"Forbidden Knowledge and General Education"

Keynote Address by
Kenneth L. Schwab, President, Centenary College of Louisiana
at The President's Convocation
August 25, 1998
Brown Memorial Chapel
Centenary College of Louisiana

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me add my welcome to that of the Provost with a special nod to the freshmen and to transfer students, who are beginning their Centenary careers as we open the 174th year of the College's existence. That's quite an accomplishment. We are the 43rd oldest chartered college or university in the United States. As proud as we are of our longevity, we are even prouder of our record of providing for our students a rigorous, challenging, and exciting educational experience. As we begin this our 174th year, we also recognize the founding of the first Methodist institution -- Kingswood School in England, established in 1748. This year commemorates the 250th anniversary of educational institutions like ours, nurtured and supported by the Methodist church. From the very beginning, Methodist institutions have called for "uniting the pair so long disjoined--knowledge and vital piety." This commitment was expressed in the Kingswood hymn of dedication, written by Charles Wesley in 1748. Our Methodist heritage has always encouraged us to seek knowledge that empowers our faith. And the most recent chapter in that history has led me to the topic of this morning's address: "Forbidden Knowledge and General Education."

For a number of years now, freshmen at Centenary have studied in their English classes a textbook entitled A World of Ideas, a collection of classic and contemporary essays on a broad range of topics - government, justice, nature, culture, wealth, mind, and faith. This interdisciplinary approach has been and continues to be wonderfully stimulating. Beginning this fall, however, as a result of a faculty committee's study aimed at enhancing the first-year, general education experience, there will be a special focus on "forbidden knowledge" as it relates to these great ideas.

The phrase "forbidden knowledge" in general parlance all too often carries the implication of adult book stores and X-rated movies. Indeed, once the information leaked out that this was to be the focus of our freshman interdisciplinary studies, there were inquiries from incoming students wondering whether there would be a "lab" with a hands-on approach. There were even inquiries about faculty openings in the program. In fact Dr. Lee Morgan decided to come out of retirement and teach two sections.

Seriously, though, my point is that, in our culture, sex is not "forbidden knowledge." Applied here, the term is simply a misnomer. But recognition of our easy access to carnal knowledge should lead us to ask if there are things we should not know, or would be better off not knowing. In what circumstances should knowledge be forbidden? I'll come back to this issue, but I raise it here to indicate that we cannot automatically assume that "forbidden knowledge" is always a bad thing. Perhaps some forbidden things should stay that way.

In modern democracies, where we assume a "right to know," even hinting at limits on knowledge may seem unwise. And this is especially true in the academy, where academic freedom protects and energizes intellectual progress. In colleges and universities, knowledge is the principal aim and product, and society depends upon our pursuing this goal and "distributing" the products of our investigations. In society at large, history affords us many examples of churches, political regimes--and, yes, even educational institutions--forbidding knowledge which could empower subjugated people or which, they fear, might somehow undermine authority or sacredness. In many cases we are obliged to question these prohibitions. As we know, democracies in particular can function effectively only when the electorate is enlightened, when it has the knowledge necessary to make intelligent decisions.

So it may seem I'm back to advocating total freedom, since prohibitions appear to be so dangerous. But it's hard to rest here either. Do we, in the name of freedom, intend to share the scientific knowledge that can lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons or the spread of germ warfare? Are we always content even to have such knowledge? And what of knowledge about us as individuals? Who should know our private concerns, and when? Should we expect a right to privacy, and under exactly what circumstances? President Clinton's current dilemma turns in part on just these sorts of questions, and the varied reactions to his situation indicates that our society has no consensus on the subject.

If I seem to have reached a contradiction, so much the better. This is just the kind of challenge colleges and universities thrive on--and it's the kind of complexity we need to prepare our students to confront. And that's just why our freshmen are going to be examining a variety of perspectives on the questions of forbidden knowledge. The kind of education we propose is the farthest thing from indoctrination: instead, it's the active engagement with complicated and contradictory issues. It's preparation for the complexities of the world.

Let's look at two very old stories, both no doubt familiar to you, that might help us understand the issues of forbidden knowledge.

The first begins in a cave, where prisoners are shackled so they can see only one wall. On this wall they see shadows passing before them: shapes of people, of animals, of objects. And they hear sounds that they associate with these shadows. They give these shapes names, and they think these shapes are real.

