2013 Opening Convocation Address

Bartov: Education, Power, and Conformism

September 4, 2013  |  Media Contact: Courtney Coelho |  401-863-7287
Omer Bartov at Opening Convocation - “Conformism ultimately kills creativity, deadens sensibility, and 
undermines democracy. It is a thing to be resisted, even at the price – 
perhaps especially at the price – of disrupting the very system from 
which we all benefit.”
Omer Bartov at Opening Convocation “Conformism ultimately kills creativity, deadens sensibility, and undermines democracy. It is a thing to be resisted, even at the price – perhaps especially at the price – of disrupting the very system from which we all benefit.” Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University
Omer Bartov, professor of history,  delivered the 250th Opening Convocation address at 4 p.m. on a rainy Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, on the College Green. The text of Bartov’s address, titled “Education, Power, and Conformism,” follows here.

President Paxson, Provost Schlissel, esteemed members of the Brown Corporation, faculty colleagues, members of the Brown community, parents, and, most especially, Class of 2017: Welcome to Brown!

Today you marched through the gates of an extraordinary educational institution, and I salute you for this great accomplishment. It is, of course, only the beginning of a long road, and you will encounter many difficulties, and likely some disappointments, as you try to forge your own unique futures. But it is a good beginning, one of the best that anyone, anywhere could hope for. And you should make the most of it.

You will be told, as I am sure you have already heard many times, how lucky and privileged you are to have come here. And this is true. But today I want to talk about what it actually means to “make the most of it.” What is it that one should do with the privilege of a superior education? You will spend four years here, and I suspect that most of you will, in your own unique way, make the most of it. But in what way will you be different in 2017? Will there be something that all of you will have learned, beyond whichever field you choose to concentrate in, beyond the professional skills you will acquire, something both unique and shared by all of you, that you will take with you when you leave this little paradise, walk down the hill, and join the rest of humanity?

You all know — because otherwise you would in all likelihood not be here in the first place — that education gives knowledge, and knowledge is power. And power, the power to bring out the best in yourselves and to leave your mark on the world, to make a difference, to count, to matter, to make and to change, that is a wonderful quality to gain. The power of self-expression, of understanding, of insight, of creativity is enhanced and focused through gaining knowledge, combined with your unique innate gifts and talents.

But education, the framework though which you gain such knowledge, and consequently the kind of knowledge you acquire, work in two contradictory ways. One of these you are familiar with: College will open up your minds by letting you know how little you know and then teaching you more than you ever expected. Education will help you understand what you had not understood before; it will also invariably leave you with far more unanswered questions then you had ever imagined before coming here.

And yet education is also a system of teaching, of inculcating methods and instilling ideas, of internalizing rules and regulations about what should be studied, how it should be studied, and what are the acceptable ways of understanding the world as it is revealed to us through these paradigms. In this sense, education both opens the mind and determines its direction: It is liberating and conformist. It liberates us of ignorance, narrow-mindedness, the confines of our limited experience and vision; but it also creates its own universe of values and perceptions, rights and wrongs. It is never independent of the context within which it is offered and reflects in myriad ways the worldview of its time and place. In other words, education socializes, makes you fit for society according to the established criteria of that society at that given time and place.

In this sense, at its core, conformism inherently sets limits to knowledge, since it tempts us to stay within the accepted paradigms and warns us of the dangers of breaking out of them, dangers personal and collective. There are times in which conformism has a particularly strong hold on education, culture, politics, representations. There are times when anti-conformist forces undermine existing systems and paradigms. The former are less creative, the latter are more creative. But non-conformism breeds – just as much as it is a product of – uncertainty, anxiety, turmoil, at times also violence. Conversely, conformism seems to offer order, tranquility, peace of mind and a certain path into the future. Yet conformism has also sustained the most violent and destructive systems in the modern (and premodern) world, while non-conformism has resisted them on an individual and collective level.

Conformism comes in all shapes and colors and so does its opposite. It means accepting what your teachers say rather than arguing with them; using euphemisms without inquiring what hides behind them; accepting that there are specific paths to a good life without asking what are the alternative paths and what is a good life; striving to carve your own niche in the world without asking whether you wish to reside there. Accepting that the growing gap between the Haves and the Have Nots, in the United States as in much of the rest of the world, is inevitable and unstoppable; that politics and cynicism are synonymous, activism is at best a youthful pastime and at worst a distraction from pursuing a career; that war is a normal part of politics, especially and as long as others wage it. Conformism ultimately kills creativity, deadens sensibility, and undermines democracy. It is a thing to be resisted, even at the price – perhaps especially at the price – of disrupting the very system from which we all benefit.

The book you have all read before coming here today, Eyal Press’s Beautiful Souls, takes as its motto a line from Susan Sontag:

At the center of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great models of resistance: the great stories of those who have said ‘No.’”

Eyal Press tells us four stories of men and women who, even as they were part and parcel of their societies, shared their values, ideas, and ambitions, at a certain point, for very different reasons, decided to act differently, refused to conform, to go with the rest. They said “No.” “No” to expelling Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany by Swiss officials; “No” to the killing of neighbors belonging to a different ethnic group in the former Yugoslavia; “No” to the continued oppression of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers in cahoots with the settlers in the West Bank; “No” to complicity in financial fraud in the United States. All of these four were, in fact conformists; they were in most ways, like everyone else. But at some point, following a period of reflection or instinctively, they stepped out of line and did what we like to call “the right thing.”

