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Five Basic Differences Between Education and War … and One Similarity

This letter was sent to several professors at, as well as the president of, Harvard University, on 9/19/17, regarding the controversy over Chelsea Manning, whereby Manning was invited to teach for the fall semester at Harvard, and then uninvited after controversy around the decision ensued on and off campus. 

On the revoked Invitation of Chelsea Manning – to whom it may concern at Harvard University:

I believe it was Jeremy Scahill who said — though I can’t remember where — something along the lines of, “You can learn a lot about a society by how many of its whistle-blowers are in prison and how many of its war criminals are on book tour.”

My name is Matthew Vernon Whalan. I am a free lance writer, student, and deeply concerned citizen living in Vermont. I write for various publications around the country on various issues and study at Marlboro College. I am primarily inspired to write to you as a student and writer deeply opposed to what has taken place in the name of education over the past weeks. I am 22 years young. Hello.

I felt it might be useful to take a moment to address what seem to me five simple differences between the concept of education and the reality of war, as Harvard does not seem concerned about the relationship between these two aspects of our culture. I will end this email with one similarity between education and war.

As long as major democratic and/or educational institutions cannot understand, educate about and distinguish between the differences of their service from the service of war, such institutions will subordinate their right and opportunity of free speech to the talking points, jingoism and for-profit domination ideologies of those upon whom they rely for money, access to power, and elevations of status. And money, access to power, and elevated status all come readily to those who are complicit or participants in war.

As long as major educational and/or democratic institutions depend more and more heavily on the very rich and powerful for power and privilege, and conform their speech to the very rich and powerful, the more they will conform to those whose primary tool of profit-making, power maintenance, and world order in general is a monopoly on violence of epic versatility, scale, reach, recklessness, and cash. In a truly democratic society, I would’ve learned this in elementary school. But they didn’t teach me then – and apparently I wouldn’t have learned it even if I had made it all the way up to Harvard.

As long as major educational and/or democratic institutions continue to conform to the very rich and powerful, and as long as such institutions are undignified and powerless in the face of the globalized storm of corporate-motivated bloodshed taking place every day in our name on their behalf – in my name, in your name, in the names of all the students and community members of Harvard – the more such institutions will become educational and/or democratic exclusively for the very rich and powerful, with some exceptions for their internally oppressed, ideologically entranced class-abandoning followers.

As long as such major democratic and/or educational institutions continue to become reserved for the very rich and powerful, the more they will continue to become illegitimate and meaningless – because the rich and powerful do not need democracy. The rich and powerful can take or leave democracy as long as they remain rich and powerful, which they do today, more than ever before. Democracy, for the rich, is a privilege, a commodity, not a necessity, not the only way to achieve political power.

What I really mean to say is that war is the opposite of education, and you cannot educate in the truest sense of the term and also perpetuate the normalization, protection, and advocacy of war and war crimes. They are incompatible. You must either abandon your faith in the potentials, futures, and lives of young people. Or you must abandon your allegiance to a system of worldwide killing and stealing, primarily of and from the very poor and powerless, by the very rich and powerful.

You cannot believe in both war and education and contribute your cause authentically to either one. To honestly and effectively devote yourself to one of those causes you will have to abandon the other: you must choose between your belief in war and your belief in education. You cannot be an educator of a population in whom you have a vested interest in fighting and supporting your war for you. It is unethical. It is immoral. You are traitors.

Here are five basic differences between the process of war and the process of educating, followed by one similarity between the two:

1 Educating is primarily about the guided growth and development of the mind. War is about death. Education assumes a certain amount of investment in, responsibility for, and potential within, the student’s life. War sees the potential of human life as a potential threat. And war is only programmed to search for and destroy this perceived threat.

2 When we educate one another, we have to recognize some degree of individuality in one another, somehow, even when we are educating in a crowd. Our personalities, our backgrounds, our interests, all play a role in the teaching and learning process, and, if it is done right, this role grows. In war, entire populations are stripped of their individuality, made nameless and faceless, and turned into one monstrous, soulless, stupid looking yet horrifying enemy. Education diversifies the herd. War assimilates the herd in the eyes of its oppressors and then mows down the herd with advanced weaponry and/or imposes relentless market systems on upon it.

3 Education is, if it is done right, a democratic concept. It teaches us how to think and speak for ourselves. Education is the process by which we develop our understanding of ourselves and the world. Education is the process by which we begin our more conscious, critical lives. War is an authoritarian concept. War is a process by which we sacrifice our lives, our powers, freedoms and futures, and normalize the massive sacrifice of our so-called enemies’ lives, for a cause elusive at best.

4 Education is about the dissemination, content, and meaning of ideas and, even more so, of information. War is about the obscuring of ideas and the absolute silencing of true information. Let’s not forget that there were journalists murdered in the video that Manning leaked. And this brings me to my fifth and final difference, which is a representation rather than an explanation of the difference between war and education as I see it:

5 Chelsea Manning, as far as I can verify, has not told a single lie since the stories of her leaks and trials started years ago. Sean Spicer’s hot shot job before his new fellowship at Harvard was to lie every time he appeared before the American public. I don’t know why he wouldn’t apply his qualifications to his new role at Harvard. That’s the difference between Chelsea Manning’s job and Sean Spicer’s, or Michael Morrell’s, who defended the use of torture on human beings and is unsettled, apparently, by sharing a campus with someone who was tortured. That’s the difference between the education that Chelsea Manning has provided us and the wars you are advancing. Thank you for coming out of the shadows: now we all know which side Harvard University is on.

Lastly, the only similarity between education and war is that, particularly right now in the United States, just like every other major public apparatus, the existing forms of both education and war are dubiously beholden to corporate interests, to say the very, very least.

Neither the static, anti-intellectualism and anti-politics of American education, nor the permanence, volatility, and pervasiveness of American war will change substantially until they are no longer dependent upon, or beneficiaries of, one another. For as long as the forces that influence and control the American university are predominantly the same forces that control the American military, the greatest contribution of education in this society will be to teach generation after generation how to kill more efficiently and hate more eloquently.

More articles by:

Matthew Vernon Whalan is a writer currently living in Vermont.

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