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?