Inside Higher Ed (October 22, 2018)
Our democracy was founded on an expectation that its citizens have a moral and historical obligation to be discerning, neither ciphers receptive to any pronouncement nor cynics receptive to none. That’s why I find a fable that Benjamin Franklin tells in his “Apology for Printers” to be particularly relevant to the state of the humanities today.
It is about “a certain well-meaning man and his son,” who were traveling to market to sell their donkey. The old man rode the donkey, and his son walked beside them, but the first traveler they encountered chastised the father for riding while his son walked. In response, the man lifted his son behind him. The next person they met blamed them for cruelly subjecting the animal to their combined weight, so the man got off and let the boy ride alone. The next shouted at the boy for allowing his elderly father to walk while he rode and at the man for indulging such behavior.
So the man asked his son to join him on the ground and they proceeded, leading the donkey by a halter. Until they met a group who ridiculed them for going on foot when they had a perfectly suitable creature to ride. At which point, the old man could bear it no longer; “My son,” said he, “it grieves me much that we cannot please all these people: let us throw the ass over the next bridge, and be no farther troubled with him.”