and changing disciplines contribute to this goal? Here are some of these new interests as presented by the premier American literary association, the MLA:

The Politics of Critical Language; Cinema; Theory of Literary History; Performance; Literature and the Idea of Europe; Literature and Censorship; Colonialism and the Postcolonial Condition; The Status of Evidence; Ethnicity;; Rereading Class; Globalizing Literary Studies; Imagining History; Science Fiction and Literary Studies: The Next Millennium...(11)

A handsome bunch of topics, if you want your paper accepted for the next conference or published in a scholarly journal, but rather recondite when applied to students who have only a handful of semester courses to learn reading, writing and critical thinking. Readjusting major requirements to suit this sort of shifting faculty interests would seem both short-sighted and self-serving. And readjusting major requirements to suit any shifting faculty interests at all should never be done without the students’ best interests in mind. As Jonathan Culler more sensibly remarks in the same ADE issue,

If we can imagine a totality of some sort – general education in the humanities, for instance – it will be easier to articulate and argue both the value of the major and what ought to go into it than if we continue to treat it as a conglomeration of the various things we are interested in teaching.(12)

One cannot resist noting that the things professors currently “want to teach,” together with the equally popular topics, Gender and Gay Studies, all have something in common. Though each of them carries its own specific social truth, they are all vulgar. They are vulgar in that they ignore, and sometimes seek to obliterate, human continuity: not only the vertical continuity that binds us to all of history, but also the horizontal continuity that binds us to each other. Instead of these continuities, our students are offered a fragmented world where sects and cadres compete for hegemony. Instead of critical thinking, dons dun home the politics of interest. Something similar can be said about changing major requirements to accommodate “a student constituency undergoing broad sociological change.” Over the long term, sociological change can contribute to the renewal of professions and the strengthening of institutions. But this fact does not justify short-term accommodations of a major whose goal ought to be a baseline of literacy. Academic adjustments in favor of student constituencies, moreover, are often merely ways of asserting political correctness and pandering for enrollment and approval. Quality almost always suffers.

Readers concerned about this state of things might consider writing their local college president with the following questions:

Is there something wrong with being able to read and express oneself well?
Is it a sin to be able to tell truth from falsehood?
Does society no longer need an informed and literate populace?
Has citizenship become a meaningless fantasy?
Do young people learn to practice citizenship more or less automatically?

And, if the answers are all No:

Then why not do something about it?

But what can be done? Much can be done, in fact, in the long term and even in the short term. But before turning to what can be done, let me anticipate two possible misconceptions. First, I would never be able to live with, much less recommend, a college course in Citizenship. The topic is too general and, worse, suggests a preachy and vulgar pedagogy. Second, by “discourse of liberty” and “citizenship” I am not suggesting a flag-waving endorsement of ‘American’ values. Americanisms like complacency, gullibility, materialism and consumerism are what got education into this mess in the first place. By “discourse of liberty” and “citizenship,” I mean instead the ability to analyze and critique one’s own political system, and to reform it if necessary. If the American system is indeed the best in the world, it is so because it is capable of self-criticism and repair. Mere repetition of patriotic mantras is the surest path to failure.

Curricular Reform in the Humanities:
a Short-term Proposal

Because all significant reform requires financing and organization, our College should immediately establish a Task Force for the Humanities or Project in the Humanities: a committee whose mission is to establish long-term strategies, administer a new program and raise money. Committee members will be honored and rewarded by being freed of other committee assignments during their tenure.

During its first year of operation, the task force will be charged with creating a Humanities Core, an entry-level, full-year humanities course, required for all students. This course should have a regular writing component adequate to have it certified for credit in composition. Its reading list should be the literature, art and history of a given historical period. Professors will be rewarded for teaching this course with a renewable one-course reduction in their instructional load. An example of what such a course might look like is offered by Reed College’s Humanities 110.(13)

Does our College lack money for developing this Core? Money should not be a worry. All the College has to do is reevaluate courses that are already crowding the catalog: courses that propound playful reinterpretations of learning, courses that thinly veil political agendas, literature courses that ignore literature in deference to ‘theory’ and courses that support professor’s research ambitions rather than students’ needs. These courses are not liberating our students so much as they are feeding private interests.

