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The Dartmouth
June 17, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Coffey: When the World is On Fire

Art history and Latin American, Latino and Caribbean studies professor Mary Coffey reaffirms the importance of Orozco’s Mural and anti-authoritarianism in higher education.

College President Sian Leah Beilock coordinated with police to preemptively suppress a nonviolent student protest on May 1, all in the name of campus safety and free speech for all. Her authorization of riot police, armored cars and violent arrests threatens to usher in a new era of authoritarian leadership on campus that upends decades of precedent. The College’s leadership, including faculty, has traditionally viewed peaceful protest as an opportunity to educate as well as to practice and model restraint, even in the presence of encampments. Restraint and education are particularly important when the world is on fire.

Education in a world aflame is a key theme of José Clemente Orozco’s mural, “The Epic of American Civilization,” painted in Dartmouth’s Baker-Berry Library from 1932 to 1934. Orozco’s mural offers poignant critiques of American history and the relationship between education and political authority across time. His mural remains a powerful open text precisely because it does not subscribe to political orthodoxies or direct the viewer to a specific conclusion about the many difficult questions it raises. Rather, it forces the viewer to actively engage in the fraught process of making meaning. Indeed, the artwork has often been defended as an expression of the College’s profound commitment to academic freedom and the importance of deliberation and open debate over the most difficult and even divisive issues we confront as a community. As Orozco famously said when asked to explain his mural to the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 1933: “In every painting … there is always an idea, never a story.” As a public artist, this was both an instruction to viewers and a guiding principle for himself.

Today, our campus is striven by fissures over the Israel-Hamas war and our President’s response to student protest. Much of the disagreement centers around the limits of free speech and the theatricality of protest, which some have deemed rude, uncivil or prone to turn violent. This is, however, not justification enough for the controversial decision to call in local and state police forces on May 1. Orozco made periodic jabs at protest culture, especially in his political graphics. But the abuse of power was his most frequent target. His biting critique is on vivid display in The Epic, especially toward the culminating scenes in the modern half of the mural where he explicitly targets authority in American education. 

In the panel titled “Anglo-America,” Orozco demonstrates the dangers of regimented education with a stern school teacher surrounded by children that my students often characterize as “zombies.” In “Gods of the Modern World/Birth of Dead Knowledge,” he depicts a macabre graduation scene with professors presiding over a skeletal carcass that births fetal skeletons who are quickly encased in glass display jars. This scene takes place on a pyre of gray tomes while the world burns around them. Here, Orozco castigates the complacency of the professoriate by depicting them as stentorian gatekeepers dressed up in academic regalia with their backs to the fire. Of the many critical messages one might discern in these panels, the ones I highlight are the dangers of unchecked authority, especially in academic settings, and the impotence of elite education if it cordons students off from the most burning issues of the day.

The burning issues of Orozco’s time and mural are remarkably similar to those today. In the panels following those on authoritarian education, Orozco presciently points to the global rise of fascism, the destructive power of empires and state-based nationalism and human sacrifices to the modern war machine. Today, fascism is once again on the rise at home and abroad. Ethno-nationalism continues to invoke the oppression of subordinate populations as a necessity, whether they be undocumented migrants, racial or religious minorities or Indigenous populations within settler colonial states. In his 1932 mural, Orozco brought to the fore the threats that xenophobia, colonialism and technology posed to humanity. In 2024, students on our campus and across the world are demanding we confront the murder and starvation of Palestinian civilians in the Israel-Hamas war and the “Palestinian exception” to free speech at home. 

While Orozco’s mural offers caution and critique, it also provides alternatives to a hierarchical and authoritarian model of education in the panel titled “Modern Industrial Man.” Here, a worker pauses his labor to read a book. In him, we are offered a vision of reflective and self-directed adult learning, which I argue is the goal of any education: to produce critical thinkers who use their educations to find creative solutions to the world’s problems — not to perpetuate the power or authority of elite institutions. Orozco placed this figure in the niche directly across from the reserve desk knowing that students checking out books for class would turn around to confront him. This momentary encounter might prompt reflection on their own privileges and the ends to which they might put their learning. Would they seek to build a new, more inclusive and more just world? Or would they turn their backs on the burning questions the mural poses about history, education and political violence?

It is significant that Orozco renders this man as a member of the working class and a person of color. When he was painting at Dartmouth, Orozco was addressing an all-male student population that was overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and wealthy. In fact, his model was a White Dartmouth man. I argue that we can interpret the reading worker as a speculative gesture toward a more just future, one in which students of color from less-privileged communities might have access to Dartmouth’s vast academic resources. Our work to realize this future is undermined when students, including many students of color, are met with force and violence instead of scholarly curiosity and transparent deliberation.  

Dartmouth students have a proud history of heeding Orozco’s call for independent thinking and resistance against the authoritarian impulses of elite educational institutions when the world is on fire. I know this not only because of the archival record of civil disobedience on this campus, but also because alumni from all over the world reach out to me regularly to relay the impact of Orozco’s mural on their political and professional lives. It is one of the many reasons I am proud to have dedicated most of my career to this place, and why I remain committed to the cause of higher education within such privileged environs. 

Beilock, if you genuinely value dialogue, check your lawyers and security detail at the library door, and join faculty and students in the Orozco Room — a Brave Space to be sure — for a discussion about the relationship between education and anti-authoritarianism in The Epic of American Civilization.

Mary Coffey is an art history and Latin American, Latino and Caribbean studies professor at Dartmouth College. Guest columns represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.