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Fateful Reasons

Not every college kid has to go clueless, thanks to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the light it shines on a culture that drives out thinking.

8.6.02

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Last week I turned in the final grades for a course I teach once a year to college juniors and seniors. As in all other summer courses, the students are mainly of two types: the scatterbrained and the compulsive -- i.e., those who have fouled up their schedules in some way that forces them to make up lost credit hours, and those who want to get ahead to graduate early.

The pace of the course is tight, squeezing the usual eleven weeks of material into five weeks of lengthy class meetings and chunky readings. Worse, each student must turn in six 1,000-word essays at a frantic rate slightly in excess of once per week. Much worse, I have to read the essays.

The course -- which fulfills a university core writing requirement for upperdivision students and therefore draws a broad stream of takers from many different major fields -- is titled Argumentation. The summer catalogue bills it as "ideal for students planning careers in business, law, or politics." It might better be advertised as ideal for teachers who want to know what's really going on in their students' heads.

Here are some representative topics in my students' attempts at argument this summer:

• Corporate corruption: it's something Republicans do, which Democrats must take a stronger stand against.

• Vouchers: they are bad, threatening the integrity of the public school system.

• Euthanasia: it's good, often the only compassionate choice for the terminally ill, whose choices need legal support in the manner of Oregon.

• Evolution: it's a proven scientific fact under fire from religious fanatics.

• Embryonic stem-cell research: it's a hopeful scientific breakthrough under fire from religious fanatics.

And while I'm still in the mood during my first week of summer break, here's a quiz. What position do you think was taken on the following issues -- and (bonus question) which ones included a denunciation of religious fanatics?

Gay marriage. Gay adoption. U.S. hostility against Iraq. Partial-birth abortion. Regulation of pornography. Homeland security. Affirmative action and diversity . . .

The burden of reading all this, week after week, was lightened by a series of personal conferences, in which I discovered yet again that most of my students are a lot more likable than their thoughts -- not least because, in most cases, the thoughts aren't really theirs.

Gingerly, in conversation with each student, I asked about some of their balder assertions. Without exception, none of them had any notion of any serious counterpoint to their predictable positions on predictably framed issues. The student who argued for the exclusive place of evolutionary theory in the science curriculum, for instance, had no idea that the theory is under serious dispute by reputable scientists and philosophers, nor had it ever occurred to her that the primacy she assigned to "science" over "faith" was itself a matter of faith on her part.

Chesterton remarks somewhere that we are bound in this life to be influenced either by thoughts we have thought through or by thoughts we have not thought through; the latter (thought not thought about) is what we call a culture. In The Clash of Orthodoxies (ISI Books, 387 pages, $24.95; click here to order), Robert P. George exposes the culture inhabited by my students -- and by all of us, apparently, whenever we stop thinking.

George is a professor of law at Princeton who has thought with uncommon depth about his own and others' thinking. The essays that make up this collection range over several public policy issues connected by George's analysis of fundamental premises.

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.

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