On this day in 1811, Percy Shelley was thrown out of Oxford for publishing a little book, The Necessity of Atheism. It’s a notable event in the sense that it shows something that isn’t widely understood: schools are used primarily for the purpose of constraining thought. I remember as I was making my way through college being shocked that many great scientific advancements seemed so obvious. But I eventually learned that, despite the propaganda of the academy, scholars are encouraged to fall in line. Like everywhere else, it is easier to go along to get along.
That doesn’t mean that scholarship doesn’t work. But our colleges are dependent for their very existence on the good will of the power elite. They don’t like academics to shake things up. In general, that doesn’t affect the sciences as much as it does other areas of study. But most of all, they don’t like anything that will challenge their power. That’s why global warming is a far more contentious issue than quantum mechanics.
Historically, religion has been one of the greatest tools for maintaining the status quo. Even today in America, I hear people justify the wealth of the rich and the poverty of the poor in moral terms. It’s a great way to stop people from asking questions, “Things are this way because God wants them that way!”
Of course, Shelley did a lot more than just question the existence of God. He questioned the existence of free will. That is a much more frightening idea to the power elite. If we are not responsible for our thoughts and actions, then there is no justification for massive inequality. The basis of capitalism is the idea that incentives matters. If that isn’t true, there isn’t much left to justify it.
I’m sure that Shelley would have agreed with me. He was a political radical. I still think it is amazing that these people living 200 years ago were miles past where most Americans are today in terms of politics. It speaks well of him that he got himself kicked out of college. Good job!
Happy birthday Percy Shelley’s expulsion!