Campus Scenes

To Tell the Truth

To paraphrase a famous observation, fatuous drivel has consequences.

By 4.21.06

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While preparing to interview a job candidate recently, I studied the website of the applicant's current academic employer, wondering at what sort of college he worked. Now I probably should not have been so astonished at the answer. Among the website's nuggets of inane propaganda was the proclamation, "Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common, celebrate it everyday."

A daily celebration of diversity? Is diversity a "thing"? Doesn't one assign truth values to propositions rather than to things? But we know that this assertion means that no statements are true of all people because people differ too much from one another in their opinions, values, habits, customs, and beliefs -- not to mention gender, ethnicity, and sexual preference. In fact, the differences are such that nothing applicable to all can go by the name of truth. For nothing applies to all. One might as well declare, "I have nothing in common with you; but since you also have nothing in common with me, we have something in common after all. We'll call it diversity. Ergo, let's throw a party!"

One might chuckle at the fatuous diversity drivel masquerading as wisdom, but, to paraphrase the title of Richard Weaver's famous polemic, "Fatuous drivel has Consequences." The consequences of campus diversity mantras are indeed dire, for they reveal the deep betrayal of higher education's foundational principles -- principles upon which civilizations stand or fall.

Universities were not created to encourage diversity or throw parties in its honor. Rather, they were founded upon the principle that ascertainable Truth exists. These days many conservatives seek to reform higher education by demanding that universities practice their professed diversity. These conservatives grant the diversity crowd's premise. Then they beg, in the name of fairness, for a seat at the table. They plead, "Let us traditionalists, let us strict constitutional constructionists, and let us defenders of Intelligent Design Theory have seats beside the queer theorists, the professors of deconstructed whiteness studies, and the post-Marxist feminist evolutionary biologists."

This tactic betrays the historic purpose of higher education, which is not to give every view a place at the table. The university ought to be concerned with truth, not diversity. Giving every side an equal say denies that some things are actually higher and more worthy than others. Universities exist to serve the higher things -- the pursuit, preservation, and propagation of the Truth. Alongside this goal stands the traditional aim of American colleges to foster virtue, both moral and intellectual.

Scores upon scores of colleges and universities admit this explicitly in their mottoes. If a motto expresses an ideal for which to strive, then a great many colleges aspire to uphold Truth and Virtue. Consider just a sampling of old college and university mottoes, many of which antedate the American founding: Veritas (Truth); Veritas et Virtus (Truth and Virtue); Lux et Veritas (Light and Truth); Lux Veritas Virtus (Light, Truth, Virtue); Magna est Veritas (Great is the Truth); Veritas Vox Liberabit (The Truth Will Set You Free); Virtus et Scientia (Virtue and Knowledge). Chances are if you have an American bachelor's degree, your alma mater had a similar motto.

I do not deny that universities must enable dialogue, foster debate, and encourage deliberation about all sorts of things. Such activity is fundamental. The point of such academic give-and-take, however, is not diversity of opinion for its own sake. Rather, it is movement toward a resting place called Truth.

Indeed, without a prior commitment to certain primary truths, the business of the university cannot even begin. Consider this proposition: "Our ancestors acquired wisdom from which we can profit and which we are obliged to transmit." And this: "Knowledge and wisdom are to be sought for their own sake." And: "Prudence, courage, temperance, and justice are virtues worthy of acquisition and practice." These are axioms upon which universities rest. Set them aside, treat them as quaint, but dated, opinions, and legitimate higher education crumbles.

Universities and teachers do still voice their praise for "truth," but the meaning of "truth" has evolved -- which reminds me of an experience on the lecture circuit. After speaking to a group of high school teachers at a conference on civics education, I was approached by a participant who thanked me for my remarks, only to reveal she had thoroughly misunderstood them. "I so appreciated your defense of truth," she gushed. "I strive to have my students understand how important it is. In fact, I want each one to determine his or her own truth since truth is different for everyone." Truth, then, is still praised, but it becomes a code word for effervescent notions that come and go, and differ from place to place and from person to person.

THIS IS WHY WE HEAR SO MUCH TALK of "values" on campuses -- though in reviewing university mottoes I never found a university motto upholding the terms diversitas (diversity) or pretia (values). Values are relative to those who hold them. We have family values, feminist values, queer values, classical values, atheist values, and on and on. Values are relative. But virtues are not. The founders of our universities and of our nation knew this. That is why virtus appeared so frequently in university mottoes. These are fixed moral and intellectual goods that all should seek to acquire and practice. Hence the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, part of our national organic law, opened its third article with the words, "Religion, Morality, and Knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." Colleges have a duty to encourage authentic faith and fixed moral excellence.

Take as examples the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Regardless of the differences so touted by the diversity nuts, all people aspire to these. Whoever heard of a campus group saying, "Our membership is declining a bit, but we're doing pretty well for a club united behind a commitment to foolishness, injustice, gluttony, and cowardice"? To the contrary, the interesting debates concern whether a deed is just or courageous, whether an act is temperate or prudent; but never about whether conforming to virtue is primary. Among the postulates axiomatic to collegiate education, reminded Russell Kirk, was that "for the sake of the commonwealth, schooling should quicken the moral imagination."

So every perspective does not deserve a seat at the high table of academic respectability. Some should be excluded: morally confused advocates of values relativism and those indifferent to virtue's primacy of place; hardened skeptics and swaggering cynics who zealously attack, in the name of reason or science, either religious faith or the ascertainability of transcendent truth; and champions of open-minded tolerance who neglect G.K. Chesterton's observation that "the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid." These confused folks are all free to hold and express their views, of course, but they should not be paid and tenured to preach them in the classroom.

Truth and virtue matter, for they bind men and sustain civilizations. Colleges exist to propagate truth and to fan virtue into flame. When universities replace the permanent things with such insipid counterfeits as diversity, pragmatism, and mushy values, they demolish their own foundation, abandon our cultural heritage, and scramble the minds and hearts of the coming generations. However regarded by trendy academic fashion makers, diversity shrivels and fades before the supremacy of transcendent truths, like those that a once-enlightened generation called self-evident and summoned to create this nation.

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