Academics are telling students that our traditions are oppressive. In fact, it’s the academics we should be worried about.
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Can it really be true? What could there be in us, or about us, that could actually make it possible for human beings to be masters of their desires, feelings, emotions, and passions, and not mere slaves to them? Only this mys- terious thing that Plato’s Socrates was so concerned about, and about which so many great thinkers and writers of the Western intellectual tradition from Plato forward have sought to understand and teach us: the soul. Soulless “selves” could have desires and even a certain form of purely instrumental rationality directed towards achieving their efficient satisfaction, but soulless “selves” could never be masters of their desires. Only by virtue of our rational souls can we exercise the more than instrumental forms of rationality that free us from the chains of appetite.
Now if you believe that reason is not the slave of the passions but is capable of master- ing them, then you must acknowledge the existence of human virtues—the dispositions that enable rea- son to prevail over impulse whenever the two conflict. You must believe that there are qualities that make for an honorable, worthy, upright life, habits and traits of character that we should cultivate in ourselves so as not to be governed by our impulses, but self-directed towards the good.
A few years ago, the wonderful documentary filmmaker Michael Pack and the no less wonderful historian-biographer Richard Brookhiser visited us at Princeton to offer an advance viewing of their film biography, Rediscovering George Washington. Some of the students were perplexed when Brookhiser explained to them that Washington came to be who he was by imagining an ideal, truly noble individual. As a young man, the future statesman formed a pic- ture of the kind of person he would like to be, and then tried to become that person by acting the way that person would act. He “stepped into the role” he had designed for himself. He sought to make himself virtuous by ridding himself of wayward desires or passions that would have no place in the character and life of the noble individual he sought to emulate, and, by emulating, to become.
Now, for someone who understands and believes in the classical liberal arts idea and its ideal of self- mastery, there is nothing in the least inauthentic about Washington’s imagining what a virtuous per- son would be like, and then trying to become such a person by living out the virtues he would embody. On the contrary, this is an act of the most profound authenticity. Washington sought to be master of himself, rather than a slave to his desires. But to some of the students, Washington’s conduct seemed radically inauthentic. He was play-acting, they protested; he wasn’t really being himself. He was trying to live a life that wasn’t his own, because he wasn’t affirming and following his desires; rather, he was trying to reshape his desires in line with standards drawn, as one of them put it, from “outside himself.”
Not all the students saw things this way, but we can explain why some of them did. They had absorbed the revisionist notion of what a person is. Influenced by the prevailing orthodoxies, they had come to see the person as a soulless self, governed by desires, whose liberation consists in freeing those desires from constraints, be they formal or informal, exter- nal or internal. They had not so much as considered the alternative view of man that is at the core of the classical conception of the liberal arts, namely, the view of man as a rational creature capable of self- transcendence and self-mastery. Why had they not considered it? Because it had never been presented to them as an option worth considering.
THE TRUE FOUNDER of the liberal arts ideal was Socrates as presented by his student Plato. And Socrates’ method of teaching was to question. He is the great exemplar of what the late Allan Bloom labeled “the interrogatory attitude.” The liberal arts ideal assumes, to be sure, that there are right answers to great moral and existential questions. It is the enemy, not the friend, of moral relativism. But liberal arts teaching is not funda- mentally about telling students what the right answers are—even when we are justifiably confident that we have the right answers. Nor is liberal arts learning merely a matter of receiving and processing information, even if it’s great information, such as historical facts about the Western tradition or the American founding. Nor is it merely a matter of reading Aristotle, or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, or Tocqueville and knowing what these great writers said. Liberal arts education is about engaging with these things, wrestling with them and with the ques- tions they suggest. It is about considering arguments and counterarguments, and examining competing points of view.
And the range of competing alternatives stu- dents should be invited to consider, while not limit- less, needs to be wide. Liberal arts education is not a catechism class. Students should not simply be pre- sented with officially approved views—even if they are the right views. I want my own students to con- sider seriously a range of possibilities, including some—Marxism for example—that I think are not only unsound, but reprehensible, and whose record in human affairs is a record of death and abomina- tion. I certainly want them to hear the profound arguments advanced against Marxism by people like Hayek, Solzhenitsyn, and John Paul II. But I also want them to understand how it was that Marxism could have attracted the allegiance of many intelli- gent and morally serious (if seriously misguided) people. I want them to know the arguments Marx and his most intelligent disciples made. In fact, I want them to consider these arguments fairly on their merits. The task of the liberal arts teacher, as I envisage it, is not to tell students what to think; it is to teach them to think, as my young friend said, carefully, critically, and for themselves.
Now why? Is it because I think there is some- thing intrinsically valuable about the interrogatory attitude? Allan Bloom might have thought so. The possibility that he did is what opened him to the charge of relativism and even nihilism advanced by some culturally conservative critics of Bloom’s influ- ential book The Closing of the American Mind. Walker Percy, for example, faulted Bloom for allegedly holding the view that the point of an open mind is merely to have an open mind, rather than to arrive at answers that are to be affirmed and acted on.
