“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”—Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach (1888)
Marshall McLuhan once quipped: “Anyone who tries to draw a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” I’ve had this quotation displayed prominently on my office wall ever since I started teaching at John Abbott College. I know this idea pisses off a lot of my colleagues, but I must confess that it seems perfectly obvious to me. After all, when you’re entertaining a person, you’ve got their attention; when you’re boring them, you don’t. And how can you possibly teach someone anything if you don’t have their attention? If J. K. Rowling proved anything with the Harry Potter series, it’s that the average kid’s attention span is much longer than most teachers would have you believe. Perhaps our students’ supposedly short attention spans aren’t a function of some underlying problem—requiring drugs and therapy or sanctimonious finger-wagging—but rather a function of terrible teachers and ridiculously boring classes.
Art’s power to change hearts and minds stems precisely from the fact that it’s entertaining. We often forget that the shocking proposals concerning censorship in Plato’s Republic (376d-392c) are predicated upon on a deep respect for art’s power to shape souls. Harriett Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) got through to many people who had more or less ignored the preachy pleas of angry activists. The same is probably true of television shows like Modern Family. When the Christian Right protests against the sympathetic portrayal of a gay character on a television show, they’re silently acknowledging the ability of entertainment to educate. Truth be told, I suspect that they respect art’s power far more than those who mock McLuhan.
If we were playing Trivial Pursuit and the question on the card was Which American university has the most extensive foreign languages program? you’d probably guess (as did I) that it’s Harvard (or another Ivy League school)—perhaps UCLA, NYU, Penn State, or the University of Chicago. But if you guessed one of these schools (or any of the other usual suspects), you’d be wrong. The correct answer is quite surprising: Brigham Young University—the über-conservative Mormon university in Utah, known for being fiercely Republican and openly hostile to feminists, homosexuals, and intellectuals. BYU is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It’s the largest religious university in the U.S.; it’s also the third-largest private university in the country.
“BYU states in no uncertain terms the religious goal of its education,” writes the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in Cultivating Humanity (1997): “students are to be taught ‘the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’” Personal piety is expected of students as well as professors, and the academic freedom of both is severely circumscribed: “Phi Beta Kappa, the national student scholarly honour society, has repeatedly refused BYU’s request for a campus chapter, on grounds of its restrictions on academic freedom.” What’s more, BYU is one of the whitest universities in America (“total minority enrollment stands at 4 percent”). Alas, BYU is not devoted to diversity and liberal, cosmopolitan values. Even so, BYU’s commitment to foreign language instruction is second to none: “No university in this country,” notes Nussbaum, “offers more foreign languages—including rarely taught languages of Australasia and the South Pacific, Persian Farsi, Haitian Creole, some Native American and some African languages.”
The reason for BYU’s commitment to the teaching of foreign languages should be obvious: the LDS Church takes the Great Commission at the end of Mark’s Gospel very seriously: “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Though the narrowly goal-oriented nature of this enterprise is somewhat sketchy, I must confess that I can’t help but admire the straightforwardly pragmatic wisdom of the Mormon approach. Mormon missionaries want to spread their ideas, their worldview, their values—not their language; as such, they speak in the common tongue of the people they wish to convert. Mormon missionaries don’t arrogantly expect their would-be converts to work hard to learn how to speak their language and understand them; they don’t expect their would-be converts to employ their idiosyncratic specialist’s jargon, their rarefied dialect. Alas, the same cannot be said of most academics, especially progressive academics writing in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. They seem to revel in being thoroughly incomprehensible.
To some extent, as Max Weber rightly observed nearly a century ago, this is inevitable. In Science as a Vocation (1918), he maintains that the academic life is fundamentally incompatible with the political life. Both are deeply noble callings, but you’ve got to choose between them. Those who refuse to choose, those who try to be both, invariably do neither well. Their wishy-washy commitment to the truth undermines the integrity of their scholarship, whilst their inability to communicate in plain speech undermines the effectiveness of their activism. The political success of Eugene Debs is a case in point.
No leftist has ever connected with American voters more than Debs. He got a million votes for the Socialist Party whilst he was in prison and the country was at war: a stunning political achievement. Yet I find it telling that the doctrinaire urban Marxists of his day—the cool kids, the intellectuals, the hipsters, the academic leftists—treated Debs with contempt. He got no respect. The intellectuals in the big northern cities thought Debs’s usage of farming metaphors and religious imagery was repulsive, and they thought his knowledge of the intricacies of Marxist theory woefully inadequate. Yet Debs could communicate their core concepts like no other. Why could he do this? Because he wasn’t another one of those philosophers who wants to sit on the sidelines and interpret the world in some new and novel way. He was, like the author of Theses on Feuerbach (1888), an activist who believed that “the point is to change it.”
The words we choose betray us: our primary loyalties and preferences are revealed by them. For instance, when you’re speaking, when you’re writing: do you go with le mot juste, the word or phrase that exactly captures your intended meaning, in all of its complexity, in all of its subtlety? Or do you go with the word or phrase that’s second best, or even third or fourth best, because you know that your intended audience will actually understand what you’re saying? If you’re an academic at heart, or an ideologue who loves preaching to the choir, you’ll go with le mot juste every time. But if you’re a teacher like me, or an activist or an organizer, you’ll do whatever you have to do to get through to your people—because, as Saul Alinsky puts it in Rules for Radicals (1971): “It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate to your people. In that event you are not even a failure. You’re just not there.”
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)