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Ex-Dartmouth pres throws gross-out

I have mixed feelings about my old school, Dartmouth College. I had a good time there—it was a very pretty place, I met good people and was surrounded by good things, and it was a time of life when the whole world seemed to be opening up. Still, visits over the years and communications from the alumni office have given me the settled impression that at bottom it’s an enterprise that’s not very reputable. Part of that impression had to do with James O. Freedman, president of the college from 1987 to 1998. He seemed to stand for the careerism, pretence, lack of principle and ideological mindlessness that I had come to see in the college as an institution. So when my wife pointed out a letter from him in last Saturday’s New York Times I took notice.

Here’s the letter:

To the Editor:

More than half a century ago, George Orwell warned, in his essay “Politics and the English Language” against the immorality implicit in the use, especially by government officals, of intentionally misleading words. I think of Orwell’s essay every time that President Bush speaks of the need for “reform” of Social Security and tort law.

Orwell’s contemporary George Bernard Shaw got it right when he reputedly retorted to an adversary whom he was debating: “Do not speak to me, sir, of reform. Things are bad enough as they are!”

James O. Freedman
Cambridge, Mass., Feb. 24, 2006
The writer is president emeritus of Dartmouth College and the University of Iowa

What Freedman says makes sense on the assumption that it’s obvious Bush doesn’t believe that his proposals are in the public interest, so obvious that the point doesn’t have to be argued but can simply be assumed as the background for further comment. It’s not that the proposals are wrong or stupid, but that it’s inconceivable Bush could believe otherwise, so it’s “intentionally misleading” for him to call them good.

Why would a former president of two major universities, writing to the attention of the educated and influential public who read our Newspaper of Record, speak in such a way? The Times sometimes shortens letters even from people they favor, but their policy is to run edits by the writer before publishing, and it’s hard to think what else might have been there to turn the language that appeared into an intelligent comment. Why is a man with such habits of thought the sort of person major universities choose to lead them?

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Not to defend Freedman, who is a tad quote-happy and probably intellectually vacuous, but there’s a fair chance that his letter was butchered by the New York Times. Newspapers have a nasty tendency of editing some letters to death, pretty much eliminating their main argument. Freedman might have constructed a fair (though wrong) argument in his letter, but the Times edited it down to a soundbite.

The Times says they send writers edited letters for their approval. Of course we can’t be sure they connected with Freedman, but he has a position, and the Times was strongly pro-Freedman when he was at Dartmouth, so it seems they’d treat him a bit less unceremoniously than others.

Still and all, I’ve modified my language a bit to make it somewhat less categorical, What made me write as I did is that the letter as published reflected what I have come to see as Freedman’s authentic style of thought. Whether that means my interpretation was based on prejudice or on knowledge and experience I’ll leave to you.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Although one enjoys the memories of their professors however wrong we now know they were, we must transcend such feelings. Observe the devious nature of the president’s arguments. El presidente cites an essay by the revered, insightful George Orwell. El profesor says, “Immorality implicit in the use…of intentionally misleading words.” This is a construction Orwell (an actual writer and not a PhD) disapproves of in his essay. Orwell complains:

The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word…a verb becomes a PHRASE, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb…[such] as having the effect of.”

El professor further exhibits Orwell’s criticisms when he says Bush “speaks of the need for.” Why not say, “Bush says”? El profesor is hopefully trying to say Orwell said misleading words are immoral. El profesor did not need to cite Orwell. Almost every human being understands misleading people is wrong, and one way to mislead people is by using misleading words. My guess is Orwell was brought in to affect a learned attack on Mr. Bush, whom I do not desire to defend.

In addition, one wonders whether el presidente, like most college presidents, is against the juggernaut of Catholicism and for the Protestant Reformation to the extent it diminishes Catholicism. Diminution of the Catholic Church, a modern academic’s given inclination, though seems inappropriate to el presidente.

El presidente’s arguments are best reserved for attorneys’ at law in their effort to serve a client in the pursuit of law and order rather than to a college president in the pursuit of truth. Attorneys’ arguments are constrained by imminent and powerful forces. The brainpower of the ever-vigilant opposing counsel and the power of the trial judge usually reveal a specious argument, if only intellectually and not practically in the outcome. A college president speaking deviously, however, receives a polite wagging of the head.