The New Elite Learning Curve: Descent into Ignorance

Between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, I lived for several months on kibbutz Hagoshrim, on the border of Israel with Lebanon under the shadow of the Golan Heights. Hagoshrim was referenced in a recent Wall Street Journal article about war preparations along the northern border, which reported that although the nearby town of Kiryat Shmona had been evacuated, the residents of Hagoshrim, the kibbutzniks, had decided not to evacuate but to stay in support of the army. I was not the least surprised, for I knew the kind of sturdy people who lived there.

One of my early jobs as a volunteer laborer on the kibbutz was to dig a grave. It was a Sabbath, and I was the only Gentile who could handle a shovel and pick so I worked alone. The ground was rock hard, and the job took most of the day. As visitors wandered into the cemetery, I learned that the grave was for one of the elderly kibbutzniks who had a line of tattooed numbers on his wrist, marking him as a Nazi death camp survivor. The news made my work even more somber and as I dug, I reflected on the horrors he must have endured. Eventually I became aware of a white-haired man sitting on a nearby bench, another of those battered souls bearing a wrist tattoo. When I took a break, he gestured me to rest on the bench beside him. I thought I should say something but had no idea what would be appropriate, or even if he spoke English. Finally, I just awkwardly offered “he survived all that hatred.” I didn’t think he heard, or understood, for he said nothing for a long minute. Then, forlornly staring at the grave. he just murmured “all that stupidity” and spoke no more.

I took the comment to be just a bitter offhand reply and thought no more of it as I resumed digging. But through the years the words returned to me. I had mentioned hate to one seasoned in hate, who had known it in its most savage, ruthless forms, had endured the 20th century’s vortex of death, and he had seemed to correct me. It wasn’t hatred that was the essential cause of Jewish persecution, he was saying, it was stupidity, the ignorance that allowed the hate to take root.

Any doubt I had about that conclusion has been eradicated by events on certain college campuses since the October 7 Hamas attacks. Mobs of students scream about the apartheid state of Israel without understanding Israel or what apartheid is. They shout about a history of oppression without bothering to understand the actual history. They rant about the need to return to a Palestinian state without knowing there never was such a state. They gleefully celebrate reports of unspeakable atrocities and call for more. The most extreme of these demonstrations have occurred on the campuses of our top-ranked schools. The more elite a university is, it seems, the more ignorant and intolerant its students have become. I doubt any of these protesting students at Harvard, for example, are aware that in the school’s early days graduates were required to learn Hebrew, because of the wisdom found in ancient Jewish writings.

Mistaking a few facts here or there might be expected in the vicissitudes of traditional curricula, but this new ignorance is altogether different. It can only be described as willful, a deliberate steering of education away from inductive reasoning and truth. Facts, ethics, and the wisdom that come with these interfere with ideology, and on these campuses ideology rules. A generation of students have been taught that they don’t need to actually study facts or consider ethics so long as they learn how to shriek at the appropriate trigger points. They don’t need to have values as long as they have emotions. Attacking the messenger is always easier than actually engaging in rational empirical dialogue. For many supposedly gifted students at these elite schools, it starts with intellectual laziness, which gets fed by the toxic fodder of social media and teachers who have abandoned intellectual fervor in favor of ideological fervor. These high-potential students arrive eager to embark on a learning journey but instead are led down a path of indoctrination. They seek enlightenment but are taken into darkness. High-IQ mobs that began as virtual became actual. For their professors this is an abject dereliction of responsibility.

This cycle of empty minds being fed a steady diet of angry slogans, genocidal mantras, and hate speech has turned their once great institutions into social liabilities. Instead of producing well-honed, articulate minds for building and improving society, these lavishly appointed campuses are churning out shallow, uninformed graduates whose primary skills seem to be translating low-brow hate into polished epithets. As Bill Maher poignantly observed after the pro-Hamas rallies started, “college life today is a day spa combined with a North Korean reeducation camp.”

Thus returns the stupidity spoken of by a world-weary death camp survivor on a distant Israeli hillside. The scars on his soul, and his tattoo, gave him a profound credibility on the subject of hate. He knew that the hate that drove the genocide practiced at such living hells as Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and Dachau began with ignorance. The goal of education, Malcolm Forbes wisely declared, “is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” These minds we are seeing at elite schools are closed and intolerant. They have not been taught how to think, but what to think, an inexcusable sin for an educator. There is nothing uglier than otherwise intelligent people filling their brains with hate and prejudice, making these wrenching campus scenes some of the ugliest of my lifetime.

It is a tragedy for our entire country that these once noble institutions have sunk so low, and it is difficult to see how they will rehabilitate themselves without major structural reform. The tepid response from university leaders is not encouraging. Reacting by instructing Jewish students to hide, as some university administrators have done, is hardly enlightened or virtuous leadership. These schools need to reembrace the demanding meritocracy that once made them great, but shallow, identity-driven admission policies, the swelling of administrative ranks with ideologues and years-long campaigns to turn every academic topic into a hate-mining exercise has exiled merit and substance. These leaders have been silent, or even empowering, as a long march of extremism has infiltrated and overwhelmed their schools. Recent weeks have been a test of whether campus leaders will resurrect the values of truth and tolerance, and many are failing.

Eliot Pattison’s nineteen novels include the just-released Freedom’s Ghost, the seventh in his series set in the volatile years leading to the American Revolution.

Image: John Enghart

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