Whether or not the charge is just, the charge, if true, would be damning. The idea of a mind that never closes on a truth is antithetical to the liberal arts ideal. The point of the interrogatory attitude, rather, is precisely to move from ignorance to truths—truths that can be affirmed and acted on. As G.K. Chesterton once said, the point of an open mind is like the point of an open mouth: to close on something solid.
WE BEGIN TO understand the much misun- derstood and abused concept of academic freedom when we consider the central importance of the interrogative attitude to the enter- prise of liberal arts learning. The interrogative atti- tude will flourish only under conditions of freedom. It can be smothered by speech codes and the like, to be sure, but it can be smothered in less obvious ways. It can be smothered when well-qualified scholars, teachers, and academic administrators are denied positions in institutions that claim to be nonpartisan and nonsectarian, or when they are denied tenure or promotion or are subjected to discriminatory treat- ment for dissenting from campus orthodoxies. It can be smothered by an atmosphere of political correct- ness, which may, of course, be conservative but in most places today is a phenomenon of the left. It can fail to emerge wherever teaching and learning are governed by orthodoxies that refuse to subject them- selves to questioning.
Crystal Dixon was the associate vice president of human resources at the University of Toledo. She is an African American woman and a faithful Christian. In April, she wrote a letter to the editor of her local newspaper, rejecting the claim that “sexual orientation,” as it has ambiguously come to be called, is like race and should be included alongside race, ethnicity, sex, and the like as a category in anti- discrimination and civil rights laws. When her letter was published, the president of the University of Toledo, a man named Lloyd Jacobs, suspended her from her job and threatened further punishment if she did not recant and apologize for publishing a view that he evidently regards as heretical.
What is remarkable about this case is how unre- markable it is. Scarcely a week passes without some offense being committed by a university or its administrators or faculty against intellectual or aca- demic freedom. Given the strong leftward tilt and the manifest ideological imbalance at most of our nation’s colleges and universities, it is almost always the case that the victim of the attack is a student, professor, or member of the administrative staff who has dared to write or say something (whether in a classroom, a publication, or a casual conversation) that disputes a left-wing dogma, such as the belief that there is nothing morally wrong or even ques- tionable about homosexual conduct and that “sexual orientation” is akin to race.
Whatever his other troubles and vulnerabilities at the time, it is worth remembering that what trig- gered the fall of Larry Summers as president of Harvard was his merely raising an intellectual ques- tion about whether disparities between men and women in scientific achievement might have some- thing to do with nature as well as nurture. Previous successes at enforcing political correctness made it possible to bring down even someone as powerful as a president of Harvard for asking a politically incor- rect question. Summers’s fall, in turn, strengthened the hand of those who wish to rule out of bounds the questioning of campus orthodoxies. And it sent a chill wind through the academy. After all, if the president of Harvard can be brought down for a thought crime, what public dissenter from the pre- vailing dogmas can be safe?
YET, ALL IS NOT darkness. A few months ago the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia voted against granting tenure to an outstanding young scholar of family sociology named Bradford Wilcox. Despite his extraordinary record of intellectual achievement and distinguished teaching, Professor Wilcox was punished for his conservative religious and moral opinions—opinions that his politically correct opponents were foolish enough to mention freely in discussions prior to the vote on his application for tenure. Although Wilcox’s tenure denial was initially upheld by university administrators, the university’s president, John T. Casteen, reviewed the case and reversed the decision. Wilcox has been granted tenure. By rectifying a gross and manifest injustice, President Casteen struck an important blow for academic freedom, and with it, a blow for the interrogative attitude and the liberal arts ideal—one that will send a message not only to his own faculty at the University of Virginia, but also to students and faculty at institutions around the country.
It is the Larry Summers episode at Harvard in reverse: it will give courage to those who dissent from prevailing opinions and help them to stand up and say what they actually think, and it will serve as a warning to those who would attempt to punish them. The warning is that those who abuse the power of their offices by trying to punish dissenters will lose out—and their loss will expose them as ene- mies of free intellectual inquiry, in other words, people who themselves have no place in a university. As we consider the disgraceful behavior of one university president in Crystal Dixon’s case, and the encouraging conduct of another in the case of Bradford Wilcox, perhaps it is worth pausing to ask why we care—or should care—so much about intellectual freedom in the academy. Why ought we to be concerned about the rights of an administrator who is suspended for stating her moral views or the free- dom of an assistant professor who is denied tenure because he would not toe the party line? Why should we care as much as we do about students who are punished with a bad grade for having the temerity to state views that are out of line with those of the course instructor? What is it about intellectual free- dom that makes it worth worrying about—and worth fighting for?