Candidates for the bachelor’s degree will also be required to take one full year of upper-division history and one full year of upper-division literature from the same historical period that they studied in the Humanities Core. The will give all students just a taste of what it is like to study a topic in the humanities in depth.

What educational effects would these innovations achieve? They would supply analytic and expressive skills and a minimum level of humanistic knowledge in all graduates. They would interest students in pursuing a humanities major. Most importantly, they will remind students that the two most important skills for the real world, vulgar opinions to the contrary, are the ability to evaluate information and the ability to express oneself effectively.

Curricular Reform in the Humanities:
a Long-term Strategy

After the Humanities core is in place, the task force will turn to the development of a humanities major, not called “Humanities” per se (again, too broad a term), but rather, in the manner of Harvard College, called History and Literature.(14) This dual concentration has an auspicious pedigree. Rationalism and the Enlightenment, which still inform so many of our institutions, have their roots in Italian humanism, which was based primarily on learnedness in history, literature and the art of writing. Each student’s experience in the dual major will be focused in a tutorial, the instruction of which will be funded by our College’s (one hopes) growing endowment for the Humanities.

This Humanities program should be augmented by coherent long-term infrastructural strategies. The College will use every legal means, including indirect funding,(15) to assure the Humanities of decent classrooms, office space and equipment. The endowment will fund an annual lecture series to bring ideas and personalities in from afar. The endowment will offer grants to resident faculty and visiting scholars (a service already in place in many campus Humanities Centers).

Most importantly, the College will strengthen the Humanities and enlarge their scope by hiring for character. Too long have our hiring policies been based narrowly on professional expertise – a priority that has led critics to observe that America’s colleges are staffed by social misfits. What constitutes character? A zest for research and a hearty love of teaching. An ability to describe one’s research and justify its general significance briefly and clearly. A sense of social responsibility. A distaste for nonsense.

If we hire for character, we expand the scope of the Humanities to enhance every specialty. Even our scientists, linguists and statisticians will be able to communicate to general audiences and the community at large. And at last our presidents and deans will prize good learning and good teaching.

The Social Goal of Teaching in the Humanities

Even if instituted haphazardly, the Task Force in the Humanities, the Humanities Core and the History and Literature major would have a reviving effect on undergraduates. But these initiatives are best understood as the academic groundwork for a more socially conscious citizenry. The combination of history and literature can be even more effective in expanding a student’s social consciousness if it concentrates attention on the expansion of consciousness within an individual period of the past. Reed College describes the first semester of its Humanities 110 as follows:

The fall semester focuses on the development of culture in ancient Greece, beginning with Homer's Iliad. It progresses through the rise and evolution of the polis as reflected in the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides as well as in Aeschylus's Oresteia and selected plays of Sophocles and other dramatists. The semester ends with the critiques made by Plato and Aristotle in the Republic and the Nicomachean Ethics of individual and polis virtues. Parallel developments in the heroic ideal and civic art are followed through a study of archaic and classical sculpture, vase painting, and architecture. The course concentrates on the Greeks' relation to the gods, to the state, to their fellows, and to their developing self-consciousness.(16)

In the period covered by this course, the ancient Greek mind evolved from polytheistic and preliterate saga to analytic and even utopian thinking, and the Greek idea of politics evolved from tribal rivalries to the Panhellenic empire of Alexander the Great. These developments vividly suggest the sort of awareness that students should cultivate within themselves. Similar thematics play themselves out in ancient Rome (covered in the second semester of Reed’s Humanities 110), Renaissance/Enlightenment Europe and the United States. Concentration on specific themes within these periods, like religious toleration, civil rights and women’s rights, makes the emphasis on consciousness more pronounced.

