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In Defense of Passion

Liberty Leading.jpgSo what to think of the letter writers who are protesting the College’s decision to award George Bush an honorary degree? On one level, Bush does have black marks against him, but then so does any President; we shouldn’t fall into the trap of condemning a man for his failings, while ignoring his achievements. (Would the same professors deny a degree to two of history’s greatest figures, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, because they owned slaves? On second thought, don’t answer that.)

Bush has several singular achievements, though I only need to cite one to ensure that he will be held in respect by historians: he guided the United States with a sure hand as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union fractured. A lesser leader might have tried to profit from the downfall of Communism, and in doing so induced spasms in the Soviet leadership, with unforeseen consequences. For helping to prevent what might have occurred, he deserves our thanks.

But I am troubled by a different issue. I know many of the professors who are protesting Bush 41’s degree, and they are among the College’s most able and committed teachers and scholars. While their politics are generally not my own — I consider their views uninformed by the kind of real experience that leads to more thoughtful positions — they are people who are almost always generous with their time in working with students and in contributing to campus events.

More specifically, several of the signatories spoke up publicly in recent faculty meetings to point out the serious fundamental problems with the Kim/Folt budget numbers. In contrast to their courageous, administration-defying actions, far too many of the College’s other high-achieving professors remain silent on issues relating to Dartmouth’s overall governance — though to be fair, two members of the Economics Department did weigh in at the faculty meetings on May 9 and May 23.

So what to make of all this? Perhaps critics, who can summon up righteous anger at the professors who are protesting George Bush’s degree, should save some spleen for the faculty members who never make themselves heard in any situation. I would argue that the latter group’s silence does more harm to the College than the occasionally misguided opinions of faculty members who stand up to be counted on issues of moment to Dartmouth.

Addendum: Churchill’s lovely dictum — “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others” — is useful here. Many faculty members at the College have valuable observations and larger ideas to contribute to the institution; what they have not shown often enough in the past is a desire to join the fray.

Addendum: The Valley News has an editorial on the ethics of Bush’s degree.


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