Polly Stewart’s “What Parson Weems Didn’t Tell You” -Qualia Folk

In September 1985, Polly Stewart delivered a convocation address for Salisbury University (formerly known as Salisbury State College or SSC). The title of the speech is “What Parson Weems Didn’t Tell You: Intellectual Crisis as a Mark of Liberal Education” (courtesy of David Lybarger, who was a student in the audience when Stewart gave her speech).

Polly Stewart. Photo: Alan Smart, June 2010 (folkworks.org/all-columns-by-/40229-polly-stewart-salt-lake-folk-revival, April 2013)

Colleagues, alumni, parents, friends, and students – I consider it a great honor to be here before you today, though I must tell you that I seem, of late, to have become known as a woman who tells people things they don’t like to hear. I am indebted to several members of the faculty whose idea-swapping has helped me formulate some of the points in this address. You know who you are, and I thank you. While I am pleased to share my remarks with everyone present, I am really addressing the freshmen, the class of 1989.

Dear freshmen: You are in for a big shock. As beginning college students, you may be under the impression that you have come here to be provided with answers. But a liberal arts college provides more questions than it does answers. Moreover, in the next four or so years you are going to be exposed to quite a number of new ideas, some of which will be in conflict with what you presently understand to be the truth. Some of you will find this experience mildly upsetting; others of you may actually go into an intellectual crisis of some depth. But whether you re affected a little or a lot, most of you, when you emerge, will be changed. For some, this prospect is exciting and exhilarating; for others it may be very, very frightening.

You might ask how such a change can be possible. It’s because of the following paradox. Everyone knows that it is comforting to be certain about things. Yet the longer your college education goes on, the more obvious it will become to you that there is less and less about which you can be certain. And the less certain you are about things, the more uncomfortable you are. It’s paradoxical that learning makes you uncertain and uncomfortable. A colleague at SSC tells me he was never more sure of everything than when he was a sophomore in college. He had clear and tangible horizons, as though situated in a neat small circle with everything at his disposal. As his college career continued, this circle grew ever bigger and more unwieldy, and the horizon drifted way out to there; every new thing he learned told him there was a great deal more than he would ever be able to know. He says that this is still happening to him and that it gives every evidence of continuing to happen as long as he lives.

But this is what happens to any educated person. Consider what it was like for you to have learned about George Washington, in stages, throughout your school years. The first story you learned — in, say, the second grade — was probably the one that Parsons Weems cooked up for the first Washington biography, which turns out to have been a fiction. I am referring to how little George, in his tiny three-cornered-hat, cut down that cherry tree and could not tell his father a lie. In every American history course thereafter you learned more things about George Washington, some of them rather shocking. Your image of Washington had to change each time you learned something new. The lucky ones among you ended up with a balanced image of Washington as a persistent and scrupulously honest man who, though rather unimaginative himself, was not threatened by the intellectual giants who surrounded him, and without whose efforts the Republic would very likely have died a-bornin’. In this respect, Washington should perhaps be known as the obstetrician, rather than the father, of our country, but my point is that every time you learned something new about Washington, that new information undid, or threatened, something you had learned earlier.

Many people are left reeling by this process; others are exhilarated by it. But for everyone, each new unfolding of knowledge brings with it an intellectual conflict of lesser or greater degree, which is sometimes characterized by confusion, denial, and pain — but, for most people, an ultimate accommodation to and acceptance of new knowledge occurs. Hand in hand with the excitement of intellectual discovery goes the discomfort of confrontation with the virtual impossibility of intellectual certitude. The result is intellectual liberation. As students in a liberal-arts college, you yourselves will undergo this difficult process — or at least that is what a liberal arts curriculum is meant to do. Now if you have decided you don’t want to be intellectually liberated, you at least have to let yourself be exposed to liberation. But watch out — once you know something, you can’t un-know it. And the more you know, the less certain you can honestly be.

