Murders, Riots, and Liberal Education

St. John’s College, the so-called Great Books school, has provided a sanctuary for liberal education since 1937. All students study the same prescribed assignments at the same time as their classmates. Except for a few classes in the final two years, there are no electives. The readings comprise many of the world’s most intellectually challenging works, which are addressed in small group discussion sections. The faculty treat themselves as fellow learners and the students are expected to be active participants rather than passive consumers. The only tests are the challenges posed in these discussions.

St. John’s is one of the very few colleges that have systematically treated liberal education as an end in itself, rather than as a means of acquiring a useful credential or job training. The school has also resisted pressures to politicize its educational mission. In the spring of 1970, for example, when campuses around the nation were shut down by violent protests, St. John’s peacefully continued to practice the liberal arts. Rather than indulge themselves in a riot, the students and faculty organized extracurricular seminars to debate the issues raised by the war in Vietnam. So far as I’m aware, the president of the college did not make political statements, let alone become a political activist.

A lot has changed since then, and perhaps this college has as well. The co-presidents of the school’s two campuses have issued a statement about the events that have recently dominated the news. Administrators at most schools routinely respond to such events with standard-issue expressions of pious grief and compassion, often tinged with treacly self-abasement. Leaders at St. John’s should be able to avoid what the presidents call “the narrowness of beaten paths,” but in this case they did not even try.

Like administrators elsewhere, the presidents safely lament “the brutal, heartbreaking, and senseless killing of George Floyd” and the racism that “is an all too prevalent feature of our society.” Who will disagree? Amid all their virtue-signaling, however, they have not one word of regret, let alone outrage, over the murders of David Patrick Underwood and David Dorn, or others killed by rioters. Nor do the presidents so much as allude to the countless police officers and innocent civilians who’ve been shot or otherwise brutalized during what they delicately call the “protests underway in major cities across the United States in response to the Floyd murder and other too similar tragedies.”

There are plenty of hard questions raised by the death of Mr. Floyd and the ensuing unrest. Those questions should, as the presidents say, move “us to grapple with our unexamined beliefs and to free ourselves from prejudice.” But the presidents themselves offer what even they seem to recognize as empty platitudes. Remarkably, they are oblivious to how callous they must look to anyone who cares about all victims of criminal violence, including Messrs. Underwood and Dorn; including the survivors of vicious physical attacks by armed “protesters”; including those whose uninsured small businesses have been destroyed; and including those who will be robbed, raped, and murdered if woke politicians respond to police misconduct with measures that further embolden violent criminals.

The presidents solemnly intone that getting beyond platitudes is “hard work” and that it’s “high time we get to it.” They don’t specify what we’re all supposed to do, so I offer them this suggestion: Try to free yourselves from the reigning prejudices about what college presidents are required to say when protests, including violent criminal riots, are mounted in the name of addressing what you call “the fault line of racial inequality.” That should not be such hard work, and it might be a first step toward freeing yourselves from the unexamined beliefs that generate only pablum.

The St. John’s College at which I matriculated fifty years ago has been my alma mater in the fullest sense of the term. At that time, she sought to rouse students from their childish slumbers, to nourish their minds, and to liberate them from blind allegiance to fashionable opinion. If the words of her spokesmen are any indication, those days may be gone.

Nelson Lund is University Professor at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School.

Image: Public Domain


3 thoughts on “Murders, Riots, and Liberal Education

  1. I might also add that some people are concerned about the seeming callousness, and sometimes outright brutality, to mentally ill people who have a deadly encounter with the police. And there are cases involving white people where there is just as much brutality, or unwarranted death (such as of an unarmed person) as happens with blacks. But these cases rarely get much attention. Certainly, there are few riots stirred by police brutality toward the mentally.

    This is not to discount what has transpired recently in Minneapolis, but to point out that it is not all about black victims, or racism.

    As far as the change at St. John’s — I think Professor Lund is right about that. The culture really has changed and the “wokeness” has seeped everywhere.

  2. George Floyd Autopsy:
    Blood drug and novel psychoactive substances screens:

    1: Fentanyl 11 ng/mL
    2: Norfentanyl 5.6 ng/mL
    3: 4-ANPP 0.65 ng/mL
    4: Methamphetamine 19 ng/mL
    5: 11-Hydroxy Delta-9 THC 1.2 ng/mL; Delta-9 Carboxy THC 42 ng/mL; Delta-9 THC 2.9 ng/mL

    Therapeutic dose of Fentanyl is 1-3 ng/ml — he had 11 ng/ml. Norfentanyl is what your body breaks it down into, hence 5.6 ng/ml means that he started with even more. 4-ANPP is both a Fentanyl precursor and often contaminant — which raises the question of both what other contaminants might have been in his Fentaynl (remember the plastics added to the pet food from China?) and what they might have done…

    That’s a relatively low dose of Methamphetamine but we don’t know how much higher it might have been earlier that day. The three THC compounds come from Marijuana.

    My Point: Fentaynl can cause hallucinations, Meth is notorious for that, and Pot doesn’t help. For all we know, he may have seen Steven King’s it sitting in the back seat of that cruiser — we know this all started because he was afraid of going in there.

    Oh, and as to Fentaynl, 7 ng/ml can cause death when mixed with other drugs — and he had 11 ng/ml mixed with other drugs….


  3. Perhaps the estimable scholars of St. John’s (both campuses?) would do well to set aside some time for a seminar on Julien Benda’s “La trahison des clercs.” (Paris: Editions Bernard Grasset, 1927). Digital copies (open access!) are available in these days of “distance learning”: e.g.
    This would have the added merit of reading in a foreign language…

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