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The Fear Of Common Intelligence

The fear of common people learning too much is a recurrent theme in state records around the world. The founder of the Chinese state, the Emperor Ts’in She Hwang-ti, burned the work of the philosophers for fear their ideas would poison his own plans. The Caliph Ùmar of Syria wrote instructions to destroy the perhaps apocryphal library at Alexandria, using this airtight syllogism:

If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Book of God they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.*

Literary bonfires in Nazi Germany are often invoked as a vivid symbol of the deepest barbarism of the twentieth century, but extensive press coverage ended the book burning by stirring public uneasiness worldwide. Much more effective have been those silent blast furnaces used by public library systems and great American universities to dispose of 3 million excess books annually because of a shortage of shelf space. Why aren’t they given to schools?

There are other ways to burn books without matches. Consider the great leap forward undertaken in the modern Turkish state under Kemal Ataturk. Unlike Hitler, who burned only some of the past, Ataturk burned it all without fire by radically changing the Turkish national alphabet so that all the vital writings of the past were entombed in an obsolete symbol system. Not a single Turk voted to have this done, yet all accepted it.

From 1929 on, all books and newspapers were printed in the new alphabet. All documents were composed in it. All schoolchildren were instructed in it and no other. The classics of Persia, Arabia, and Turkey vanished without a trace for the next generation. Obliterate the national memory bound up in history and literature, sift carefully what can be translated, and you open a gulf between old and young, past and present, which can’t be bridged, rendering children vulnerable to any form of synthetic lore authorities deem advisable.

Turkish experimentation is echoed today in mainland China where a fifth of the population of the planet is cut off from the long past of Chinese literature and philosophy, one of the very few significant bodies of thought on the human record. The method being used is a radical simplification of the characters of the language which will have, in the fullness of time, the same effect as burning books, putting them effectively out of reach. Lord Lindsay of Birker, a professor at Yenching University outside Beijing where I recently went to see for myself the effects of Westernization on the young Chinese elite, says the generation educated entirely in simplified characters will have difficulty reading anything published in China before the late 1950s.

First, said Plato, wipe the slate clean.

There are many ways to burn books without a match. You can order the reading of childish books to be substituted for serious ones, as we have done. You can simplify the language you allow in school books to the point that students become disgusted with reading because it demeans them, being thinner gruel than their spoken speech. We have done that, too. One subtle and very effective strategy is to fill books with pictures and lively graphics so they trivialize words in the same fashion the worst tabloid newspapers do—forcing pictures and graphs into space where readers should be building pictures of their own, preempting space into which personal intellect should be expanding. In this we are the world’s master.

Samuel Johnson entered a note into his diary several hundred years ago about the powerful effect reading Hamlet was having upon him. He was nine at the time. Abraham Cowley wrote of his "infinite delight" with Spenser’s Faerie Queen—an epic poem that treats moral values allegorically in nine-line stanzas that never existed before Spenser (and hardly since). He spoke of his pleasure with its "Stories of Knights and Giants and Monsters and Brave Houses." Cowley was twelve at the time. It couldn’t have been an easy read in 1630 for anyone, and it’s beyond the reach of many elite college graduates today. What happened? The answer is that Dick and Jane happened. "Frank had a dog. His name was Spot." That happened.


*This quotation is from John Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion. Draper, an excellent scholar, took the story from one Abulpharagius, a writer composing his story six stories after the burning of Alexandria’s library. But no earlier writers confirm Abulpharagius’ account and the known character of Umar (of Medina, not Syria!) is quite liberal—for instance, he opened the holy places of Jerusalem to all sects, Hebrew, Christian, or whatever—and inconsistent with such a statement. Furthermore, the reverence for learning in early Islam would all by itself bring this alleged statement by the head of the Muslim empire into question. So, while the anti-rationalist logic is still flawless, it might be well to consider what group(s) had something to gain by spinning history this way. Official history seems to be saturated with such machinations, hence the need for underground histories…of everything!

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