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The controversy over same-sex marriage, for example, is really a conflict (a “clash,” to use the term of George’s title essay) between two radically distinct perceptions of human nature. Supporters of gay marriage assume (with the culture) that human nature is constituted by emotional desires; opponents argue (against the prevailing culture) that our nature is constituted by basic goods that give us reasons to desire.
Deeper still is a distinction George draws between two clashing conceptions of the human person. Orthodox secularism rests its view of hot-button life issues (abortion, infanticide, suicide, euthanasia) on a person-body dualism which assumes that bodily life is good only instrumentally. The Judeo-Christian view is that we are embodied persons, dynamically unified actors whose bodily life is good intrinsically.
In a stunning argument, George shows the rational superiority of the Judeo-Christian view. The dualism of orthodox secularism (that is, of the prevailing culture) is self-referentially inconsistent; it contradicts its own starting point, since reflection necessarily starts from conscious awareness of oneself as a unitary actor.
The argument is independent of any claims about divine revelation, yet huge implications about human dignity flow from the rational rejection of secularist dualism. One of the unexamined assumptions common to my students, for example, is that human rights are privileges or opportunities granted by the state. George (not to mention the American founders, who believed firmly in natural law) would respond that we come into this world already equipped with natural rights which the state is duty-bound to respect and protect.
How do my students emerge from three or more years of college little more than children of their own times, with little or no sense of the culture that directs their thinking?
The answer is suggested in Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 373 pages, $24.95; click here to order), a collection of essays by classics professors Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath, and Bruce S. Thornton. All three seem to me proof of George’s contention that traditional moral judgment can be tied to publicly accessible reasons.
In George’s labeling system, Hanson, Heath, and Thornton are “old-fashioned liberals.” Although not apparently religious, they believe in natural human rights, the rule of law, limited government, private property, democratic decision making, rational debate.
In other words, they are at loggerheads with most of their colleagues in contemporary academia and with the whole sorry process of academic degradation over the past half century: “radical social protest in the late 1960s; deconstruction in the 1970s; ethnic, feminist, and Marxist cultural studies in the 1980s; postmodern sexuality in the 1990s; and rampant careerism from beginning to end.”
That last point is the keynote. Amid several essays and reviews detailing the farcical collapse of intellectual integrity in classics and the humanities, the wider backdrop is a “utilitarian assault on liberal education,” in progress since the early twentieth century. Under the utilitarian imperative (education viewed either as training to serve practical ends or as ideological indoctrination to promote social causes), academe has degenerated into a site of careerist advancement. What used to be the life of the mind has become “a juicy plum for the lupine opportunist and peripatetic prof-on-the-make.”
Yes, my Argumentation course is “ideal for students planning careers in business, law, or politics.” I can’t help wondering, though, what my students (and my job) would be like if the culture were such that the class could be billed a tad more seriously.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?