When Politicians Like JD Vance Call Professors Like Me the Enemy, What's Really Going On?Roundup
tags: culture war, teaching history, JD Vance, critical race theory
Benjamin Carter Hett is a professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the author of The Death of Democracy and The Nazi Menace.
On Tuesday, J.D. Vance, author of the bestselling “Hillbilly Elegy” and now candidate for the U.S. Senate from Ohio, gave a keynote speech at the National Conservatism Conference titled “The Universities Are the Enemy.”
In the speech, he told his audience: “I think in this movement of national conservatism, what we need more than inspiration is wisdom. And there is a wisdom in what Richard Nixon said approximately 40, 50 years ago. He said, and I quote: ‘The professors are the enemy.’”
Nixon actually said these words to his then-national security advisor, the Harvard professor Henry Kissinger. He added, in a professorial flourish, “write that on a blackboard 100 times and never forget it.”
This hatred of professors and their universities seems to be a big deal for Vance. On his campaign website, under the heading “Protect Conservative Values,” he complains that “hundreds of billions of American tax dollars” get sent to universities that “teach that America is an evil, racist nation.” These universities “then train teachers who bring that indoctrination into our elementary and high schools.” He doesn’t want any tax dollars going to institutions that teach “critical race theory or radical gender ideology.” Instead, he wants them to deliver “an honest, patriotic account of American history.” Other sections of the website extol the glories of the 2nd Amendment, while ranting about immigrants and COVID-19 regulations.
Vance’s complaint is at least as old as the trial of Socrates in the Athens of 399 BCE. Socrates was sentenced to death for teachings that supposedly corrupted the youth of Athens and mocked the city’s gods. Vilifying professors has been the theme of a certain kind of politics ever since.
Ironically, the same Henry Kissinger who heard Nixon’s 1972 rant about professors made his own academic reputation writing about Prince Klemens von Metternich, the top minister of the Austrian Empire from 1809 to 1848. Metternich was a conservative strongman, perhaps the Vladimir Putin of his day. He didn’t like professors either.
If Vance were to be honest about who he thinks his enemies really are, he would have to say minorities, immigrants and others who don’t fit into his vision of American values. These are the people hurt by the kind of politics he advances. But it doesn’t sound quite so good to say this out loud.
Professors, on the other hand, are a perfect target, and perfect scapegoats. The work they do is often obscure and mysterious for people outside the academy. They are easy to caricature as out of touch, or worse. Most importantly, they do not have the power or media reach to fight back.
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