By these lights, it is interesting to observe that there are some people in this world who are supremely certain about everything, comfortable in their certitude, and sincere in their beliefs — all at the same time. This is made possible because these people do not choose the path of intellectual inquiry, for, as I have tried to show you, going along that path nets you uncertainty, not certainty. Television’s Archie Bunker, for example, allowed himself to know only what he wanted to know — anything that might upset his preexisting view of things he refused to learn. Many people in real life are like that. Because of their conscious decision not to inquire, I am going to call them (for purposes of this discussion) anti-intellectual. There happens to be, today, a rising tide of anti-intellectualism in our country, though it is not the first such tide, nor will it be the last. Our nation has, indeed, a long history of anti-intellectualism, a phenomenon that rises whenever society is undergoing rapid or cataclysmic change. In such times, dreading change and the uncertainty and risk that accompany change, many people will cope by retreating into models of a simpler and supposedly better way of life whose rules are well understood and whose options are clear-cut. In such a way of life, it is believed, certainty is easy to attain because there are fewer choices and therefore fewer decisions to make. Everyone knows his or her place. Not surprisingly, anti-intellectual movements are simplistic and try to reduce all issues to only two opposing sides; as a famous anti-intellectual protest slogan of the sixties went, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” (Many of you will recognize in this slogan the logical fallacy known as the either-or fallacy.)

In the vast pendulum-swings that history has a way of making, some American anti-intellectual movements have originated on the political left and some on the political right. As everyone knows who has not been in a coma for the last ten years, the current political mood in the country favors the right, the conservatives, and it also happens that many adherents of the present-day anti-intellectual movement identify themselves as conservatives. Please understand that conservatism is not, in itself, anti-intellectual; some of our finest thinkers are conservatives. And I stress again that anti-intellectualism is not the exclusive property of either the right or the left. It happens, however, that some people in these two broad movements, usually at the extreme ends, are anti-intellectual. Anti-intellectualism occurs when people choose not to inquire deeply into issues lest they discover something that might make them uncertain, and therefore uncomfortable, about their beliefs. To illustrate: During the Great Depression of the thirties the Communist Party flourished in America. An elderly gentleman of my acquaintance, who as a young man knew some of these Communists, tells of his dismay at their profound anti-intellectualism; he says that many of them read the official Party newspaper, the Daily Worker, religiously and would perform an intellectual flip-flop whenever the Party line called for it. A later anti-intellectual movement, this one politically conservative, rose up in the years immediately following the Second World War — another time of great social and political turmoil; this movement came to be known as McCarthyism, after one of its luminaries. Two decades later, during the difficult Vietnam years, there was an equally powerful and, for some, equally frightening anti-intellectual movement from the other end of the political spectrum, known as the New Left. Most of my colleagues remember this movement, whether fondly or not, and probably some students are aware of it too. Back in those days I made a stab at participating in it, and came to understand that the ideological content of the New Left, warmed-over Marxism, was laden with male chauvinism even though adorned for the nonce with love beads. In time, its members — most of them, anyway — withdrew into themselves, seeking what was relevant for themselves and cultivating their gardens.

Left, right, left, right. This is the way the pendulum swings. The right-wing anti-intellectuals of today, like the members of earlier anti-intellectual movements, are so driven to achieve their ends that they too will resort to violence and the oppression of others, as we have seen in recent bombings of abortion clinics and the verbal and physical harassment of abortion clients. New-Right activists are fervent in their belief that what they are doing is absolutely right not only for themselves but for everyone else. But today’s New-Right anti-intellectuals are grounding their movement in a document that stands at the very foundation of Western society — the Bible. Their doing so mixes politics and religion in a way that is doubtless making the Founding Fathers turn over in their graves. Standing on the Bible, the anti-intellectuals of the right are taking potshots at everyone who does not agree with them. One of their targets is the large number of people in our society who happen to believe that the human being, not deity, is at the center of existence. As Americans, these people have a right to this belief, which is known as secular humanism. But the anti-intellectuals are trying to change this descriptive term, secular humanism, into an obscenity. They are chipping away at everybody’s civil liberties by trying to enact laws and policies that take choices away from all people rather than letting individual people choose for themselves. If they have their way, even such basic human rights as those presently guaranteed to us by the First Amendment will be taken away from us. I am speaking of our right to have access to books, films, television, and video, among other things. The anti-intellectuals of the right are exploiting the Bible to reduce everything, no matter how complex, to only two sides — the one they call right and the one they call wrong. They are shutting down human possibilities rather than opening them up. From a vantage point of a liberally educated person, therefore, today’s brand of right-wing anti-intellectualism is every bit as destructive of what America stands for as was Communism is the thirties.

