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This Memorial Day weekend, is it wrong to wonder: When will those who bankrolled higher-ed institutions that wax revolutionary ask themselves Colonel Nicholson’s fundamental question?

Maybe the best line—one fitting for contemporary culture critics—of David Lean’s 1957 masterpiece, The Bridge on the River Kwai, is the final, simple, exasperated utterance by the British POW camp doctor, Major Clipton. Assessing the chaos that he has just witnessed—a cinematic, cataclysmic denouement about undoing unimaginable forced-labor work and near-collaborative participation by leadership—the bewildered medic says, “Madness!”

“Madness”: It is not just a line from a movie. It also serves as a timely and capturing turn of phrase for 2024 America. For who today, whether out loud or in his heart or conscience, does not utter the same word when seeing the chaos playing out at America’s premier higher-ed institutions, where learning has been replaced by protest, merit supplanted by ideology, and the quad has swapped frisbees for anti-Semitism?

“Madness” may be the best line, but not the most important one, from a film that many will be viewing this Memorial Day weekend (thank you, Turner Classic Movies, for this vital remembrance you plan every year). The profound one comes moments earlier, from the shocked Colonel Nicholson, who experiences a reverse-eureka. Played by Alec Guinness (awarded an Oscar for his tremendous performance), Nicholson is the brave-yet-obtuse commander of Commonwealth POWs (plus one American, William Holden’s cagey “Shears”) put to work by their Japanese captors, in the aftermath of the shattering fall of Singapore, designing and building a critical railway bridge. Nicholson’s determination to get the structure built, and his rationalization that activity would be beneficial to the esprit de corps of the men under his command, drives the movie’s plot, until . . .

Until that moment of rare clarity, when various enmeshed realities get compressed into a central and rhetorical question—a sibling of “to be or not to be”—that all along was begging to be asked. It’s the one many people refuse to pose to themselves rather than face the confessional: “What Have I Done?

These are Nicholson’s final words, the answer implicit in the ask. Cue the explosions. Cue the madness.

To some, The Bridge on the River Kwai (based on Pierre Boulle’s 1952 novel inspired by his own years as a POW, Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï) may be just a “war” movie, even one of the best ever made. But it deserves greater consideration as a work that deeply contemplates fundamental morality, because it directly addresses that thing which frightens paupers and kings and all in between: culpability.

Ownership is a big deal, and should be. After all, one may rightly judge a situation and decry madness, but . . . . what if one had a role in the calamity? What if one helped, if you will, build the bridge? It seems a human impulse to do as Nicholson, in his near-last breath, did: realize, ask, answer, and accept.

This weekend, The Bridge on the River Kwai should be must-watching for those philanthropists who have pumped many millions and billions into the endowments of colleges—those that have not only served as platforms for very recent acts of severity and prejudice, but for decades served as hothouses where pathologies were grown and nurtured, then bloomed this spring—and ask, as does Colonel Nicholson, “What have I done?”

There seems to have been a paucity of this public reflection. True, many a philanthropist, responding to the campus chaos, has leveled declarations that protest the protesting, and vowed: No more giving. Some, serving weaker tea, offer: No more giving, until these protests stop. And true: It is the donor’s money to do with as he desires.

But what about past giving? What about the consequences of charity past, given to places where the outcomes, outlandish and deeply unsettling, were largely foreseeable? If this is news to some, please recall that William F. Buckley Jr., in 1951—some 73 years ago—did famously write his warning, God and Man at Yale. (It remains in print.)

Steeped as we are in television shows and movies about forensics, it seems quite natural for spectators of America’s widespread university madness to wonder why so many generous alumni who have publicly condemned the antisemitic, pro-genocidal, free-speech-suppressing, and student-intimidating chaos, have failed to also address, publicly, whether their past generosity has played a role in underwriting it all.

Nary an Oops! seems to have been uttered. Nor does the question—Hey, did you help pay for this insanity?—ever seem to get asked.

Should it be asked? Yes. It is a question not reserved exclusively for charity. But the nerve to put it in play seems missing.

What we have seen play out in these past few months is not the stuff of surprise. It may have been unforeseen—by the willfully blind. Schemes and plots were not secretly imported onto campuses, especially those that roll in donor dough, which afforded luxuries that had little to do with education and much to do with ideology.

America needs an engaged philanthropist to ask and answer the question, What have I done? Otherwise—madness.

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