Gefen Bar-On Santor

By the content of their status?


January 15, 2024 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  One of the gifts that Luther King gave us is sayings that deeply resonate with what we should aspire to be.  The most well known is likely Luther King’s dream that his children will be judged not by the color of their skin but “by the content of their character.”

But given that we cannot in practice control how people perceive us, it is perhaps the following advice by Luther King that we might draw more practical inspiration from:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

The belief in the ability of each individual to bring excellence to their vocational destiny highlights the failure of the Presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT during the congressional hearing on December 5, 2023 to respond to the problem of antisemitism on campus.  If a street sweeper can sweep like Michelangelo, then university presidents can certainly do better than respond to the oldest hate with technocratic evasions.

The problem with the three Presidents was not simply that they showed insufficient concern about antisemitism.  The dry and bureaucratic manner of their responses also failed to impress the hosts of heaven and earth, who must have been wondering if they were listening to inspired intellectuals or to mechanically programmed AI.  Listening to the three Presidents, one felt somehow like Nick in The Great Gatsby in the company of the idle rich—rather than a person fortunate enough to be in the presence of some of the world’s greatest minds.

There was no symphony of ideas in the congressional exchanges.  Instead, the phrase “it depends on the context,” genuinely important in many intellectual conversations, echoed so hollowly that it became somewhat of a laughing stock (Since December 5, I have found myself feeling self-conscious and somewhat embarrassed every time I use the word “context”).

Some commentators have blamed the shallow, robotic manner of some of the Presidents’ responses on constraining instructions that they received in briefings from lawyers and PR persons who helped them to prepare for the hearing.  But no legal watchdog or PR advisor could prevent a true thinker from arguing as vividly as Shakespeare wrote plays. Intellectual genius is not so easily suppressible; when given an opportunity to converse, it rises to the occasion.

I would have more respect for the Presidents if they advanced deeply felt and well-researched arguments for free speech—if I could see in their responses the qualities that should be present in a scholar who loves ideas and loves the truth—like Beethoven loved music.

The street sweeper is a complicated inspirational figure because street sweepers do not typically wear cashmere or Canada Goose.  They do not grill tenderloin or fresh tuna steaks, do not have weeks of holiday and do not fly around the world to conferences.  Perhaps most sadly, street sweepers may have genuine callings to make contributions in other professions that they would never be allowed to enter.  It is for this reason that many people try to enter more “competitive” professions and avoid being street sweepers (even though today a street sweeper could probably become highly educated by listening to podcasts as they sweep—if they could afford a smart phone and air pods).

The problem with the academia as a competitive, heavily gate-guarded profession is that it has become an aristocracy.  Luther King, in his wisdom, tried to downplay status, while the academia has elevated status into a de-facto aristocracy.

In the congressional hearing, Republican Glen Grothman and Harvard President Claudine Gay had the following exchange about diversity of ideas on campus:

“GLENN GROTHMAN: . . . Just playing around here a little bit on the internet — in 2016, they found about 2 percent of the faculty of Harvard were — viewed President Trump, I think, is Ok or good. And I think in the 2020 election, the Crimson, your local paper there, found 1 percent of the students voting for Donald Trump, which given that nationwide, it is about 50, 50 was kind of shocking.

Does it concern you at all, that you apparently have a great deal, a lack of ideological diversity at Harvard? And you think that atmosphere is maybe one of the reasons why there seems to be such an outbreak of anti-Semitism at your institution?

CLAUDINE GAY: Is that — is that question for me?

GLENN GROTHMAN: It’s a question for you. And I’ll ask you, what are you — what are you going to do about it? Do you think it’s a concern?

CLAUDINE GAY: We — so we — we strive to have as diverse a faculty as we — as we can, because we want to make sure that we are sampling from the broadest pool of talent available in the world. That’s how we ensure academic excellence. And then —

GLENN GROTHMAN: Wait, wait, wait, wait. I — from what I read here, maybe I’m just — they are making stuff up, but I don’t think they’re making it up. We said 2 percent of your faculty viewed Donald Trump as something [inaudible] poor. In 2016, and after four years of working for diversity, 1 percent voted for him. Now I know all sorts of good people who don’t like President Trump.