Continual attention should be given to the role of fiction, poetry and drama in enhancing consciousness. This technique of using fictional experience to expand awareness is one of the chief means by which, down through the ages, enduring art distinguishes itself from its competition. Thus it is through reading ‘great’ books, rather than merely typical books, that students can get the fullest possible experience of past times and the fullest possible expansion of consciousness.

Special Studies in History, Literature, and Consciousness

History, literature and consciousness do not always interact in terms of simple progress. Some of their interactions have been ironic, even tragic; and instructors should be aware that these negative examples are as essential as the positive ones. In the first place, as consciousness expands in some areas, it contracts in others. I may have read more books than my father’s father did, but I will never experience nature as he did as a woodsman in the forests of Russia. Moreover, ideas and principles famous in their own times can be speedily forgotten and hence must be reinvented altogether. Whole paradigms, full of unique vigor and subtlety, can slip out of communal consciousness. One of the marks of great research and teaching in the humanities is the ability to rediscover such neglected paradigms, to reintegrate them and make them live again in class. In such revitalized form the ideas take on new meaning, not only as vital history, but as alternative instruments for valuation and choice.

Equally important are periods in which consciousness is deliberately limited by an autocratic hierarchy. The execution of Socrates, the persecution of Aristotle and the banishment of Ovid were all efforts by authority to quell free thought, but these instances pale by comparison with the thousand year long gag order on ideas imposed by the Catholic Church and culminating in the so-called Inquisition. Victims of Church strictures included St. Jerome, St. Francis, Peter Abelard, Marsilius of Padua, Joan of Arc, Desiderius Erasmus, Jan Huss, Giordano Bruno and Galileo. So tight, at times, was the grip on information, that Jerome’s initiative to translate the Bible into Latin was denounced as revolutionary. Modern days have seen equally injurious curbs on consciousness imposed, for example, by Nazi, Communist and fundamentalist Islamic regimes.

The social effects of such tyrannical limitation include a comprehensive degradation of consciousness, affecting the whole spectrum of culture from economics to religion itself. Afflicted by its own so-call protectors, society stumbles along, at first unwillingly, then unaware that it has any alternative; first enslaved, then vulgarized. It sinks into a moral stupor called Correctness. Giovanni Boccaccio (1307-75) diagnosed this condition in Italian society and brought it to the world’s attention in his Decameron. Here he tells the story of an old man who raises his son in complete solitude, teaching the boy only the ways of the Church. Finally, when the boy has grown to young manhood, the father and son must travel to Florence, and on the way...

they encountered a bevy of damsels, fair and richly arrayed, being on their return from a wedding; whom the young man no sooner saw, than he asked his father what they might be. "My son," answered the father, "fix thy gaze on the ground, regard them not at all, for naughty things are they." "Oh!" said the son, "and what is their name?"The father, fearing to awaken some mischievous craving of concupiscence in the young man, would not denote them truly, to wit, as women, but said: "They are called goslings."Whereupon, wonderful to tell! the lad who had never before set eyes on any woman, thought no more of the palaces, the oxen, the horses, the asses, the money, or aught else that he had seen, but exclaimed: "Prithee, father, let me have one of those goslings.""Alas, my son," replied the father, "speak not of them; they are naughty things."Oh!" questioned the son; "but are naughty things made like that?" "Ay," returned the father. Whereupon the son: "I know not," he said, "what you say, nor why they should be naughty things: for my part I have as yet seen nought that seemed to me so fair and delectable. They are fairer than the painted angels that you have so often shewn me. Oh! if you love me, do but let us take one of these goslings up there, and I will see that she have whereon to bill." "Nay," said the father, "that will not I. Thou knowest not whereon they bill;" and straightway, being ware that nature was more potent than his art, he repented him that he had brought the boy to Florence.
—Decameron, Day Four, Introduction.

Boccaccio’s tale is so wittily told and so universal in its implications that it can serve as a satiric gloss on thought-control in any nation or period. It is a powerful example of how literature can work with history in building social consciousness.

Objections and Response

Some interesting objections can be made to these educational reforms, so why not give them voice?

