On Student Radicals: Some Thoughts On The Importance Of Reading



In 1967 George Kennan, elder statesmen and man-of-letters, wondered about the members of the increasingly boisterous, radical Left found on American campuses. A contemplative man like Kennan naturally clashed with such youth and faced their dismissive ire, but his criticism is as apropos as ever. Simply put, student activists need to stop screaming and start reading.

At the dedication of a library at Swarthmore College in 1967, Kennan was invited to give a speech. In it he eschewed the “spirit of silence” so commonly associated with libraries, and addressed student activism. The nature of education was the crucial issue. From John Lewis Gaddis’ magisterial biography:

Did not education imply a voluntary withdrawal from contemporary life in order to achieve a better perspective on it? Was there not a a”dreadful incongruity” between that vision and “the condition 0f mind and behavior in which a portion of the student youth finds itself today”?

Instead of withdrawal, there was intense involvement. Instead of calm, “transports of passion.” Instead of self-possession, “screaming tantrums and brawling in the streets.” Instead of rational discourse, “banners and epithets and obscenities and virtually meaningless slogans.” And instead of hope, “eyes glazed with anger,” as well as by “artificial abuse of the psychic structure that lies behind them.” In saying all of this, Kennan knew he sounded parental, a prisoner of all the “seamy adjustments” to practicality that came with that status. He made no apologies for without such compromises, children would not enjoy the privilege of “despising us for the materialistic faint-heartedness that made their maturity possible” (Gaddis 608).

Kennan’s comments were not well received and his audience of youth quickly proved his point as he found himself surrounded “by a number of bearded creatures who were absolutely hissing at [him], like a crowd of geese.” How, asked a more articulate interlocutor, could students “pursue scholarship with Marines recruiting on campus?” Kennan’s answer: by “taking a book, going into the library, and reading.” He added, “I doubt that the recruiter would follow him there” (Gaddis 609).

Kennan may seem the crank, but he’s a crank for education and students taking time to read. If there is one thing the youth generally do not appreciate when they arrive to school fresh-faced and green, it is the depth of their ignorance. I was one of those kids. I entered university as a vocal libertarian. I weaponized my approach to learning: whatever supported my position I added to the arsenal; whatever challenged it, I sought to demolish. Of course, other libertarian friends joined the cause—little warriors of liberty. University students—right, left, center, libertarian, socialist, etc.— certainly are a type. Looking back, I don’t know what made me think, at the ripe age of 18, I could become master of the barricades and change the future for the better. The fact is I simply hadn’t read enough to know what on earth I was talking about. As they say in seminaries, “He knows just enough Greek to be dangerous.”

And then one day, after months of study and reading the works of old dead guys (Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etc.) I visited a professor and something happened: as I talked through my paper comparing John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas’ view of politics, it occurred to me that neither Calvin nor Aquinas neatly fit into my libertarian-anti-libertarian approach to knowledge. The thought had been germinating for some time but it finally crystallized: There was a third way. It was an unsettling moment, but as the blinders fell off, I experienced a sort of euphoria. The world had just gotten bigger, more complicated, and far more interesting. The revelation was on my face and the professor smiled wryly. The first day of class he had insulted my decision to major in political-economy and hadn’t let up (how intolerant of him). This had irked me. But I decided to keep listening to what he had to say. And now the payoff had finally arrived. Unfortunately, this meant that my comforting, libertarian, ideological meat-grinder (put in problem, turn the handle, out pops the answer) no longer worked, which meant I had a good deal more thinking to do about everything. Granted, I still had and have libertarian inclinations. Also, as in days past, I can jump to conclusions and judge too quickly. But the world is no longer binary.

As a junior I came across another professor who reinforced a correlative point: seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. As a freshman, I had the tendency of asking myself when reading, “Do I agree with this?” This is natural. I still ask myself that question. But this short-circuits learning if one does not first ask, “Do I understand this?” One sees a word, a phrase, a line of argumentation, and immediately jumps to conclusions and begins arguing for or against. But one must hold back for a minute and make sure one understands what is actually being argued. One must get beyond what appears on the surface, the cover of the book, the name of the publication. Only then can there be a dialogue and learning.

But this takes patience and radical students have little time for it. They arrogantly charge about campus with the TRUTH, smashing monuments, assailing accumulated wisdom for ideological purposes. The radicals of today, like those of yesteryear, have no spare moment for learning. There is too much to do! Plus, they do not need learning. They know already. Their platonic categories (white, black, yellow, straight, not straight, cis-gender etc.) are fixed and ready to excoriate individuals that challenge the forms. All that is needed now is action to purify the world.

The reading student, on the other hand, comes to school with humility. He appreciates his own limitations, his own lack of knowledge. He sees people as individuals capable of great virtue and vice and full of surprises. He does not judge based on abstraction and avoids blanket stereotypes. He knows how to get beyond the cover of the book.

On occasion the activist converts. And once that happens, once he gets past the simplistic slogans, pseudo-science, and passionate denunciations that dominate “dialogue” on many campuses, there is no going back.

We should keep in mind that the moral passion of the youth is not inherently bad. But Kennan notes that fervor un-moored from reason is a dangerous thing. Such passion without “any constructive concept of what, ideally ought to exist in its place…bears a disconcerting resemblance to phenomena we have witnessed within our time in the origins of totalitarianism.” If one doesn’t discard the placards and hit the library, how can one hope to have any idea of “what ideally ought to exist”? The lack of reading, furthermore, makes one vulnerable to silly ideas long refuted. And silly ideas can become dangerous ones very quickly once the mob starts to roll.

The irony is that as much as science is praised these days, the characteristics of the scientist are neglected. A scientist painstakingly gathers evidence and then attempts to dispassionately study the data. This takes a great deal of  discipline, humility, courage, and time.  Ought not social-political matters receive the same sort of academic rigor? Ought not those who wish to change society read about it for several years first before they decide on the right course of action?  In short, the activists at university are ill-prepared for activism because they simply haven’t read enough and consequently don’t know what is worth advocating. This is no surprise: they’ve been too busy marching.

In the meantime, the barbarians remain with us. Kennan, frustrated but clear-eyed, declared that the university must save itself from those who had “no experience of its past, no expertise for its present, no responsibility for its future.” Students, then as now, often do not know what they were talking about despite their passionate advocacy. Gaddis continues,

For the students reflected the “sickly secularism” of society as a whole: its shallow convictions; its preoccupation with gadgetry; its disconnection from nature; its lack of understanding for “the slow powerful processes of organic growth.” These had created, in college youth, “an extreme disbalance in emotional and intellectual growth.”

Education takes time. It takes calm. It takes reflection. But it is worthwhile. The university plays an essential role in this development and not by giving the young a soapbox from which they can emote, but by giving them a quiet space to learn for a bit. This is not to say that students should never participate in politics. It is to say that students should consider what exactly they’re doing at school. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. You get four year (or maybe a little more) to focus on it exclusively. Rushing the process so you can man the barricades (and probably the wrong ones at that), will only result in arrested development.





One thought on “On Student Radicals: Some Thoughts On The Importance Of Reading

  1. Pingback: Harlem: White Guilt, Gentrification, and Historical Consciousness | The Feral Yawp

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