A friend messaged me on Wednesday morning: “I feel like I know so much, but that I’m so powerless."
Perhaps what shocks and offends us—the well-matriculated—most about the ascendancy of Trump is that it means we may have lost the fiat to political power which an elite education formerly guaranteed us. We cannot bear the thought of a Columbia grad and professor of constitutional law handing over the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to a blustering, oversized Oompa Loompa who was sent, without success, to military school to fix his bad behavior.
Another professor of constitutional law and president in his own right sent an email Wednesday in response to the election, in which he claimed that “the work of scholarship and teaching” is “ultimately the best answer to overcoming divisions and even the risk, feared by many, that our principles may be violated.” Prior to Tuesday night, I would have had great sympathy for such a claim. But now it reads, at best, as naïve (if noble) and, at worst, as bombastic (if blithe).
University President Lee Bollinger’s claim epitomizes, I think, a kind of magical thinking endemic to the minds of lettered men. It is a fantasy passed down through the many ages of America, a mantra told to privileged children to give them drive and focus. It is a vision of our nation’s founders as polymaths and philosophers and the swoon of well-trained mouths and minds like the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, the Clintons. These men, the ones who have already realized whatever truth there is in it, recognize it in the saying, “The battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton.”
In a form more universally known, it goes like this: “Knowledge is power.” It was not universally known, however, to be a lie. Now, its falsity should ring true.
There is a part of me that means this in the most concrete sense: that America no longer respects good manners, modest hairdos, sharp wits, and all the other indices of a proper education. Not only are these no longer prerequisites; they are, in fact, red flags, signaling treason to the dearer values of faith and simplicity. Good statesmanship and “civility” are no longer synonymous; or, if they are, neither is cherished. But perhaps, to mourn this reality is only to reify the elitism which takes for granted that these things demand respect.
In another sense, perhaps more humbling and humiliating, I mean that to think the world will operate according to principles we think are true is the epitome of foolishness. Forgive me if this all sounds like truism, but, as Noam Chomsky likes to say, “The thing about truisms is at least they’re true.” I’ll add to that that truisms might be the only things whose truth we can be sure of. We, meaning those of us who like to pride ourselves on our education, seem to be fond of forgetting this one truism in particular: that the one who knows something knows that he knows nothing at all.
I forgot this on Tuesday night. You might have too.
I was smart enough to know that the eventual outcome was not outside the realm of possibility. As a matter of statistical fact, as a practice in reason, I accepted the outside chance. But, as the unsettling results started to come in, I told myself it couldn’t be. I told myself that America, as the giant collectivity I believed—that I still somehow believe—to be beautiful, would ultimately think like me. Why? Because I am of the thinking class, right? And if they gave it any thought at all, if they have even an ounce of reason, then they should come to the same conclusion. Right?
Wrong. The fallacy of “knowledge is power” is twofold. In the first place, it makes you think of “knowledge” as something out there, as some singular divine truth that, with a bit of effort and encouragement, can be achieved and universally communicated. And it makes you think that once we’ve all locked on to it, that we’ll behave in a way that accords with our newfound wisdom and thereby change the world for good.
It’s so much messier than that, and, yet, we keep on clinging to it.
I half-expected that my Wednesday morning lecture would turn into group therapy, that we would all stop our studies and just go bonkers, that we would yell and laugh and scream and cry and let ourselves, for once, behave irrationally. But my professor dove right in. He even seemed perturbed at the palpable state of exhaustion and exasperation in the room. A friend of mine later showed me an email from his own professor, saying “We will be having the exam as planned. Election-induced anxiety is real, but we can’t let it halt progress."
To be fair, I’m sure he meant this in a very straightforward sense: We have to continue on, per the syllabus; we don’t have time to spare. But, there is some small grain of a larger myth at play: that learning is progress, and that the path forward is an education, especially one so good as ours. It is the same narrative told in Bollinger’s email, and in Suzanne Goldberg’s Wednesday op-ed, in which she sympathizes with our “shock, distress, and fear” but instructs us to keep in mind “that universities have a distinct and important role, and Columbia students, as well as faculty and staff, have unique opportunities to bring extraordinary talents to the community here and to the world at large."
There is still some part of me that wants to think that this is true, that the reason why we, on this campus, are so universally upset with the result of this election has to do with, well, our immense capacity for reason; and if we just use it, we can fix this mess.
But, the result has, on the other hand, shown us that our “reason” is just that—our reason, our particular kind of reason. And, it is not true and total wisdom. Even if it were, it would not be enough. So, where have we fallen short? In action? In compassion? In communication?
I don’t yet know the answer, but it’s time to start considering the question.
Ian Hewitt is a Columbia College senior studying biological anthropology. He works as a teacher’s assistant and research assistant in the department of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology. He hasn’t done “the Twitter” since high school, and so cannot be held responsible for anything tweeted by @ian_hewitt. The Cloisters runs alternate Wednesdays.
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