July 3, 2009


Morgan, Edmund S., American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America (New York & London: Norton, 2009) (From the essay "Dangerous Books": "He was a man who hated change in any form. And there is no more insidious instrument of change than a library in which professors or students or people in general are allowed to read the books." "In fact, in view of what books have done to change the world, it is strange that those who fear change have not succeeded in burning them all long since. The trouble with books is that people will read them. And when they do, they are bound to get new and dangerous ideas. Libraries are the great hothouses of change, where new ideas are nursed into being and then turned loose to do their work. And the ideas are not always benign. One thinks at once of Karl Marx, laboring through the musty volumes of the British Museum and emerging with those notions that turned the world upside down. Or the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris--how much, one wonders, did its volumes contribute to the French Revolution?" Id. at 24. "Ezra Stiles, as you can see, was a dangerous man. But the danger lay less in his own radical views than in the freedom he wanted for others, the freedom to read and from reading to think and speak the thoughts that dissolve old institutions and create new ones. That kind of freedom is as dangerous today as it was them. If we allow young men and women to read and think, we must expect that their thoughts will not be our thoughts and that they will violate much that we hold dear." Id. at 34. "Dangerous Books" was written in 1959. In 2009, fifty years later, reading and books are still dangerous in the ways noted by Professor Morgan. The enemies of reading and books might perceive the threat to be less immediate or pressing today, however, since there has been an mushrooming of the number diversions that distract many from reading (e.g., reality television, the internet and social networking, talk radio). Reading and books are less of a threat when few read, fewer still read serious books. It shall be interesting to see how higher education evolves (or devolves) as nonreaders and nonreaders of series books become teachers. Entropy is not limited to the physical world. From the essay "Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight": "Historians, most of whom teach in colleges and universities, know something at first hand of student fashions and students enthusiasms. Students as a class are surely fickle. Few historians, I believe, would be ready to turn over the choice of a college president, or even of a faculty member, to their students." "Unhappily when historians read the letters of an eighteenth-century student, they do not always employ the same perspective. . . . By examining a larger number of student letters, we may gain a similar perspective on them. It is not even necessary to read very far in order to observe the rapidity with which students feeling vibrated from enthusiasm to discontent and back again." Id. at 190.)