Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Plato In The Dumpster

Jul 21, 2016

After my daughter’s recent graduation from an elite, liberal American university, I helped her to move out of her campus apartment.  Picking up some black bags of garbage, I asked her where I could leave them.  “You’ll see two pretty full dumpsters near the parking lot.  Just put them there wherever you find room,” she called to me from her kitchen.   Sweating in the late morning sun, I lugged the garbage bags out towards the two gigantic dumpsters.  Flowing over their tops, front, and sides were hundreds of plastic bags and cardboard boxes filled with junk, as well as some expensive looking items rather cavalierly tossed out by one of America’s most socially conscious student bodies:  lamps, computers, furniture, clothing, kitchen items, and books.  On the morning after they celebrated their graduations and pledged to make progressive change in the world, armed with their new degrees, these future leaders of society were throwing out what appeared to be used but perfectly good items, presumably to purchase newer, better ones.  As students, parents, and SUV’s tossed and packed, the mostly non-White maintenance workers, employees of the university, picked their way gingerly and quietly through the mountains of leftovers, retrieving for free other people’s refuse that they would likely never be able to purchase for themselves. 

What scandalized me the most were the books that students had used in their courses and were now unloading into the dumpsters.  When I was a child, my parents made clear to me that, as the proverbial people of the Book, we Jews believe that books are precious repositories of knowledge and ideas, which we are forbidden from discarding.  I spotted an edition of Plato’s The Republic lying forlornly on top of one garbage pile.  I quickly texted my wife to tell her about poor Plato having been consigned to the trash.  I asked her, “What do you think some budding twenty-two-year-old captain of industry and the intellectual elite was trying to say by doing that?  Probably something like, ‘The hell with Plato!  He was just a dead, white male from the oppressor class anyway.’”  She drolly responded, “More likely, this person was trying to say, ‘I’m never reading this boring nonsense again!’” 

Whether it was done out of ideological indignation or idiotic indifference, throwing out Plato is a tiny echo of our society’s propensity to ignore, then to forget, the past -its ideas, values, and achievements, as well as its atrocities.  Lying in the sleep-induced coma of historical and cultural amnesia so typical of American life, we put ourselves at risk of repeating those parts of the past which constantly threaten to become the present again.  A student who forgets the great ideas and books that form the bedrock of our civilization and its dialogues risks becoming one more adult who forgets how to think about and fight for the values that make us free.  A generation that forgets the past, both its grandeur and its grotesquerie, will simmer in a slow cooker of apathy and ignorance, its mind turning gradually into intellectual soup.  A society that forgets how to think will become the slave of every demagogue, stupid bigotry, and irrational fear mongered as the next solution for making America or the world great again.  We Americans are touching this kind of forgetfulness right now in our dangerously perverted political climate.  At this moment in our history, we should be plagued with moral insomnia.  Instead, we appear to be asleep at the wheel.

Allowing the great thinker to rot, forgotten in a dumpster, felt to me like I would be betraying every value and idea that we claim as a culture to cherish.  Saddened that a university graduate would toss out a great book in so thoughtless a fashion, but hopeful that the wisdom of the past can still wake us up as a civilization, I dusted the book off and took it home with me.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, New York.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.