Your goals are decent enough, but will your Humanities Core really make a difference out there in the world? Would reading and writing about the ancient Greeks and Romans have helped avert 9/11? Would your charming tale from Boccaccio have affected the outcome of the Presidential election of 2000 or 2004? More generally, would your emphasis on history, literature and writing draw students into the world rather than (as it does to so many professors) removing them from it?

To all these questions my stubborn answer is Yes. If deans actually “hire for character” they will gradually renew the academic marketplace with professors who are energetic, gregarious, direct and sanguine – everything that today’s typical academic is not. Only such teachers, who are themselves capable of facing real-world issues, can convey the real-world significance of history, literature and writing. And exactly what is this real-world significance? If well taught, history and literature drag us out of our private cubbyholes and into a continuum where all of humanity’s dynamic forces function in free play. We come face to face with the slow and labored development of political consciousness, the rise of a vigorous city and its fall into complacency, the manifold shapes of dishonesty in pursuit of power, the uses of art for liberation or control, the forces that build or destroy community. We become attentive to the benefits and dangers of society, not only in abstract formulation but also in minute detail. And if we learn these lessons well enough, we go forth into the real world with a spirit at once inquisitive and critical. Our reading of the past has emboldened us to ‘read’ reality: to question the multifarious blandishments of the marketplace, to unpack the meaning of events at large.

That’s “liberal” education in the old sense of the word. It liberates because it empowers.

Finally, a word about the importance of courses that require writing. The ability to organize thought powerfully and lucidly in writing, important in any period, is quite central to the Information Age. Good writing is essential in all the major professions and demanded of any individual who wishes to be in serious contact with the world. Students must learn effective writing because knowledge and language are, even more than money itself, the currency of the professional arena. Practice in effective writing helps us think better; it refines our speech; it carries us to the podium. Moreover, when required as part of a Humanities Core, writing completes the dialogic loop between the lectures, the readings and the students. Conversely, the shortest route to a nation of barbarians is a generation of college graduates who cannot write. The fact that our colleges, in the main, are not supplying this skill, is evidenced by the runaway sales of PowerPoint, a software manual for thought and presentation.(17)

In summary: higher education ought to be education in liberty. American higher education fails to do this because American higher education floats rudderless, without a sense of purpose and subject to the push and tug of competing internal interests. Educators need to be reminded from every possible quarter that citizens’ ability to think critically, speak and write cogently, and see their own times in historical perspective is the only guaranty of a healthy democracy, and that the only way to ensure this ability is through higher education. No one was aware of these necessities more clearly than Frederick Douglass, one of our most eloquent writers on education. As a young boy, Douglass lived in Baltimore with a Mr. and Mrs. Auld.  Mrs. Auld started teaching Douglass to read, only to be reprimanded by her husband as follows:

"If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

If he were alive today, Frederick Douglass would be gratified at the substantial progress made in civil rights. But he would be alarmed to discover that the very education that liberated him is currently being back-burnered on American campuses. For by denying our students the guaranty of an introduction to independent thinking, do we not come close to creating a nation of slaves?

© 2004 Robert Grudin

For more information, visit Robert Grudin's American Vulgar website.


1 On August 21, 2003, Moore’s eight colleagues on the bench voted to obey a Federal court order to remove the monument. The next day Moore was suspended by Court of the Judiciary of Alabama. On November 13 a special court ordered him removed from the bench. [Back]

2 See Margaret Jacob, Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 158, also pp. 60, 93, and 145f. European Freemasonry, whose converts included Frederick the Great, Voltaire and Mozart, was also linked with other non-Christian movements: Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, pantheism and outright athiesm (Jacob, pp. 36, 128, 133, 66f. 87-95). On Mozart’s Freemasonry and its pantheistic implications, see Maynard Solomon, Mozart (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), Ch. 21 and esp. p. 331. [Back]

3 Kenneth Davis, “In the Name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress,” in A Sense of History (Boston Houghton Mifflin, 1985), p. 103. [Back]

4 The Age of Reason, Part One, Section 1. [Back]

5 Ibid., Part One, Section 2. [Back]

6 The text is of Jefferson’s Bible available at [Back]

7 Late in life, John Adams wrote, "As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?"
Letter by J.A. to F.A. Van der Kamp Dec. 27, 1816

The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion. —John Adams, Treaty of Tripoli, unanimously ratified by Congress.

Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind, and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect....What influence in fact have Christian ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society? In many instances they have been upholding the thrones of political tyranny. In no instance have they been seen as the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty have found in the clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate liberty, does not need the clergy. -James Madison, a letter to William Bradford April 1, 1774.

Regarding religion in general, Benjamin Franklin wrote, "I have ever let others enjoy their religious sentiments, without reflecting on them for those that appeared to me unsupportable and even absurd". [From: The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, by H.W. Brands]

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion...has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity.
—letter from Franklin to Exra Stiles March 9, 1790.

"My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them." —Abraham Lincoln, to Judge J.S. Wakefield, after Willie Lincoln's death.

Many of these quotations are printed, without documentation, in Gerard Straub, Salvation for Sale (1986; rpt. With revisions, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988). See esp. pp.305-11. [Back]

8 The only exception I have found is an April 29, 2003, CBS interview with Alan Dershowitz: “Dershowitz says the document has been “hijacked. The religious right is claiming that Thomas Jefferson, of all people, the author of the Declaration, tried to build a bridge between the Bible and the Constitution." Dershowitz says Jefferson did not believe in the Bible: "He thought it was, he used a terrible word, ‘dung,’ to describe it. He believed that the god of the declaration was nature's god. He didn't believe in prayer.”

“...I want to issue a challenge to the religious right, to the Falwells of the world, to Joe Lieberman, to debate me on the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence. We should teach our children what the faith of our founding fathers really is. And the faith was in science and in reason and not in the Bible,” Dershowitz says.

Yet at the same time the Declaration of Independence, in fact, invokes a creator. Dershowitz says at that time people were not atheist. People were divided into two groups.

“The big division was between people who believed that the Bible was the word of God, and that churches were the place to worship God, and people like Thomas Paine, and Washington, and Adams, who believed that God was a God of nature, that he set the world in motion, and that he didn't intervene, and that prayers aren't answered, and that was the division in those days,” Dershowitz explains. [Back]

9 Interview with Amy Goodman, May 13, 2003. “Well isn't it pretty clear that the dictatorship is in place. We_re not supposed to know certain things and we_re not going to know them. They_re doing everything to remove our history, to damage the Freedom of Information Act. Bush managed to have a number of Presidential papers, including those of his father, put out of the reach of historians, or anybody for a great length of time, during which they will probably be shredded, so they will never be available. And what I have always called jokingly the United States of Amnesia will be worse than an amnesiac it will have suffered a lobotomy, there will be no functioning historical memory of our history.” [Back]

Jefferson goes on, “I do not believe with the Rochefoucaults & Montaignes, that fourteen out of fifteen men are rogues: I believe a great abatement from that proportion may be made in favor of general honesty. But I have always found that rogues would be uppermost, and I do not know that the proportion is too strong for the higher orders, and for those who, rising above the swinish multitude, always contrive to nestle themselves into the places of power & profit. These rogues set out with stealing the people's good opinion, and then steal from them the right of withdrawing it, by contriving laws and associations against the power of the people themselves. Our part of the country is in considerable fermentation, on what they suspect to be a recent roguery of this kind. They say that while all hands were below deck mending sails, splicing ropes, and every one at his own business, & the captain in his cabbin attending to his log book & chart, a rogue of a pilot has run them into an enemy's port.” —Letter to Mann Page, August 30, 1795.
And he will return to this topic:
"I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power."
—Thomas Jefferson to W. Jarvis, 1820.
"Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree." —Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Va., 1782. [Back]

