David Bromwich and the Vanishing Art of Independent Thinking

The intelligence is defeated as soon as the expression of one’s thoughts is preceded, explicitly or implicitly, by the little word “we.” Simone Weil, The Need for Roots. Featured as the opening quote in David Bromwich, Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking (Yale University Press: 1992).

Recently, in The London Review of Books, David Bromwich penned an excoriating piece on Barack Obama and the political class that had me chuckling in my chair (see “The World’s Most Important Spectator”). The writing is absolutely poetic; Bromwich delivers so many zingers that to quote the essay piecemeal would risk deriving you of one of the great reading pleasures of 2014. So I shall refrain.

That a professor of English at Yale published perhaps the most incisive critique of the President to date — in a UK publication, no less — says much about the state of political discourse in the United States.

Keen to read more by Bromwich, and perhaps glean new perspectives on why said discourse is in such a sad state of affairs, I scooped up a copy of a polemic the author wrote in 1992, Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking. In the book, Bromwich puts forth a compelling argument for education in the true liberal tradition — a welcome perspective at a time when “education” increasingly seems synonymous with vocational training — and calls for greater individual autonomy.

So in addition to using this platform to share Bromwich’s piece in the LRB, I’ve included a handful of quotes from his book Politics by Other Means. Hopefully they provide some food for thought.

Both [the right and the left] on religious grounds show an enormous deference toward institutions: they believe in the power of institutions to shape the thoughts of an individual mind; they think this power is irresistible, and the great question therefore becomes how to give it the correct bias. (xiii)

That right thinking must issue in conformity of opinion is the central mass-culture idea of our time. (10)

What we are dealing with in short is a new fundamentalism. In the absence of articulate resistance, education will place us under the charge of the communitarians of the day, with their many small communities, and their controlling belief that we can only be real if we represent others like ourselves … The mood is rendered the more perplexing by the fact that it occurs without the threat of repression. Still, there is no mistaking the signs. The idea of personal thought, of making one’s own experiment in life, often the very belief in intellectual liberty is scorned. I am to be judged not by what I say, think, feel, or believe but by where I come from and by what and how much I am willing to do in a group whose moral soundness has already been judged acceptable. (44-5)

It remains a commonplace view now, as it was two centuries ago, that secularization cannot be had without demoralization. The anti-Enlightenment argument against America has always begun here. It says that we had better act as if we believed religion’s claims, even if that forces us to do some fancy bookkeeping. But the reply of our native tradition remains what it always was. It grants that the state Jefferson and Washington founded is hard to live with now, as it was from the first … As Jefferson and Washington believed, America’s unique mission in the world was also to challenge the common view, by showing that a moral life could be established without metaphysical tests or sanctions … Our constitutional and secular state, and the individualist culture that has reflected many of its complex qualities, are doubtless not the best we can envision, but they are what we have to begin with and they are worth defending today. (96-7)

A maxim [Edmund] Burke seems always on the point of formulating is that no generation has the right to act as if it were the last generation on earth … The predicament of these years in America is that we appear incapable of electing leaders appropriate to a people who aim to have successors as well as ancestors … [As John] Rawls believes … “No generation has stronger claims than any other.” (160-1; emphasis in original)