The Dangers of Higher Education by John Gray
If only large collective decisions were taken solely by graduates or, better yet, holders of PhDs. How much more reasonable and well governed the world would be.
Too much credence has been given to the views of ordinary people, we are being told. Commentators and politicians don’t say this in so many words, of course, but there can be little doubt that many people think that only those who are highly educated are qualified to decide issues – such as whether Britain should remain in, or leave, the European Union, for example.
Educated minds base their beliefs on reason and evidence while the masses are swayed by prejudice and demagoguery. Surely it would be better if everyone had the benefit of a higher education? I’m not so sure. Today, higher education comes with certain dangers.
In the course of my life I have been fortunate to know many very learned people. What I gained from them has been invaluable to me. They opened my mind to realms of thought I would have never discovered on my own.
But it is also true that some of the most incurably ignorant people I have encountered have been very highly educated. And learned ignorance can be a good deal more dangerous than the common or garden variety.
Over time, the errors of ordinary people can be corrected by their everyday experience. The ignorance of the learned, in contrast, tends to be invincible. They like to think that they have a clearer view of the world. In fact, they are often more easily taken in by mass delusions than the rest of humankind. As George Orwell wrote, “There are some ideas so absurd that only intellectuals could believe them.”
At present, this is the danger of a higher education in the humanities and, what are called, social sciences. Those who studied to degree level and beyond have often embraced ideas and projects that many less educated folk instinctively recognise as dangerously absurd.
Something like this happened in Britain in the 30s. At that time, Communism and Fascism seemed to be advancing across the world.
The Cambridge graduates who spied for the Soviet Union had no doubt that Britain was finished. It has been suggested that they threw in their lot with Stalin in order to oppose the Nazi threat. But Kim Philby (pictured right), and his fellow conspirators, continued to be active during the Nazi-Soviet pact when Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany were on the same side – against Britain. They went on working for the Soviets until they were unmasked in the mid-50s.
Right up until his death in 1988, Philby retained what he described in his autobiographical book, My Silent War, as persisting faith in Communism because he was possessed of an idea. He worked for the Soviet Union long after its true nature was unmistakably clear.
Philby, and others like him, were not unusual among educated people at the time. Much of the intelligentsia was ready to junk democracy in Britain for the sake of a new order they imagined was coming into being somewhere else in the world.
The Fabian socialists – Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells – praised the ‘new civilisation’ (as the Webbs called it) that was being built in Stalin’s Russia. Shaw and Wells even had kind words for Nazism, which they applauded for its modern way of doing things. On the right, well-known writers – like Wyndham Lewis, GK Chesterton and TS Eliot – expressed degrees of sympathy with Fascism. As late as spring 1940, the then celebrated conservative historian Sir Arthur Bryant published a book, entitled Unfinished Victory, in which he praised the revival of Germany under Hitler, and commented favourably upon the vigour of the Gestapo.
What is remarkable is how little these intellectual postures reflected public opinion. It’s true that Nazism and Fascism had high levels of popular support in inter-war continental Europe. But intellectuals led the way. The philosopher Martin Heidegger served Hitler as a university rector, while the Belgian literary critic Paul de Man, later a leading advocate of the post-modern philosophy of deconstructionism in the United States, was one of many in the European thinking classes who gave Fascism a veneer of intellectual legitimacy.
In Britain, totalitarian movements failed to attract any large scale popular following. Oswald Mosley was an opportunistic political thug whose Blackshirts wilfully threated civil peace in London as part of a campaign of sowing hatred and division. And he had some influential supporters among British appeasers.
Yet Mosley never posed a serious challenge to British democracy. When PG Wodehouse lampooned him in his fictional character Roderick Spode – who called his movement The Black Shorts because, after Mussolini’s Blackshirts and Hitler’s Brownshirts, there were no shirts left – the great comic writer expressed a derision that most British people shared.
Again, ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin was a widely admired figure in Britain when the Soviet Union joined the war against Nazism following the German invasion of Russia in June, 1941. But that sentiment cooled after the war ended and Stalin imposed dictatorship on half of Europe.
The influence of the Communist Party peaked in 1945 when two of its members won seats in Parliament. Leading intellectuals on the other hand did not alter their views. The historian, Eric Hobsbawm remained a party member throughout the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the repression of the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Soviet collapse. He is said to have retained his party card even after the party was dissolved in Britain in 1991 and, according to some reports, carried it around with him until he died in 2012.
Why do highly educated people persist in their delusions long after they cease to be remotely credible? The answer, I believe, is the appeal of grand theories. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels declared that Communism was the “…riddle of history solved.” And while Marx himself was undogmatic and flexible in much of his thinking, many of his disciples have embraced his ideas as a system which uncovers a hidden logic in history.
Intellectual systems of this kind have a numbing effect on the mind, filtering out the complexity of actual human events. Though presented in abstruse terminology, such theories are fundamentally simple; far more so than the human world itself. That may be part of their appeal. Intellectuals who interpret these seemingly profound ideas can claim authority in society and a leading role in history.
