While in Kraków, Poland, I visited Oscar Schindler’s enamelware factory.
Schindler, immortalized in the Steven Spielberg movie “Schindler’s List,” was a German industrialist and Nazi Party member who was credited with saving the lives of some 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his ammunition and enamelware factories.
The factory has since been converted into a museum depicting life in Kraków during Nazi occupation. What amazed me was one of the first exhibition rooms which detailed the first laws enacted by the Nazis.
I would have thought that the first thing the Nazis set out to do was to round up the Jews, or the communists, or any resistant partisans. No. Among their first acts was to round up the intellectuals and shoot them.
Intelligenzaktion was a government-led procedure to eradicate the Polish intellectual elites. About 60,000 educators were murdered. Why? Because education is the most powerful bulwark against the forces of authoritarian brutish ignorance.
At Jagiellonian University, which I also visited, all professors were required to attend a faculty meeting to discuss the relationship between the school and the German forces shortly after the occupation.
When the 180-plus academics arrived at lecture room number 66, they were greeted by the Gestapo. Berated for teaching sciences hostile to German epistemology, they were immediately arrested, manhandled and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp (outside of Berlin) and Dachau.
I paused at the school plaques remembering those professors who gave their lives in the pursuit of knowledge.
It matters little if the authoritarian powers lean to the extreme right or the extreme left. Nazis, on the far right of the political spectrum, are not the only ones who find intellectuals to be a threat to their rules; so too are those on the far left. During Khmer Rouge communist rule in Cambodia, the entire educated class were almost entirely eradicated (1975-79).
Authoritarian tendencies from the far right and the far left share many traits, among the more prominent is a distrust of intellectuals and a desire to silence them lest they threaten their rule.
Intellectuals pursuing critical analysis on how oppressive structures operate are a menace to all forms of dictatorial-leaning leaders, an obstacle to the continuation of their supremacist tendencies.
Because they speak truth to the powerless, raising consciousness among the oppressed, they must be silenced – portrayed instead by the popular imagination as the “true” racists, as ignorant dupes, as unpatriotic, as a danger to the family values undergirded by the regime.
Authoritarian regimes thrive when the masses are kept ignorant. Democracy functions best when there exists an educated elector.
This does not mean that college graduates are smarter than those without education; it simply means that an education equips many to engage in critical thinking, to better decipher what is fake news.
Ignorance, prone to fear of the other, usually seeks the safety of a strong, “benevolent,” disciplinary hand. What better way to hype fear and maintain ignorance than to present compatriots with the threat of being replaced by the so-called inferior race?
The physical violence against academics during the past century by authoritarian regimes is today being replaced within the United States with legislative and economical violence – less gory but just as effective.
White supremacist political forces are currently stroking an anti-intellectual fervor, employing legislated technologies of discipline to silence intellectual freedom in the classroom.
Whenever an educational concept is explored and studied that helps explain why some are oppressed, and one that might lead to the empowerment of the disenfranchised, government policies are enacted under the sanguine sounding watchword “parent’s rights.”
A concerted effort is made to silence perspectives from those on the margins through legislation. When that fails, as we are increasingly witnessing at school board meetings – then intimidation is employed.
What better way to advance ignorance than to transform the classroom into a space which lifts the supremacy tendencies of those in power?
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a two-part series. Part two is available here.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.