Every few years I end up with a student who has been taught to hate. Not all things in general; only those things that have to do with God, or the Church. At my school, that means the Roman Catholic Church, and so great expanses of human history also come under the ban: the late classical period, the Middle Ages, and even the Renaissance. It is a prejudice almost impervious to evidence and reasoning. My colleagues and I can say all we want that, for example, the university was invented by Christians in the Middle Ages, or that the thirteenth century was a time of vibrant intellectual, artistic, and economic activity; or that perhaps the greatest poem ever written, the Divine Comedy, is impossible to conceive without the theology of Thomas Aquinas and the mystic contemplation of Bonaventure; or that the actual divide between how the rich and the poor in Europe lived would not be so narrow again until the nineteenth century. Or that Christian bishops in the late Roman Empire took up the civic responsibilities that a long degraded and indifferent senatorial class had abandoned -- that if anybody in Milan in the late fourth century was charged with making sure that the poor had grain, it was the bishop, Ambrose; or that, far from using the power of the state to enforce false conversions, Ambrose threatened to excommunicate the emperor for his massacre of Arian heretics in Thessalonika. Or that the first Crusade was preached by Urban II in response to a plea for help from the Byzantine emperor, whose lands were hard pressed by the new Muslim rulers in the Holy Land, the Seljuk Turks. Or that the charge that the Crusaders had colonialist motives fails to take into account that many of the leaders were aristocrats -- and not landless younger sons, either -- who impoverished themselves by the enterprise.
I could go on, but the reader will get the point. This year, for instance, I had for one of my students a young man who hated everything I taught, and everything I said about it. The hate prevented him from seeing how much certain of our authors agreed with his view of the world and not necessarily with mine. For it is hard to contain hate, once it gets going. Of the witty and urbane Ludovico Ariosto, a whimsical Christian at best, and also probably the single most determined defender of women that the Renaissance produced, the student said that he was a misogynist. It was the maximum possible error, like predicting that the Detroit Lions would win the Super Bowl. When writing about the Epithalamion of Edmund Spenser -- a wedding poem of incomparable beauty, delicacy, earthy celebration, and spiritual rejoicing -- he called the men who were summoned to attend upon the groom "his slaves," missing the communal character of the joyful day, with young men lighting bonfires and ladies dancing and boys shouting and running up and down the street. Writing about George Herbert's striking poem "Prayer" -- a poem that is a list of analogies and metaphors without a main clause and verb, as the poet struggles to penetrate the mystery of prayer -- he claims that the poet adopts a distant and ironic stance, the only one that the writer himself could imagine.
The problem is not a lack of intelligence. On the contrary, the haters I have met have always been at least moderately bright. The problem is the hate. Hatred causes blindness. Where the hatred comes from, I can't tell. One possible source, though, is our educational system itself. Whenever a teacher encourages a self-satisfied superiority to people who lived and wrought works of art in the past -- whenever the teacher rewards the easy contempt wherein we can hold people who happened not to possess democratic institutions, or whose customs regarding marriage were not the same as those in our time of sexual free-for-all, or who did not know that the earth revolves about the sun -- whatever may happen to be the "sins" of our forebears -- then the student begins to hate, and the possibility for learning begins to fade away.
What is true of students is also true of teachers themselves. It is true of everybody. I recall an anecdote from a Shakespeare conference some twenty five years ago. An elderly Shakespearean stood up to decry what had become of recent Shakespearean criticism, when he was suddenly put down by a famous feminist critic, who said of the professor that he was making an elementary mistake; he did not understand that they did not like Shakespeare. It did not occur to her to ask whether anything of any real use could be written by someone who did not at least try to meet the playwright on his own terms; just as a man traveling in a foreign country will learn nothing if he does not attempt to appreciate the culture he is encountering, but instead judges it from his own position of superiority. And yet this sort of chauvinism is everywhere to be met in the academy. It would be downright laughable, this sight of teachers of modest intellectual attainment, presuming to sniff with contempt at an Aeschylus or a Milton, did it not waste so much time and money, and, worse than failing to teach, help to make students ineducable. How this lesson applies also to our media, I'll leave to my readers to judge.