If higher education has any overall purpose it is to inculcate intelligent scepticism regarding all grand theories of society and history. Many university teachers still do exactly that and present the human world in all its intricacy and variety. But much of what is taught in the humanities and social sciences is increasingly ideology disguised as critical thought. Deconstruction, a hotchpotch of ideas derived from Marxism, psychoanalysis and linguistics which claims to offer an insight into society by demolishing established structures of thought, now informs many academic disciplines.
But do students who have swallowed this mishmash have a better understanding of the world around them? Or have they, at considerable financial cost, learned a once fashionable academic jargon with very little practical or intellectual value? After all, none of the postmodern sages they are required to read – Foucault, Derrida and the like – envisioned the political upheavals that have transformed the world in recent years.
This brings us back to contemporary politics. Anyone who still thinks Brexit is a good idea is accused of resisting the onward march of history but who knows if the EU will exist in twenty years from now. I am old enough to remember a discipline called Sovietology; it probably never occurred to those who taught it that the object of their studies would suddenly vanish. When politicians and commentators tell you they discern a future order of things quite different from anything in the past, they are usually spouting theories they were taught a generation or so ago.
Majorities aren’t always right and democracies are certainly not a panacea for all political ills, but history offers no support for the belief that the world would be better ruled by graduates or PhDs.
This is a transcription of a broadcast first made on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Point of View’ on Sunday 25th February 2018.
Communism Kills by Dr Stuart Blackie
During the apparitions in the northern Portuguese town of Fatima on 13th July 1917, it was emphatically stated that, unless certain conditions were met, Russia would ferment wars and spread her errors across the world.
The conditions were not met and the Russian Revolution broke out on 24th-25th October 1917 (according to the Julian calendar) and probably only ended with the Red Army’s closure of its last active front in Turkestan in June 1926.
Between 1917 and 1921, 10.5 million people died and millions more were maimed, orphaned or widowed in Russia, and an additional 2 million former subjects of the Tsar were forced into exile. Upheaval wrought by war led to a further 5 million perishing in famines across the Volga, Urals, North Caucasus and Ukraine between 1921 and 1922.
The Berlin Wall was constructed in August 1961, complete with armed guards, whose sole purpose was to stop people fleeing from East Berlin to the democratic west. To the generation which has grown up since the fall of the Wall on 9th November 1989, Communism is considered to be the ultimate form of egalitarianism and a perfectly amiable ideology.
Not only do they not know of the extraordinary death toll inflicted by the Communist regimes in the 20th century in the Eastern Bloc, in Russia and the Far East, as well as in the proxy wars of the Cold War era in Central and South America and Africa but also it receives no publicity.
I understand that in Budapest there is a House of Terror (pictured below), a museum set up in the actual place where the Nazis – and later the Communists – inflicted imprisonment, terror and murder. Under the Communist regime, 600,000 Hungarians were taken to work camps in the Soviet Union and half did not return.
In March 2016, James Bartholomew wrote an article in The Spectator highlighting this problem. He quoted the historian Robert Conquest who estimated that the total number of lives lost during the terrors perpetrated in the USSR ‘could hardly be lower than some 13 to 15 million.’
In China, under Communism, deaths came in three phases: the suppression of counter-revolutionaries (at least 1 million); the ‘Great Leap Forward’ (at least 45 million); and the Cultural Revolution (750,000 – 1.5 million in rural China alone).
In Cambodia it is estimated that between 1.4 and 2.2 million from a population of 7 million were killed by the Khmer Rouge. I understand that the terror in North Korea continues to this day.
Add these deaths together and you get about 60 million – but I gather that some historians estimate as many as 100 million may have died.
Even these figures could have been eclipsed by the malfunction of a Soviet nuclear early warning system which came within minutes of accidentally triggering of a nuclear war on 26th September 1983. Fortunately, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov (pictured below), an officer of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, correctly identified the warning as a false alarm.
This episode occurred in a time of heightened east-west tension after the Soviet Air Force had shot down an obviously unarmed South Korean passenger jet – Korean Air Lines flight 007 – that had blundered into Soviet airspace on 1st September 1983. All 269 people aboard the aircraft were killed.
Ignorance of all these facts is, in part, due to the march of left-wing sympathisers, apologists and ‘useful idiots’ throughout branches of the media, institutions and academia.
But a major part of the problem also lies in the magnitude of the numbers involved. If a family of four are killed in a road traffic accident, it is easy to relate to the tragedy.
However, when the numbers quoted are in the millions, or hundreds of millions, they are mentally unimaginable and are then reduced to mere statistics on a spread-sheet; a fact famously recognised and utilised by Stalin.
You may be interested to see a website that graphically illustrates large numbers: http://pagetutor.com/trillion/index.html
The future of any nation or civilisation is shaped by its understanding of the past. The 20th century is recognised as the most blood-stained century in history. In Britain, the far left is experiencing a surge in popularity as a result of disillusionment of the present lacklustre and apparently directionless drift of the current administration.
It is time to bring the detailed facts of these atrocities, committed in the name of this far-from-amiable ideology, to public awareness. Let us learn the lessons of the past before we sleepwalk into installing a similar ideological regime in this country in the 21st century.