11 These are past topics of special issues of PMLA as listed by the parent association. [Back]

12 ADE Bulletin, no. 133. Schwartz, p 17. Culler, “Imaging the Coherence of the English Major,” p. 10. [Back]

13 The humanities curriculum places primary emphasis not upon information, important as that may be, but upon the development of disciplined thinking and writing through the interpretation of works of art, literature, or other means by which people have expressed themselves and ordered their lives, individually and socially. Courses acquaint students with poetry, drama, painting, sculpture, music, religion, philosophical systems, forms of political and social order, and historical works. Reed College Catalog, 2003. [Back]

14 History and Literature is the oldest Harvard concentration; for many years after its founding in 1906 it was the only concentration. Conceived as an antidote to President Eliot's "elective system," it served as a model for the reconstruction of undergraduate education under President Lowell, who had been among the founders of History and Literature. [Back]

The initial understanding was that History and Literature were to be studied as quite separate disciplines, but in a way that illuminated and enriched one's understanding of both. Professor Barrett Wendell, the first chair of History and Literature, insisted that writers "could never have been what they were but for the historical forces that surged about them," and that, conversely, it is through the literary voices of the past that the historian comes to understand "not only bare facts but also how those facts made the living men feel who knew them in the flesh." —Harvard Register. [Back]

15 Indirect funding: diversion of money from other campus purses. [Back]

16 Reed College Catalog, 2003. The course description continues as follows: The subject areas of art history, philosophy, political institutions, and myth are studied to understand how they and their interrelationships reveal distinctive features of Greek civilization.

Spring Semester: Rome.

The second term is devoted to a consideration of imperial Rome and to the encounter between classical culture and the Judeo-Christian tradition. The course examines the background and ideology of the early Principate as developed and described by the major authors of the Augustan Age, including Livy, Virgil, and Ovid. The political, philosophical, and historical implications of this development are traced in the works of Seneca and Tacitus. The second half of the spring semester begins with a reading of Hebrew biblical materials and then examines both non-canonical texts of the Jewish and Christian traditions as well as New Testament materials. After a detailed investigation of the confrontation between Christianity and the Roman world, the course concludes with St. Augustine's Confessions, in which the values and ambitions of classical antiquity are developed in the light of an emergent Christian orthodoxy. [Back]

17 See, for example, Ian Parker, “Absolute PowerPoint,” New Yorker May 28, 2001. [Back]

Robert Grudin is an interdisciplinary thinker concerned with the implications of human liberty.

His philosophical trilogy, Time and the Art of Living, The Grace of Great Things, and On Dialogue, examines questions of liberty and determinism in a variety of fields, with particular emphasis on psychology, politics, communications, and creative endeavor.

His fiction (The Most Amazing Thing and Book, a novel) and scholarship (Mighty Opposites) explore related themes. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the New York Times, the American Scholar, the Wall Steet Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Grudin's work has been widely reviewed, and his many public appearances include lectures to professional societies in science, technology, business, design, government, medicine, education, political science, and creative writing. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1992-93.

Robert Grudin graduated from Harvard College and received a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California at Berkeley. Until 1998 he was a professor of English at the University of Oregon.

Publications include:

The Most Amazing Thing (Website for the electronic edition. Finalist for the 2002 Benjamin Franklin Award™ for Popular Fiction; Palo Alto: knOwhere Press, 2002).
On Dialogue: An Essay in Free Thought (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996; paperback Boston: Mariner [Houghton Mifflin], 1997).
The Grace of Great Things: Creativity and Innovation (New York: Ticknor and Fields [Houghton Mifflin], 1990; paperback, 1991; Boston: Mariner [Houghton Mifflin], 1997).
Time and the Art of Living (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982; paperback, New York: Ticknor and Fields [Houghton Mifflin], 1988; Boston: Mariner [Houghton Mifflin], 1997).
Book, A Novel (New York: Random House, 1992; paperback, New York: Penguin, 1993).
Mighty Opposites: Shakespeare and Renaissance Contrariety (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

Photo © Suki Hill
Visit the Talent Index for more of Grudin's work
in TheScreamOnline.

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