Dangerous professors and sparing the rod

Kecha asked:

‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ — does this view of love correspond to the role of philosophers in society?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I wasn’t going to answer your question, Kecha, because the premise seemed so preposterous. The idea that philosophers are in any position to USE the rod is wishful thinking, at best.

As a parent, you have the power to punish your children as you see fit, although the use of the rod is increasingly frowned upon. There are other punishments available so it’s no great loss. But what can a philosopher do if he or she thinks society needs to be called to account? You can write an article or give a speech. Big deal. The only people watching Noam Chomsky videos on YouTube are those already convinced.

Casting my mind back, Bertrand Russell is the last philosopher I can think of who succeeded in making himself truly objectionable, addressing Ban the Bomb rallies in Britain in the 60s. Aged 89, he served seven days in Brixton Prison in 1961 for ‘inciting a breach of the peace’.

I almost forgot, there was Abimael Guzman — currently imprisoned — former philosophy professor and leader of the Shining Path movement in Peru. No-one could accuse him of sparing the rod. Or rather the bullet.

To cut a long story short, just a couple of days ago, I started noticing a number of posts on the professional philosophy list Philos-L ‘I Am a Dangerous Professor’, referring to an article by George Yancy in the New York Times, November 30, I Am a Dangerous Professor about his appearance in the Professor Watchlist  run by Turning Point USA.

The organization describes itself as a ‘Student movement for free markets and limited government.’ Rabid Nazis, it’s obvious innit?

Someone suggested that if every professor volunteered to join the watch list, its purpose would be vitiated. Another philosophy professor pointed out that you can’t join the watch list unless a newspaper or magazine has reported something bad about you first. Damn!

The scene at the end of the movie Spartacus comes to mind, with the defeated rebel slaves standing up and taking turns to shout, ‘I am Spartacus!’ So the Romans crucified them all, and a jolly good job too.

Of course, professors have enormous power — over their students. If you are a socialist leaning professor and one of your student writes an essay making an  impeccable case for a conservative or libertarian view of some topic, you are less likely to be impressed. Ditto, if you are a conservative leaning professor marking an essay by a student making a case for socialism. Why be surprised if a group of disgruntled conservative students decide they’ve had enough of what they see as unjust discrimination?

If that’s all it is. In his article, George Yancy mentioned Orwell’s 1984 and Newspeak. The very principles of academic freedom are being threatened. To quote Mandy Rice-Davies, ‘He would (say that) wouldn’t he?’

In truth, the fascists of the left are every bit as repellent as the fascists of the right.

What is NOT fascism? I am not talking about being apolitical. No-one can escape politics. It’s a difficult line to tread. As a teacher, you have to foster and actively encourage disagreement. The students who have the courage to disagree in the face of strong opposition are the most valuable that you have. But leave your own political convictions at home. Make YouTube videos or write articles for the popular press if that makes you feel better.

If you really want to make a difference, run for office. That’s what Plato would have advised.


One thought on “Dangerous professors and sparing the rod

  1. ‘But leave your own political convictions at home.’ With respect, I think this is being a bit simplistic. I have taken part over many years in campaigning, organising public opposition, leafleting, etc., against the likes of the NF, BNP, EDL, UKIP, etc. I think that opposition to the racist and fascist views of groups like this (and the individuals who support them) is part of an enlightened and rational perspective informing educational practice.If someone was to argue that this is an extreme example and not relevant in the context of the discussion above, they would effectively be denying that the election of Donald Trump has been seen as validation by those holding a range of intolerant, racist and bigoted views. ‘The students who have the courage to disagree in the face of strong opposition are the most valuable that you have.’ Not if their disagreement is based on bigotry they aren’t.

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