But in fact the shapes are only projections; faint, imperfect images of reality; shadows cast by a distant light that the prisoners cannot see. It is only by being freed and turned around that they can see the real source of light. Then, by being led toward it, they come to understand reality. But--and this is the startling point--none of the prisoners is anxious to know this "truth." They are reluctant, first because, in the cave, everyone is convinced that the shadows are real, an unanimity is comforting even when it's wrong. Second, if a prisoner were to turn to the light, the pain might be unbearable--as it can be when we go from a dark room into the bright sun. So the prisoners are content to stay as they are. It is only when some wise person who knows the truth comes to instruct the prisoners that some of them might seek the light of reality. Even then, both the wise one and the prisoners must run the risk of being laughed at and ridiculed by the other cave dwellers. But, despite these obstacles, a prisoner escapes the cave. Once a prisoner becomes enlightened, then he or she incurs an obligation to return to the cave to try to enlighten others--and also to suffer the indignities usually accorded a prophet in his or her own land.

That's my first story. The second story is set in a garden, where a couple have been given everything they could possibly desire: a life without labor in an unspeakably beautiful place with dominion over all they survey. They even get to name the critters. There is only one rule: they are forbidden to eat the fruit of a certain tree. But for these two that is one rule too many, and when they break it, they are cast out of the garden into a world where they must work for their sustenance and suffer hardship all of their lives.

Now, both of these stories are about forbidden knowledge. The first, Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" from Book VII of The Republic, shows us a world in which humankind is bound in a prison by its own willful ignorance. The prisoners live in a symbolic cave of their own creation. Plato's story is about the necessity of striving beyond socially accepted truths toward a distant reality. It's about rules that must be broken if we are to escape a prison and become fully human. The second story, on the other hand, the biblical story of the Fall of Man, shows humans who, though already enlightened, arrogantly seek to know more than they are entitled to know. It's a story about over-reaching. Through this unlawful aspiration they condemn themselves to another kind of prison, an exile from Paradise made still more painful by the memory of the lost Eden. The Genesis story commands respect for a prohibition. It's about a rule that must not be broken.

It would be easy to regard these two stories as a "mere" paradox and leave it at that. But the point of a paradox is that it encourages us to think. Perhaps these two perspectives on forbidden knowledge--one commending prohibition, one seeking to overcome it--are not so much opposites as complements. They are interdependent parts of a larger whole, both of which will always be present and are necessary for our understanding. But we can't stop here. Our job is to decide on the proper perspective: we have to know if we're in a cave or in a garden.

Take for instance the case of Frederick Douglass, the American slave who became an advisor to President Lincoln and who helped convince him to proclaim the emancipation of all slaves. In his autobiography, Douglass recounts being taught to read by Mrs. Auld, his master's wife. But when his master found out about his wife's kindness, he "at once forbade [her] to instruct [Douglass] further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read." Why this social prohibition? Mr. Auld is painfully clear about his society's motives. With some slight modification of the language I repeat Douglass's quotation of his master:

A [slave] should know nothing but to obey his master to do as he is told to do. Learning would
spoil the best [slave] in the world. Now . . . if you teach that [slave] how to read, there would
be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once be unmanageable,
and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm.
It would make him discontented and unhappy. [1]

Mr. Auld's ideas are offensive. Common decency calls us to reject them. And it's doubly irksome to hear him cloak his prejudices in apparent concern for the well-being of the slave: knowledge, Auld says, "would make him discontented and unhappy." But the thing to remember here is that Mr. Auld's view is the status quo. It's the social consensus of the Old South. It's the law. We find Auld's view abhorrent because we have come to know better. But from Mr. Auld's point of view, Southern slavery is part of an agrarian myth; it's a sort of paradise governed by only one rule: obey your master. From Douglass's point of view (and from ours), the system of slavery is prison of our own device.

But Douglass's example of knowledge being forbidden is only one among many, some much more widely known. The Church in the 17th century, for instance, forbade the great Italian scientist Galileo to teach that the sun is the center of the universe. But we do not need to go back 400 years to find attacks on knowledge. In 20th-century America, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, James Joyce's Ulysses, and D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover were banned from libraries and approved reading lists. [Even here in Shreveport a few years ago, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Cadged Bird Sings was pulled from classrooms when one of our most distinguished graduates was using it to help her high school seniors understand their world.] Southern legal barriers were put up to forbid Martin Luther King's civil rights activities. The Nazis in Hitler's Germany forbade the study and exhibition of most modern art. The U.S. government would not allow its citizens to know that our planes had bombed Cambodia in the final months of the Vietnam War. The Chinese government came down with brutal force on the student protesters in Tiannamen Square.

The list could go on and on.

