Nobel laureate warns of past’s lessons

May 4, 2009 | Features



Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison talked about the need to broaden the war against cultivated ignorance fought daily by universities.

Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison talked about the need to broaden the war against cultivated ignorance fought daily by universities.

When Toni Morrison, the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, delivered the fourth speech of the Edward Shapiro Distinguished Lecture Series, her message was unapologetic.

Paralleling bleak times, atrocities and tragic events from decades and centuries ago with those not so far removed from the present, Morrison said it seems as if the “armies of change,” those aggressively seeking a hopeful future, are doomed.

They’re doomed because the lessons of the past aren’t being heeded in the present.

“The past is infinite, the future limited, and the present is so chaotic,” she said. “When history is frozen in amber, it becomes dangerous.”

Morrison said the United States and the world are still fighting a 16th- and 17th-century “War on Error.” Though we’ve progressed scientifically, medically, technologically and intellectually, she said, our current battles are still fought against those who believe differently from what we do — just like during the religious wars of the past.

“No, we haven’t learned our lesson,” she said. “Failed nations are exerting powers that would make Caligula smile … We need a new war. We need a collaborated effort against cultivated ignorance.”

Morrison said this new war is fought daily by universities, but argued a need for it to be widened, and for a new battle plan to be implemented.

Barbara Floyd, director of the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, opened rare editions for Toni Morrison to sign prior to the lecture. The books are housed in the center in Carlson Library.

Barbara Floyd, director of the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, opened first editions for Toni Morrison to sign prior to the lecture. The books are housed in the center in Carlson Library.

“We need new curricula, containing thinking about how the moral mind can operate in an unmoral world,” she said. “We are being duped into accepting truncated, CEO versions of the future and seduced into seeking longer life rather than ethical life.”

Morrison said we need to create and secure a future for mankind different than the dramatic doomsday scenarios depicted in Hollywood blockbusters. She called for a future where we’re not struggling to hold on to the last shred of human existence, where we’re actively working to reduce suffering, stoke imagination and tell the truth.

“Imagine,” Morrison said. “Imagine a future worthy of human life.”

Jon Richardson, chairman of the Edward Shapiro Lecture Series Committee and a part-time instructor in the Honors Program, said Morrison’s lecture would make Edward Shapiro proud.

Richardson said the lecture was the direct result of a letter-writing campaign from students at the Toledo Public School’s Stewart Academy for Girls and endeavors undertaken by the Edward Shapiro Foundation at UT.

“This is the perfect fusion of Edward Shapiro’s vision [of collaboration between the city of Toledo and UT],” Richardson said.

More than 1,000 attended the lecture in Savage Arena April 24.