PhD? In What?

I find it chilling that the authors of last week's article in our school paper, "Laundra's Counsel Leads to Heartache," chose to quote Machiavelli in support of their argument, an argument that seems to say (perhaps unintentionally) that SUU students lack the ability to reason.

When one is called "Machiavellian" one generally doesn't mean to describe a person who is insightful, generous, and wise (as the quotation they offered might imply) but rather one means to describe someone or something characterized by expediency, deceit, and cunning.

The strangeness of using this quotation way out of context isn't surprising really. George Bull, a Machiavelli translator, observes in his introduction to the Penguin edition that The Prince is a work more often quoted than read.

By quoting Machiavelli in their article, these professors seem to indicate that SUU students are not able to think, but they depend on mere appearances. I don't think that is true; my students are much smarter than that. But this is not the thrust of my response.

Most of the commentary lobbed at Professor Laundra is of the same stripe as this strange and incomplete use of Machiavelli, namely, Laundra's detractors took a piece of information out of context and then proceeded to riff on it.

In the case of the Machiavelli quotation, it's probably useful for folks to know that the quotation these professors used in their article comes from Book 18 of The Prince, a section that details the ways in which leaders ought to practice deception when it is useful for them to do so. In that section, just a few lines prior to the passage quoted, Machiavelli offers the following advice:

I'll even add to this: having good qualities and always practicing them is harmful, while appearing to practice them is useful. It's good to appear to be pious, faithful, humane, honest, and religious, and it's good to be all those things; but as long as one keeps in mind that when the need arises you can and will change into the opposite?.And therefore [a prince] needs a spirit disposed to follow wherever the winds of fortune and the variability of affairs leads him. As I said above, it's necessary that he not depart from right but that he follow evil.

Similarly, if those who stood against Professor Laundra would have looked into what he does in his classes and taken that information in its full context and in its entirety, then they might have actually been able to engage this issue the way good scholars and colleagues do: with hard facts rather than mere opinion.

I hope students reading this debate will not end up thinking that educated people normally engage in ad homenim attacks based on incomplete information. One must always study issues out, reflecting on them to the fullest extent of one's own faculties before acting on them. This is just as true in spiritual and ethical matters as it is in professional and academic ones.