Because this “right thing” was considered by their societies, neighbors, comrades, colleagues, generally disloyal, unpatriotic, illegal, or traitorous, they all paid a high price for acting as they did. But they, the three men and one woman Eyal Press tells us about, remained certain that they did the “right thing” and maintain that they would have done it again. That is admirable; these four set a high standard to all of us, and of course we would all like to be a little like them, even though we may be loath to pay the price that they paid.

But what I am talking about today is different. One cannot educate people to be heroes, to sacrifice their lives or their careers and livelihood. Or rather, one can, but only as a collective, which is not at all the same thing. Growing up in Israel in the 1960s, the motto we internalized were the words allegedly spoken by one Jewish hero mortally wounded in an attack on his settlement in the Galilee in 1920: “It is good to die for our land.” A stone lion was erected where he fell to remind us all that it is, indeed, “good to die for our land.” And a number of those who went to school and college with me did die. They died serving their country, and in that sense they were heroes, although they all wanted to live, and despite the fact that there is nothing really very good about the death of the young.

Heroism and conformism can, in fact, march side-by-side, just as non-conformism can be useless. In 1978, 348 Israeli reserve officers in combat units signed an open letter to then prime minister of Israel Menachem Begin, urging him to agree on a peace treaty with Egypt. I was one of the signatories and I still remember the heated conversations over this unconventional step and the excitement we all felt that perhaps, finally, five years after a bitter and costly war, peace would come. And in some ways it did. But the conformism of the majority and the determination of the extremist minority have meant that the movement established that year, Peace Now, has become the fig leaf for a state policy that prefers land to peace.

This is where such idealistic, heroic men as Avner and his colleagues in the movement they founded, “Fighters for Peace,” serve a more ambivalent role than initially meets the eye. They are called “beautiful souls,” in Hebrew “yefeh nefesh,” which implies the opposite: leftist, elitist intellectuals who want to keep their hands and conscience clean while others do the “dirty work” of securing the existence of the country. A generation earlier soldiers who related the horrors they not only witnessed but were also complicit in during 1967 came under the label “shooting and weeping”: The tears would cleanse the conscience and allow them to move on.

In this sense, the individual nonconformists, for all their personal courage and sacrifice, may end up serving the cause against which they had risen. The Swiss will say: There were good policemen who helped the Jews; the Croats will say: We have now honored a Serb who rescued our people; the Israelis will say: We allow protest by soldiers; the financial institutions in the United States will say: We paid heed to the whistleblowers. But foreigners will be kept out of Switzerland, ethnic hatred will rise in the Balkans, settlements will flourish in the West Bank, and the American financial elites will remain as powerful and arrogant as ever.

There is, of course, another kind of non-conformism, of the type that German Pastor Martin Niemöller spoke about, derived from the experience that if you keep your head down as others are persecuted, eventually no one will defend you. In Nazi Germany, he wrote:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

We, of course, live very far from these realities. Here no one will bang on our door in the dead of night and drag us to a concentration camp or an execution. Yet the instinct of conformism, of going along both because of the benefits attached and because protesting has a price, burrows into the very foundations of society, undermines it from within, robbing it of its spirit and independence and providing a growing space for mediocrity and corruption. The role of education is first and foremost to teach us to question the very rules and regulations, conventions and unspoken assumptions upon which our society is based; not in order to undermine it, but in order to find, acknowledge, and repair the cracks, expose the hypocrisy and restore the balance necessary for a healthy society to generate new ideas, greater optimism, and more secure, yes, happier existence for more.

This is all easier said then done, of course. But let me be frank. I have taught many bright, optimistic, and ambitious young women and men at Brown since coming here more than a dozen years ago. I have always admired their energy, will to learn, curiosity and enthusiasm. But I have not encountered much of a rebellious spirit.

The nineteenth-century French politician and prime minister, François Guizot is said to have uttered: “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” Those who do not rebel in their youth will never develop the instincts that, in their more mature years will add compassion to knowledge, a recollection of idealism to the eroding effects of experience, and a sense of suspicion in the face of empty rhetoric and euphemism.

But rebellion against what? A defiant but misdirected spirit can be as harmful as a youthful soul confined in a prison of rules and regulations. In order to know what to rebel against, you first have to learn, which is why you came here. It is only through learning that you begin to discern between truth and falsehood, appearance and reality, honesty and deception. But discern you must. At times, you will not know: Do I insist on my principles, my truth, even if have to defy the consensus? And if I do so, do I take satisfaction at being right, but alone, or do I try to sway others to see things as I do? Can I be wrong or selfish? Should I abandon my self-interest and join the collective in solidarity, or will I be betraying myself? For you will be told, “Be yourself.” But when facing such situations, which one is your true self? Are you the one who chose one path over another, and would you have been different had you made another choice?

No one will be able to answer these questions for you, but as long as you keep asking them, you will keep learning: Whatever it is you choose to learn, whatever it is that becomes your passion. This will make life more difficult, more challenging, but also more interesting. And if you, not just as individuals, but as an entire cohort of students, begin to question everything you are told, not least what I have just said and what all your other professors will be drumming into you in the next four years, then you will make a big difference not only to your own lives but to the larger society. And eventually you will demonstrate the truth of the ancient Talmudic maxim:

“I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students.”

Thank you and make the most of the next four years!

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