Rick's Cafe, Baltimore
The Morning Call learns something interesting
Two weeks ago, something interesting happened in Baltimore. On Wednesday, December 9, Martha Jones, a history professor at the venerable Johns Hopkins University, announced the preliminary findings of an investigation she and her staff had been conducting for several months. Turns out that the school’s founder and namesake just might have been somewhat less wonderful than the University has long insisted. The Johns Hopkins News-Letter has the details:
The myth of Johns Hopkins, the University’s namesake and founder, has been proudly retold countless times on campus tours, convocations and around Baltimore: He was a lifelong abolitionist whose father, an avowed Quaker, freed the family’s enslaved people in 1807.
According to the story, Hopkins eventually became a successful businessman in Baltimore and an abolitionist who supported President Abraham Lincoln and the Union. On his death in 1873, he left $7 million — the largest philanthropic bequest in U.S. history at that time — to found what became the nation’s first research university, as well as a hospital that famously served Baltimoreans “without regard to sex, age or color.”
Last spring, however, a team of researchers led by Martha Jones began researching a 1850 census record listing four enslaved people in the household of a man named Johns Hopkins. This effort was launched after retired Maryland State Archivist Ed Papenfuse alerted the University of the possible existence of a document linking Johns Hopkins to slaveholding.
Jones, the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and a professor of history, and her team confirmed that the person listed on the census record was the University’s founder. On Wednesday, they released new evidence revealing that Hopkins had enslaved at least four Black people in 1850 and one in 1840. The team was unable to find evidence showing that Hopkins’ father had freed any enslaved people.
Naturally, many Hopkins students were upset by the news, as were the school’s administrators, who expressed their frustration and “disappointment” in learning that an exceptionally wealthy man who lived in a slave state in the mid-19th century had slaves. For their next performance, Hopkins administrators will be shocked…shocked! to find that gambling is going on in Rick’s café. Some students expressed the hope that the school will change its name. Others demanded that the university honor Johns Hopkins’ slaves in some way. And everyone, it seemed, was angry that the prestigious school they attend or for which they work would not exist were it not for the huge donation made by a man they have belatedly decided was unacceptable. Frustrating and disappointing indeed.
Now, for our part, we think it’s fantastic, perfectly fitting.
Why’s that, you ask?
Because Johns Hopkins University was ground zero in the war for the soul of the nation, the exact starting point in the effort to undermine the vision of the American Founders.
In 1873, Hopkins, a Quaker bachelor and railroad magnate, died, leaving the enormous sum of $7 million (the equivalent of roughly $150 million today) to found a hospital and university. This university was to be like no other in the United States. Whereas Harvard was founded to train Unitarian and Congregational clergy, Yale was founded to teach theology and religious languages, Dartmouth was founded to teach Christianity to Native Americans, Princeton was founded to serve as a seminary for Presbyterian ministers, and so on, Johns Hopkins was founded not just to teach but to “discover” as well. Johns Hopkins was founded specifically and purposely to create or uncover new knowledge. In his inaugural address, Daniel Colt Gilman, the University’s first president, declared that its mission would be “To educate its students and cultivate their capacity for lifelong learning, to foster independent and original research, and to bring the benefits of discovery to the world.” Or, as Johns Hopkins University puts it today, its job is not to teach its students the knowledge of the world, but to uncover “knowledge for the world.”
Modeled after Germany’s famed Heidelberg University, Johns Hopkins, in turn, became the model for the American research university more generally, institutions designed specifically to push boundaries, to produce new knowledge, and to embrace “progress” as a defining value. Johns Hopkins University was founded not to teach, but specifically to “discover,” a virtue in the physical sciences, but something else altogether in the humanities and what would become the “social science.”
In 1881, five years after it opened its doors to its first students, Johns Hopkins hired a man named Richard Ely as a professor and director of its Department of Political Economy. Ely would prove to be the perfect “Hopkins man” and would forever change the ways in which Americans view politics, society, and especially economics. Though he was an American who earned his bachelor’s degree at Columbia University, Ely took his Ph.D., fittingly enough, at Heidelberg, studying under Karl Knies, a stalwart of the historical school.
Ely was many things – the godfather of the Progressive movement, the world’s most prominent advocate of the Social Gospel, and, perhaps most notably, a mentor to Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the godfather of American public administration and another early Progressive stalwart. Wilson studied under, collaborated with, and aided Ely in the spread of the new American political economy. As I put it in The Dictatorship of Woke Capital, “If Richard Ely was the Millenarian prophet of American progressivism—and he was—then Woodrow Wilson was the trusty acolyte who followed behind and turned the prophet’s ideas into reality. He was St. Paul to Ely’s Jesus, or, more fittingly, Molotov to Ely’s Stalin.”
Meanwhile, across campus, two years before Ely’s arrival, the school’s philosophy department hired a lecturer named Charles Sanders Pierce, who could only be described as a “polymath,” – a mathematician, philosopher, logician, and, of course, the father of philosophical Pragmatism. Among other things, Pragmatism is one of the fountainheads of philosophical relativism and, as such, serves as the bridge between the positivist and antipositivist threads of leftism.
Pierce’s best-known student at Johns Hopkins was John Dewey, another godfather of American progressivism, the quintessential American philosopher, and the most influential educator (and education reformer) in American history. Dewey insisted – and convinced the entire educational establishment to believe – that critical thinking, which he called “reflective thinking,” is all that matters in pedagogy. Therefore, according to Dewey, students need to be free of the biases of “accumulated knowledge” and should, instead, be taught the means by which to arrive at conclusions on their own.
Dewey’s “reflective thinking” was part and parcel of that which the American literary theorist Rita Felski called the hermeneutics of suspicion and described as a “common spirit that pervades the writings of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.” Despite their obvious differences, Felski argued, these thinkers jointly constitute a “school of suspicion.” That is to say, they share a commitment to unmasking “the lies and illusions of consciousness; they are the architects of a distinctively modern style of interpretation that circumvents obvious or self-evident meanings in order to draw out less visible and less flattering truths.” All of which is to say that Dewey was the Pragmatists’ Pragmatist, the thinker whose ideas bridged the gap between the philosophical factions of the Left, in both theory and practice.
Pragmatism is also – as you may or may not recall – the philosophy behind the moral system that has come to dominate the contemporary “stakeholder theory” of business. Edward Freeman, the philosophy Ph.D. who pioneered normative stakeholder theory, describes himself and his work as neopragmatist and states that his conceptions of morality and ethics are derived in large part from Dewey, John Rawls, and Richard Rorty.
In the end, then, Johns Hopkins University is to present-day American culture and politics what the love of money is to the sixth chapter of the First Epistle to Timothy, i.e. the root of all evil. Between its role as the first and the most prominent research university in the country and its not-coincidental setting as the meeting place for four of the country’s most influential (and destructive) Progressive and pragmatic thinkers, Johns Hopkins is as responsible as any institution for the current extremely poor state of American liberal arts education. The ideologically brainwashed know-nothing cultural warriors who dominate the American campus today are very much the progeny of JHU.
Which is why it’s so perfect that it’s all happening now at JHU as well.
Sadly, while Johns Hopkins student protesters may someday succeed in changing the name of the school, they’ll never be able to change its record or undo the damage it has done.