An interesting and ironic aspect of this issue involves the recent nuclear tests of India and Pakistan. Nations that have already tested nuclear weapons do not want other countries to use their knowledge to do such testing. It's all right for some nations to use this knowledge but forbidden to others. We are uncertain that good judgment will guide the use of this awesome power, and we are understandably fearful that fanatics might somehow gain access.

My own personal concern about the threat of nuclear weapons was heightened in 1970 as I joined the faculty at a Quaker college. I was drawn to the importance of the Friends Peace testimony with its strong stance against war. And later at the University of South Carolina, a colleague and I obtained a grant from the United States Institute of Peace to host a symposium focused on the Morality of Nuclear Deterrence. This work resulted in our book entitled After the Cold War.

Our exploration of nuclear deterrence was being staged on the heels of the revolutionary year of 1989, when communism collapsed in Eastern Europe (eventually the Soviet Union), when the Warsaw Pact was fragmenting, and when progress in arms control and peace in general set the stage for a new era of world politics. Our book began with a quotation from President Lyndon B. Johnson: "We know today that . . . ideas, not armaments, will shape our lasting prospects for peace; that the conduct of our foreign policy will advance no faster than the curriculum of our classrooms; that the knowledge of our citizens is one treasure which grows only when it is shared." [2] We at Centenary are taking President Johnson's admonition to heart in designing a new First Year Experience that will not only give our students the treasure of shared knowledge, but also the wisdom to use it well.

My summer reading in addition to Frankenstein, which I know each first-year student read, included The Children by David Halberstam. He tells an insightful story of the student sit-ins of the early 1960s in Nashville, TN. The Nashville protests were led by young college students trained in non-violence. To prepare for the ordeal of these sit-ins, the students were trained by Jim Lawson. All participants were instructed to abide by the pledge of non-violence while being beaten and verbally abused by the authorities and mobs. Lawson urged them to form a "beloved community" to help sustain their commitment to non-violence and to attain the goals of the movement. He defined the "Beloved Community" as:

A place where the barriers between people gradually came down. Where the citizenry made a
constant attempt to address even the most difficult problems of ordinary people.

By creating this "community," these young people were successful in desegregating the lunch counters and helping achieve the goals of the civil rights movement, including the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. [3]

It is my prayer that Centenary will be a "beloved community" for you, that we will prepare you to acquire and intelligently use all knowledge. In this Community we are committed to nurturing the whole person. As Jane Tompkins from Duke University said in a recent article, colleges should seek to be "communal not combative: to focus on the self as well as the subject matter: to nurture the imagination not just the intellect." [4] We are committed to educating the whole person -- the mind, body, and spirit of each of our students. The Centenary faculty will be your key to this level of learning. By stressing understanding, not just rote learning, our faculty encourage an environment that provides a beloved community for you.

You'll need this communal support. As the leaders of your generation, you will be faced with the ethical, legal, psychological, and practical questions that we can only begin to anticipate. But we know from our own world-- a world where we have to deal with the knowledge that allows us to produce test tube babies; clone human beings (or at least sheep); genetically engineer crops and livestock raised on our farms; fight wars using germ warfare, not to mention nuclear arms--from this world we know at least how complex these problems will be, and we understand our obligation to prepare you for these challenges. This preparation is a central goal of liberal education, of the "liberating" arts that we teach at Centenary College. We seek to free you alike from the prisons of ignorance and arrogance, so that you can help all of us know when we are in a cave and when a garden.

Special thanks to Dr. Lee Morgan and Dr. Steve Shelburne, who contributed to this speech.


1 Lee A. Jacobus, A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers, 5th ed. (Boston: Bedford Books, 1998), pp. 107, 110.

2 Charles W. Kegley, Jr. and Kenneth L. Schwab, After the Cold War: Questioning the Morality of Nuclear Deterrence (Boulder: Westview Press, Inc., 1991), p. 1x.

3 David Halberstam, The Children (New York: Random House, 1998), p. 79.

4 Alison Schneider, "Jane Tompkins's Message to Academe: Nurture the Individual, Not Just the Intellect," Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 July 1998, p. A8, col. 2.

See also:

Advance News Release, President's Convocation 1998:
President's Convocation to Address 'Forbidden Knowledge'

Centenary's "Forbidden Knowledge" Theme Featured in Christian Science Monitor article:
Theme Years Provide Glue for Campus Unity

For further information, contact:
Centenary News Service, Centenary College of Louisiana,
2911 Centenary Boulevard, Shreveport, LA 71134-1188

Email: Centenary News Service lstewart@centenary.edu

318-869-5120 or 869-5709
Fax: 318-869-5026