October 5, 2015

Letter: Bernie Sanders and the merits of challenging your core education

A 100 million dollar donation could have the University pandering to special interest groups.

Nicholas Saffran’s recent op-ed in the Maroon about Senator Bernie Sanders’s speech at Rockefeller Chapel touches on a few universal truths about modern American politics, especially during a presidential election. Much of the rhetoric espoused is vague, and on the rare occasion that it is actually rooted in fact, it tends to oversimplify the details of what are almost always complex issues. In an increasingly polarized system, candidates tend to rely on appeals to the beliefs of their electoral base or mischaracterizations of opposing positions. Famed though he may be for his unorthodoxy, Senator Sanders is no different.

It is unfortunate, then, that such legitimate criticisms are couched in an article that ultimately amounts to a hit-piece on the intelligence of Sanders and the political left, even as it masquerades as something else. And it is truly unfortunate that such a fully-throated defense for nuance and honest engagement hinges on an egregious mischaracterization of Sanders’s words.

Mr. Saffran writes that Sanders began “his address to throngs of cheering students by boasting that he was not a very good student while here at the University, that he read very few of the books he was actually assigned, and that he did most of his learning outside of the classroom.” Sanders’s actual words paint a slightly different picture:

“When I think about my years at the University, I think about many of the excellent and provocative teachers and classes that I had. I think about the physics class that I struggled with endlessly and the fact that I will not go down in history as one of the great students at the University of Chicago. And I think about the many, many hours that I spent in the basement of Harper Library reading everything except the books that I was supposed to read for the class the next day. [Applause] Don’t take that as advice. That’s not what I’m suggesting. Do better in school than I did.”

As Mr. Saffran notes, Sanders was in all likelihood joking, making a self-deprecating attempt to reach common ground with students at his undergraduate alma mater, one of the most infamously difficult institutions in the entire world. But whether he meant it or not, this is hardly the “boast” of a man who revels in anti-intellectualism. And Sanders’s stated embrace of learning beyond the ivy-covered confines of the University hardly amounts to a rejection of the Western canon, the contention on which Mr. Saffran’s entire editorial rests.

In my time at the University, I read and relished the work of Plato, de Tocqueville, and Nietzsche; I encouraged anyone who would listen to read and reread Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. But my education was buttressed by the works of du Bois, Fanon, and Michelle Alexander, by several texts recommended by classmates and professors alike that never appeared on a syllabus, by living and talking and working in the iridescent tapestry of Americana that is my hometown of Chicago. My instructors would often assign contradictory texts and ask me to argue the merits of one over the other without any intimation as to the “right” answer, as anyone who can remember the winter quarter of Classics can attest. What Mr. Saffran decries as an attempt to “gut core curricula in America” is more accurately described as a broadening diversification of that curricula; that while there is still great worth in the study of “Dead White Men™,” that alone is no longer sufficient. The voices and perspectives of those traditionally silenced by the tide of history should now be considered by those endeavoring to join the company of educated individuals.

Contrary to what Mr. Saffran believes of Sanders and, presumably, his liberal supporters, it is quite possible to both interpret the world and attempt to change it based on those interpretations.

So earnest though it undoubtedly is, Mr. Saffran’s critique of Senator Sanders’s economic positions largely amounts to a transparent paralipsis with a naked claim to the intellectual high ground, suggesting that any educated or intelligent person armed with the wisdom of Hayek and Smith would not support a $15 minimum wage or oppose free trade agreements, and neatly ignores any counter-arguments that might oppose his point. Mr. Saffran invokes the classic refrain of teaching “how to think, not what to think,” then effectively attacks Sanders for not arriving at the “right” (in every sense of the word) conclusions, even as he claims that he is not doing so.

And if he is fearful of true anti-intellectualism, I would invite Mr. Saffran to take a closer look at some of the people against whom Senator Sanders is running—not only at self-effacing jokes intended to shed the dreaded mantle of an elitist, but also at their actual stances. At American conservatism, not its continental or English cousins. At Rick Santorum, who called President Obama a snob for wanting to expand college access, and placing American minds within reach of “some liberal college professor.” At Carly Fiorina, who continually touts the horrors of Planned Parenthood videos that have been repeatedly debunked. At Mike Huckabee’s flagrant misunderstanding of the Constitution and the powers of the Supreme Court. At virtually every single thing Donald Trump has said, a man who has so richly earned the label of demagogue that Mr. Saffran affixed to Sanders.

None of this is meant as a defense of Senator Sanders’s positions or an endorsement for his campaign, especially with election day over a year away. Setting aside the specifics of his stances and policy proposals, there are legitimate concerns that liberals and conservatives alike should have over how his raw populism will translate into an ability to actually govern, especially in negotiating with what will likely remain a Republican Congress. No one running for president should be inoculated from criticism, even when delivering a stump speech to a mostly supportive audience, and Mr. Saffran’s willingness to publicly criticize one of the University’s favored sons is commendable. But in a piece where he routinely calls for a greater examination of and respect for nuance and complexity in politics, one wishes that he had endeavored to follow his own advice in writing it.

In closing, I would echo Mr. Saffran’s invitation for students to vote for whomever they wish, though I would plead with them to strongly reconsider supporting Donald Trump should the opportunity arise. I will also echo his exhortation that they read their assigned texts, in Sosc and beyond.

But I would also encourage students to read more than what is assigned—to dip a toe into the ocean of literature not contained within the limits of the hallowed Western tradition. I would encourage them never to take what they’ve read as gospel, traditional or otherwise, and to always challenge what is presented in front of them. I would encourage them, as Senator Sanders did, to take their education beyond the confines of the Reg and Harper and out into the surrounding streets of the Windy City.

And failing any of those, I would urge them to never dismiss their fellow students who engage with the same material and come away with different conclusions as less intelligent or anti-intellectual for having done so.

—Mickey Desruisseaux A.B. 15 

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