Lent 2020 — Day 26

Educated Elites vs. ignorant masses

A curiosity to ponder: “. . . the worst fact about the Nazi period: not the ignorant masses, but the educated elites were the driving force behind the regime. Of the fifteen officials present at the Wannsee Conference, where the Final Solution was settled, eight had Ph.D.s.” (Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil by Susan Neiman, 2019, p. 55)

My first thought is that too much education can be a bad thing, just as too little can also be bad. It seems obvious what is bad about too little — not gaining the received knowledge and wisdom of previous generations, and not keeping up with best practices of current times. But why is it so unsettling that eight of fifteen officials in the room agreed to the Final Solution at the Wannseekonferenz on 20 January 1942? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wannsee_Conference

My experience is that traditional education puts a lot of value on obedience and respect for hierarchy . . . and diplomas and certifications and licenses. Yes, critical thinking is also a value, but within accepted limits. Questioning authority sometimes gets one in trouble. Thinking outside the box may be discouraged. Question: how many anarchists were in the room at Wannsee?

Have anarchists not caused mayhem themselves? Here is a succinct summary of critiques: “Philosophy lecturer Andrew G. Fiala has listed the five main arguments against anarchism. Firstly, he notes that anarchism is related to violence and destruction, not only in the pragmatic world (i.e. at protests) but in the world of ethics as well. Second argument is that it is impossible for a society to function without a state or something alike a state, acting to protect citizens from criminality. Fiala takes Leviathan from Thomas Hobbes and the night-watchman state from philosopher Robert Nozick as examples. Thirdly, anarchism is evaluated as unfeasible or utopian since the state can not be defeated practically; this line of arguments most often calls for political action within the system to reform it. The fourth argument is that anarchism is self-contradictory since while it advocates for no-one to archiei, if accepted by the many, then anarchism will turn into the ruling political theory. In this line of criticism also comes the self contradiction that anarchist calls for collective action while anarchism endorses the autonomy of the individual and hence no collective action can be taken. Lastly, Fiala mentions a critique towards philosophical anarchism, of being ineffective (all talk and thoughts) and in the meantime capitalism and bourgeois class remains strong.[136] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchism#Criticism

So, I am definitely in favor in education, and in learning about various research and analyses, but I favor Generalists over Specialists. I’m suspicious that those eight Ph.D.s in the room at Wannsee were all specialists — something that could be fact-checked. What are the limits of specialization? It may give one the false assumption that becoming an expert in one narrow field makes one’s opinions superior or at least sufficient in all situations. Did any of those eight abstain from endorsing the Final Solution? Something else that could be fact-checked.

Susan Neiman is Director of the Einstein Forum. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Neiman studied philosophy at Harvard and the Freie Universität Berlin, and was professor of philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv University. She is the author of Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin, The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant, Evil in Modern Thought, Fremde sehen anders, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists, Why Grow Up?, Widerstand der Vernunft. Ein Manifest in postfaktischen Zeiten and Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil.

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