The World Without Scholars: A Fable for Our Time

August 07, 2011

With family income shrinking, and tax revenues dwindling, choices had to be made. One of the first places looked at was those costly ivory-tower humanities scholars. How could one justify paying salaries to people who spent years studying minutiae but not producing anything of measurable economic value?

Research in computer science, engineering, finance, and hard sciences that led to technological and medical discoveries was preserved. Humanities research in fields such as history, religion, philosophy, and literature was cut. Eventually humanities research slowed to a trickle. Departments shrank and then collapsed. The university became a technology lab and trade school.

Forty years passed. America produced great engineers, physicists, and economists. But as profitability became the sole measure of value, there was a growing sense that the country lacked moral imagination and purpose. For many, money simply could not be an end in itself—they felt called to use their talents for a higher purpose. Activists began to fill the vacuum.

It was slow at first. When the activists began asking that the cabinet post of presidential pastor be created, citing precedent from the biblical Book of Kings, opponents complained that America was founded on the principle of separation of church and state. But as knowledge of computers replaced knowledge of constitutional history, and familiarity with business cycles replaced familiarity with the Bible, the voices of opposition grew feebler, and the activists, with their moral certitude and superior knowledge of the Bible and of America's founding, overwhelmed their opponents.

Eventually, the activists were demanding that the government implement biblical laws, such as stoning adulterers. For, they reasoned, America was founded as a Christian country devoted to liberty, and there was no greater enemy of liberty than license. As everyone knew, freedom wasn't free. They called on their fellow Americans to be independent thinkers and rise up in rejecting the conformist dogma that America was founded on separating church from state.

Through their moral authority, the activists were able to recruit top scientists, engineers, and business leaders to their cause. Business supplied the activists with capital, while scientists and engineers gave them access to sophisticated computer and weapons technology. Swelling in numbers and power, the activists grew dissatisfied with the American political system, which, with its checks and balances, they saw as too slow in promoting their agendas. They began to turn to more-extreme measures.

As warring factions paralyzed civilian government, there were some in the military who sought to counter the activists' threat through increased surveillance, intelligence, and pre-emptive actions. But as long as the activists felt that their cause was just, they found ways to subvert those maneuvers by recruiting followers from inside the military establishment.

One congressman suggested that to counter the activists' threats, experts be paid to critically study religion, history, philosophy, and literature and educate citizens in this knowledge. These experts would cultivate critical reasoning and contextualize the past, explaining how sacred texts were written by different people, at different times, reflecting different points of view. In this way, they would show how practices and teachings that existed long ago had changed and were not necessarily applicable today.

They would develop a historically accurate understanding of the principles of the country's founding that could be used to counter those who sought to distort its meaning and intent. Disseminating their research would help people draw from the past without being enslaved to it, and promote tolerance and a valuing of diversity.

The congressman recommended that these experts be housed in the universities to lend them prestige. But fearing the erosion of their influence, the activists quickly denounced the congressman's proposal as subversive. The country continued its descent into chaos, and civil war seemed imminent. At least war was good for the economy.

Michah Gottlieb is an assistant professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University. He is the author of Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn's Theological-Political Thought (Oxford University Press, 2011) and theeditor of Moses Mendelssohn: Writings on Judaism, Christianity and the Bible (University Press of New England, 2011).