OPINION: The right to knowledge

By Lorraine Connelly

At the risk of dating myself, I was born during the Eisenhower administration. I’ve always been interested in mid-century historical themes, especially as they relate to our present times. Apparently, I’m not the only one.

I recently sat down with Wallingford Corporation Counsel Janis Small, who shared her story of a very telling mid-century find. Small, who collects vintage postcards, was browsing in an antique store in Westville when she stumbled upon the first in a series of eight panels. She was intrigued by the title “Man’s Right to Knowledge and the Free Use Thereof.” The 20 by 20 panel was accompanied by German printmaker Albert Durer’s illustration of St. John holding the Book of Revelation and the following quote: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” She was intrigued by the panel but admits, “at that moment I had no context for what I was looking at.” The store owner shared that she had acquired the panels from a convent in Bridgeport. Small took a gamble, purchased all eight panels, and began doing research on their provenance.

She soon discovered that the panels originated from the time that Dwight D. Eisenhower served as president of Columbia University from 1948–1953. As Columbia’s head, he was responsible for establishing the university’s Bicentennial theme, “Man’s Right to Knowledge and the Free Use Thereof.”

The 60 panels created for Columbia’s Bicentennial in 1954 promoted the ideals of free information and commitment to intellectual freedom. This theme took on a heightened significance with the country still roiling amidst the fearful specter of McCarthyism.

Libraries, museums, schools, labor unions, and businesses throughout the United States and 33 countries were encouraged to host the panel exhibition. With quotations from Aristotle, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln these panels evoked references to totalitarianism, illiteracy, racial segregation, women’s rights, low voter participation, compulsory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and textbook censorship.

Sixty-eight years later, many of these themes once again reverberate.  As a new school year begins, the right to knowledge is once again being challenged by book bans.

Next month, the Wallingford Public Library will hostBanned Books Week, a yearly event celebrating the freedom to read, and will display the original Columbia Bicentennial panels in an exhibit curated by Small.

“We live in frightening times”, says Small, who cites two recent cases, one in Jamestown, Michigan, where librarians at the Patmos Library (ironically Patmos was the Aegean Island where it is said St. John received the visions found in the Book of Revelation), were accused of “grooming”, and promoting an “LGBTQ ideology.” Residents voted to defund the town’s only public library, stripping it of 85 percent of its annual $250,000 budget for next year.

Last May, a school district in Nampa, Idaho, voted to ban 24 titles from the district’s libraries, forever. In addition to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” other banned titles include Toni Morrison’s ”The Bluest Eye,” Laurie Halse Anderson’s ”Speak,” and ”It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health,” a book about puberty.

And last month in our home state, Colchester First Selectman Andreas Bisbikos demanded the book “Who is RuPaul?” be pulled from the shelves. He then instructed the library director to begin an inventory of any material in the children’s section deemed questionable, a task that would have required the library staff to review nearly 26,000 titles.

Small feels her curated exhibit is especially timely. “Today truth is being challenged and libraries are under siege,” she said. What’s more, she adds, “book bans run counter to a core tenet of what America is supposed to stand for.”

She points to Eisenhower’s June 1953 Commencement address to Dartmouth College, exhorting graduates to counter the prevailing red scare thorough knowledge. He urged, “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book as long as any document does not offend any of our own ideas of decency.”

That same month Eisenhower addressed the American Library Association, stating, “Our librarians serve the precious liberties of our nation: freedom of inquiry, freedom of the spoken and the written word, freedom of exchange of ideas. Upon these clear principles, democracy depends for its very life, for they are the great sources of knowledge and enlightenment.”

Small is hoping that the exhibit will reinforce the ideals that Eisenhower extoled to lift the nation from suspicion and fear, and that libraries will continue to serve as places of refuge for all to experience the right to knowledge, and free, informed thought.

In these times I Like Ike even better.

Lorraine Connelly is a writer and longtime Wallingford resident.


More From This Section