Niall Ferguson: The Treason of the Intellectuals

Anyone who has a naive belief in the power of higher education to instill morality has not studied the history of German universities in the Third Reich.

By Niall Ferguson, The Free Press

December 10, 2023

In 1927 the French philosopher Julien Benda published La trahison des clercs—“The Treason of the Intellectuals”—which condemned the descent of European intellectuals into extreme nationalism and racism. By that point, although Benito Mussolini had been in power in Italy for five years, Adolf Hitler was still six years away from power in Germany and 13 years away from victory over France. But already Benda could see the pernicious role that many European academics were playing in politics.

Those who were meant to pursue the life of the mind, he wrote, had ushered in “the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds.” And those hatreds were already moving from the realm of the ideas into the realm of violence—with results that would be catastrophic for all of Europe.

A century later, American academia has gone in the opposite political direction—leftward instead of rightward—but has ended up in much the same place. The question is whether we—unlike the Germans—can do something about it.

For nearly ten years, rather like Benda, I have marveled at the treason of my fellow intellectuals. I have also witnessed the willingness of trustees, donors, and alumni to tolerate the politicization of American universities by an illiberal coalition of “woke” progressives, adherents of “critical race theory,” and apologists for Islamist extremism.

Throughout that period, friends assured me that I was exaggerating. Who could possibly object to more diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus? In any case, weren’t American universities always left-leaning? Were my concerns perhaps just another sign that I was the kind of conservative who had no real future in the academy?

Such arguments fell apart after October 7, as the response of “radical” students and professors to the Hamas atrocities against Israel revealed the realities of contemporary campus life. That hostility to Israeli policy in Gaza regularly slides into antisemitism is now impossible to deny.

I cannot stop thinking of the son of a Jewish friend of mine, who is a graduate student at one of the Ivy League colleges. Just this week, he went to the desk assigned to him to find, carefully placed under his computer keyboard, a note with the words “ZIONIST KIKE!!!” in red and green letters.

Just as disturbing as such incidents—and there are too many to recount—has been the dismally confused responses of university leaders.

Testifying before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last week, Harvard President Claudine Gay, MIT President Sally Kornbluth, and University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill showed that they had been well-briefed by the lawyers their universities retain for such occasions.

They gave technically correct explanations of how First Amendment rules apply on their campuses—if they did apply. Yes, context matters. If all students did was chant “From the river to the sea,” that speech is protected, so long as there was no threat of violence or “discriminatory harassment.”

But the reason Claudine Gay’s carefully phrased answers on Tuesday infuriated her critics is not that they were technically incorrect, but that they were so clearly at odds with her record—specifically her record as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in the years 2018–2022, when Harvard was sliding to the very bottom of the rankings for free speech at colleges.

The killing of George Floyd happened when Gay was dean. Six days after Floyd’s death, she published a statement on the subject that suggests she felt personally threatened by events in distant Minneapolis. Floyd’s death, she wrote, illustrated “the brutality of racist violence in this country” and gave her an “acute sense of vulnerability.” She was “reminded, again, how even our [i.e., black Americans’] most mundane activities, like running. . . can carry inordinate risk. At a moment when all I want to do is gather my teenage son into my arms, I am painfully aware of how little shelter that provides.” In nothing that Gay said last Tuesday did she seem aware that Jewish students might have felt the same way after October 7.

In a memorandum to faculty on August 20, 2020, she wrote: “The calls for racial justice heard on our streets also echo on our campus, as we reckon with our individual and institutional shortcomings and with our Faculty’s shared responsibility to bring truth to bear on the pernicious effects of structural inequality.” Gay continued: “This moment offers a profound opportunity for institutional change that should not and cannot be squandered. . . . I write today to share my personal commitment to this transformational project and the first steps the FAS will take to advance this important agenda in the coming year.”

As the great German sociologist Max Weber rightly argued in his 1917 essay on “Science as a Vocation,” political activism should not be permissible in a lecture hall “because the prophet and the demagogue do not belong on the academic platform.” This was also the argument of the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Report that universities must “maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.”

This separation between scholarship and politics has been entirely disregarded at the major American universities in recent years. Instead, our most elite schools have embraced the kind of “institutional change” that Gay has championed. Look where it has led us.

It might be thought extraordinary that the most prestigious universities in the world should have been infected so rapidly with a politics imbued with antisemitism. Yet exactly the same thing has happened before.

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December 12, 2023 | 4 Comments »

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  1. Wokism – Islamism are flourishing in infantile groups where no duties , no debts to knowledge and experience are asked . Typical of the western affluent Ivy League and beyond . These so-called ” intellectuals ” are arrogant ignoramus , behaving like a soccer fan club .

  2. neither Hitler nor Mussolini were right wing… and the intellectuals adhered to the social credit principles… the right is neither racist nor treacherous… the left is… because the people on the right adhere to principles where the people from the left adhere to doctrines… doctrines are ignorant of a state…
    we see this is in ISRAEL today… left is… ;not to say too much… who knows what they have done? look at Napoleon… look at Robespierre… right wing?

  3. First this phenomenon goes back to the post Waterloo decades when – especially German universities – became fountains of nationalism which also included Antisemitism because in Germany Jews were noto part of “We the People…” The ironic cream of this is that the young lecturer who wrote the lyric of the “Deutschlandlied” (D. uber alles) lost his job for, “nationalist agititation.”

    Secondly part of the explanation might be that the student age group is still too inexperienced to have had the corners sanded off by life and acquired common sense; or because being selected for intellectual abilities they knock sparks off each other developing into overdrive all their notions both good from their studies and crass and common from back in the sticks.
    Finally Academe is there to develop new ideas and in all and any such development processes quite a few of the experiments have duff results – particuarly when tried out in different fields.