All anti-intellectual movements, whatever their place on the political spectrum, try to establish a monolithic society. (An example of a monolithic society may be seen in present-day Iran.) But our society is pluralistic, not monolithic. America has always been pluralistic. That’s possibly the source of our greatest strength as a nation. Pluralism, by its nature, makes room for people of every political, religious, social, and intellectual stripe; it welcomes, for example, people who favor reproductive rights or pay equity just as much as it welcomes people who oppose these; and it gives all of us the right to petition, vote, lobby and fight (figuratively, not literally) for what we believe in. So anti-intellectuals have a place in our pluralistic society and they have just as much right to their beliefs as anyone else. The trouble comes when they try to take over and impose their beliefs on everyone else. This attempt threatens the very pluralism that has made our country great. Whether they know it or not — indeed, they would probably deny this since they sincerely believe that what they are doing is right – anti-intellectuals are trying to destroy our society.

In case you are interested, one way to combat monolithic anti-intellectualism is to become educated, for a liberal-arts college is not a place where a set of single-minded views is imposed on anyone. A church might be a place to do this, or a political party. But a college is committed to free intellectual inquiry; it is a place where we can, as Chairman Mao (you should pardon the expression) said, let a hundred flowers blossom. This is not to say that the faculty of a liberal-arts college are without opinions on politics, religion, or social issues; here at SSC, I would venture today that we’ve got a pretty healthy mix of politically and socially conservative, moderate, and liberal professors who all work pretty well together — and we can thank our lucky stars for that. Whether conservative, moderate, or liberal, all have undergone the process — which, as I have suggested above, is not easy — of intellectual liberation that you will have been exposed to and perhaps undergone by the time you graduate, and all have chosen their stance from an array of options made manifest as a result of their liberal education. They have chosen, not been told, what their individual belief systems shall encompass. And that is the difference between the intellectual and the anti-intellectual.

I can imagine that some of the freshman in this audience, and perhaps even some of the old hands, are rolling their eyes and jabbing each other in the ribs and asking, why is she TELLING us this? It is because, while no member of this faculty (as far as I am aware) wants to covert students to any one political position, most of us have considered opinions on these matters. While some courses of study are removed from political or social considerations of any kind, others are not. While some of us believe the appropriate way to teach is to keep politics out of the classroom, others of us believe that the way to help students’ minds is to confront students with ideas that they might not have known about before. You will be exposed, in your undergraduate career, to any number of new ideas that you will have to grapple with, be made uncomfortable because of, and, ultimately, incorporate into your belief system — or reject.

I have to make this very clear to you, the freshmen, because in elementary and secondary schools a vast number of ideas that might potentially offend the anti-intellectuals are kept out of the classroom, and you may not be used to exposure to ideas of this sort. It is different in college; unlike your schoolteachers, your college professors have a right, afforded to them by a principle known as academic freedom, to conduct their classes in whatever way they believe is best (within reason, of course) to get their material across. And you have to be ready for it; you have to learn to be discerning, to listen carefully and then to question what your professors have to say, to learn how to judge statements on their intrinsic merits, neither accepting them uncritically nor rejecting them out of hand because of your own perhaps unexamined presuppositions. This is an awesomely difficult task for you. But we do not want you to accept what we say just because we say it. We want you to develop your intellect, or—as a dear friend and colleague of mine is fond of saying — to stretch your skulls. Skull-stretching may give you a headache, but it also makes it possible for you to grow.

Just as growing is painful for the learner, so also is it painful to the learner’s significant others, particularly the family. It is not untypical for a freshman to come home after several weeks of college, bursting with new ideas, some of them counter to the values and beliefs and expectations and desires of the family left behind. Some students discover that they are angry at their parents because of what they’ve newly learned; some are in the process of discovering that the educational goals they were so sure of a few weeks before may not be what they wanted after all. Both students and parents have to try to be ready for the conflict that may arise because of the college experience. College provides one way of growing up, and growing up is not easy, either for the ones who have to do it or for the ones who have to let them.

Let me briefly say again the most important thing I want you to remember from this address: You have come to college to have your minds opened up, whether you knew that or not. In the process you will doubtless undergo intellectual stress, but most of you will experience intellectual growth of a sort that will never let you down when, through life, you are faced with difficult and many-sided issues. In this way you will be able to avoid being either intimidated or taken in by the anti-intellectuals of this world. So grow, then, and please know in the coming years that my best wishes are with you. Thank you very much.

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