Ls&Cs: Resistance to Learning; and Learning

Articles about William F. Buckley, the Republicans’ war on education, and fire management.

The Atlantic, Virginia Heffernan, 30 Nov 2021: What Conservative Critics of Higher Education Share, subtitled, “For 70 years, even as their complaints have evolved, they have consistently aimed to troll.”

The essay is occasioned by the writer’s rereading of God and Man at Yale, published 70 years ago by William F. Buckley Jr., the pre-eminent conservative intellectual of his day. He wrote books, he hosted TV shows, he debated his opponents. I recall him from TV — he had a suave, cultivated, precise manner. Commentators these days rue the dearth of any current intellectuals on the right; he is the kind of conservative they miss.

What fascinates me about this piece is the writer’s characterization of Buckley as an Ivy League “debonair twerp.”

I reread GAMAY this fall to try to understand why American universities so reliably disappoint conservatives, decade after decade after decade.

Seven decades after GAMAY warned readers that colleges were failing to inculcate orthodoxy in their students, conservatives now fear they’re doing so only too effectively. They’re just worried it’s the wrong orthodoxy.

Because Buckley is almost a parody of conservative certitude and resistance to learning.

Buckley was just 25 when he wrote GAMAY, and it’s shot through with underproofed righteousness. It’s a delight anyway. In it are traces of the imperiousness that became Buckley’s stock in trade. Lockjaw is almost audible in the prose, and of course gall, as Buckley, who at the time lacked all scholarly, political, or literary achievement, staked a claim to a wide intellectual terrain. This time around, GAMAY struck me as not a polemic but a perverse anti-bildungsroman, the story of a young man, utterly unwilling to learn, who sees himself as a native-born executive and his instructors as woefully underperforming employees.

He’d formed all his opinions by age 25 and had no interest in changing any of them.

Buckley was shocked, he wrote, to find that many on the Yale faculty—including the Jewish scholars Paul Weiss and Robert Cohen—were not catechizably Christian and willing to go full Nicene from the podium. (Buckley especially worried that caustic asides, such as Weiss’s statement that “Christ was a minor prophet,” might shake the Christian faith of Yalies.) Buckley boldly proposed to “narrow the existing orthodoxy” at Yale, and make sure that Christianity was “championed and promulgated on every level and at every opportunity” on campus.

The right-wing is not about learning.

If conservatives who have Chicken Littled about higher education for 70 years don’t share an ideology, what do they share? Easy: career ambitions and superb trolling reflexes. Buckley’s prose, as Michael Lee wrote in 2010, was “gladiatorial,” reflecting a “flashy, combative style whose ultimate aim is the creation of inflammatory drama.” Reading the work of today’s conservatives, or hearing their disquisitions on Fox News, it’s hard to imagine that the right-wing idiom ever had any other aim.


Which of course is reflected in Republicans’ current anti-education war.

Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 2 Dec 2021: Republicans’ war on education is the most crucial part of their push for fascism, subtitled, “From Pre-K through college, Republicans’ war on education is meant to cement the GOP’s grip on power.”

In his famous 1995 essay delineating the signposts of fascism, philosopher and linguist Umberto Eco singled out the authoritarian’s loathing of learning as a critical indicator that what you’re dealing with is not just garden variety conservatism, but outright fascism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity,” to the fascist, and “[t]hinking is a form of emasculation.” Therefore, Eco argued, “Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism.”

So really, it’s no surprise that the Republican Party — which has never been a friend of schools — has dramatically escalated its war on education on its march to becoming a fully fascist institution. Most of this is done under the guise of fighting “critical race theory. It’s a real term in academia, but in GOP hands, “critical race theory” amounts to a conspiracy theory used to scare white people into supporting a full-blown assault on the teaching of history or literature in public schools. But with the early success of this tactic, particularly in the Virginia gubernatorial race, Republicans are feeling empowered to dramatically broaden their assault on all forms of education, from pre-K to the university level.

Critical thinking skills and good emotional management tend to inoculate people against joining QAnon or listening to Tucker Carlson, so it’s no surprise Republicans are opposed to it. It is important to note that they’re using the same tactic that they use with “critical race theory”: Exploiting unfamiliar jargon to terrify people over educational concepts that, when described in plain English, are downright banal. 


In contrast to the above, here’s an item about how some people are willing to learn from experience and change policies. This is another of those counter-intuitive notions, like the pieces I’ve run about birthdays, and the seven-day week.

Slate: 30 Nov 2021: The U.S. Government Is Wasting Billions on Wildfire Policy That Doesn’t Work

Every year, enormous fires burn in the West, and every year, the U.S. Forest Service, along with state agencies like Cal Fire, mount huge military-style operations to fight them, complete with defensible lines, air assaults, heroic fighters on the ground, and blank check budgets.

Now, this is not news, but perhaps it’s become especially relevant as climate-change driven wildfires become more common.

The issue, basically, is that for decades the Federal and State governments have had a policy of putting out forest fires as quickly as possible, everywhere. (Thus the TV commercials when I was growing up, with Smoky the Bear: “Only *you* can prevent forest fires!” As if all forest fires were human caused.) The problem with this is that many forest fires — caused by lightening — are part of the natural ecology, and have been for millions of years. By taking pains to put *all* of them out, as quickly as possible, the natural ecology is disrupted, leading to the overgrowth of underbrush that would normally be cleared out every few years by the fires, allowing the tall trees to grow.

I realized that the Forest Service knew about this when we visited Crater Lake, in 2017 on the way to see the total solar eclipse upstate in Oregon, and a forest ranger made this point about a fire burning northwest of the lake… whose smoke blew in and obscured the lake during the couple hours we were there.

The article goes on:

If the current method of managing wildfire is wasteful and ineffective, what is a better way? Jim Furnish echoes the views of many fire experts when he says, “Investments need to be focused like a laser on the wildland-urban interface.” He means that the government needs to focus fire suppression on areas close to human habitation and letting more fires burn if they are out in the wilderness, where they may actually be doing ecological good.

Of course, part of the ideal solution would be for people to stop building towns in fire-prone forests. But that is not likely to happen soon.

More realistic ideas, discussed in the article, include prescribed burns and fireproofing houses. But these take time. Which is why this article is still relevant, long after these lessons have become known.


Of course — Big Picture — the long-term solution is to slow the growth of human population so that communities in fire-prone areas are not necessary.

The same could be said about communities in danger of earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes, of course. So there’s no easy answer.

But some people in flood and hurricane zones are declining to rebuild; and insurance companies are discouraging such rebuilding.

So, very slowly, especially where money is concerned, we are learning. Or some of us are.

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