But I’m just saying, when you compare the way people think at your campus, compared to America as a whole, if there’s one thing you are — it’s not diverse. Right? Do you consider that a problem, or the numbers I gave you?

CLAUDINE GAY: So, Congressman, I can’t speak to the specific data that you are referring to. What I can say is, that at Harvard, we try to create as much space as possible for a wide range of views and perspectives, because we believe that allows for a thriving academic community.

GLENN GROTHMAN: Well, how in the world is that even possible, and that that you’re trying to do that? Do you really feel that you’re — that your faculty are ideologically diverse? You came out of a, what was it a, political science background at Stanford?

CLAUDINE GAY: At Stanford as an undergraduate, as an economics major. And then, for my PhD, it was a PhD in political science.

GLENN GROTHMAN: Political science, that’s what I thought. Did you experience what you would say, given America’s divided now 50, 50, about 50, 50, or was it 75,25, or 90,10, regard — regarding to more constitutional conservative perspective, or more of a left wing perspective? What is your experience, both at Harvard and Stanford?

CLAUDINE GAY: So here’s what I can say on the topic that you’re exploring. And it’s — we want the most brilliant, talented faculty to come to Harvard and to build their careers there. . . .”

“The most brilliant, talented faculty.”  What does “the most” mean?

Is the hyperbole “most brilliant, talented faculty” a statement of merit—the academic version of the dedicated street sweeper who has achieved excellence in keeping the streets tidy—or has “Brilliant” become the academic equivalent of Earl or Duke, practically functioning as a birth right?

Does the academia encourage us to view people by the content of their status and assure them that they are brilliant by definition?  Have we replaced the passionate thinker with a smart, strategic career builder?  And is it precisely the self-congratulatory tendencies of the professional academic airmiles accumulator that help to explain why they struggle to lead effectively when it comes to metaphorically sweeping campuses clean of the corrupting influence of Jew hate?

The role of the academic leader, as others have pointed out, is not simply to blandly remind us of what is legal (not studying for exams is also legal—and yet we encourage students to be diligent).  Their job is to encourage—through genuine scholarship, teaching, curiosity and love of truth—what is good and beautiful.

But for the strategic career builder, the attainment of secure status creates a strange freedom from accountability and from subjugation to “sublunar” empirical reality.

In the Presidents’ own lives, many of the concerns that would plague the street sweeper have been removed, so life may be played as a game with the status and position of the self as the ultimate reference point.  This is how the logic of this game might be imagined:

“I have job security, ergo the world is a safe place.

I have a flexible job, ergo there is no need to be vigilant about the future of liberty.

I am not targeted by Jew hate, ergo Jew hate is not so bad.

I am well served by ideas that circulate on campus, ergo the Palestinians must be be well served by intellectuals who claim to care about them (in reality, the Palestinians who want peace are not helped by some intellectuals who sanctify the Palestinians’ “victim” status and develop mythological views of Israel as evil, thus emboldening destructive instead of constructive leaders who would accept Israel and enable the Palestinians to benefit from the existence of Israel.)

How do I play the game to get where I want to go?  And when I get there, why should I care what happens to others?”

“Brilliant by definition” was not what Luther King had in mind.  The pursuit of self interest—maximum reward with minimum risk, all dressed up as virtue—is not what builds the content of a character that serves humanity.

Rather than fulfilling Luther King’s dream, we have chosen too often to treat people according to the content of their status.  In this environment, Jew hate has accrued status as well.

Today, one of the tasks before us is to metaphorically clean the world of ideas and education of Jew hate. Luther King’s honest and dedicated street sweeper gives us hope that this can be done with merit, inspiration and integrity—for the benefit of the vast majority of people, who want to live and work peacefully.

About the Author
Gefen Bar-On Santor teaches English at the University of Ottawa, as well as adult-education literature courses at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, Canada. She is an enthusiastic believer in life-long learning and in the relevance of fiction to our lives. She also writes at
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