Tag Archives: Patrick Deneen

Libertarianism Is Not the Answer

I have to agree with Patrick Deneen and disagree with George Leef about the worrisome nature of rising libertarianism among students today. It is a troublesome development in my view. For Deneen, this trend essentially means a kind of “laissez faire” selfishness among students that emphasizes personal autonomy and material success and doesn’t allow for a proper sense of civic engagement and concern for others. Leef counters that if there is a libertarian trend, it is because students are recognizing the pernicious effects of government intervention in private life. He also insists that libertarians are indeed concerned with others, but on a personal basis, not through government welfare programs.

Continue reading Libertarianism Is Not the Answer

Libertarianism Among Students is the Least of our Worries

Professor Patrick Deneen’s Feb. 17 essay “Campus Libertarianism up, Civic Commitment Down” cries out for a response. He finds the apparent increase in libertarian thinking among college students disquieting, but I think that if this trend is real, it’s a reason for optimism. It indicates that young Americans are breaking free of the adulation of government that is so much a part of the conventional wisdom in this country.

Continue reading Libertarianism Among Students is the Least of our Worries

Campus Libertarianism up, Civic Commitment Down

One of the most mentioned findings in the annual UCLA survey of college freshmen is a decided trend toward more “liberal” political attitudes. The survey shows increased support for same-sex marriage (supported by 71.3% of students, representing a 6.4% increase since 2009); for a pro-choice position on abortion; for the legalization of marijuana; and a corresponding decrease in opposition to provision of public services to undocumented immigrants. One finding that seems at odds with the overall trend is support for national health care, which dropped nearly a point since 2010, and fourteen points since 2007.

As Mark Bauerlein rightly pointed out, the trends point not in a “liberal” direction, but rather one that is “libertarian,” with a strong stress upon being “individualists.” If there is one overwhelming conclusion that one can draw from this survey, today’s students are individualistic. As an article about the survey expressed, their dominant perspective is to “Live and Let Live (and Study).”

The study is striking for what it does not ask: while it asks about hot-button social issues ranging from same-sex marriage to abortion, it does not ask students very much about their views on the economy–something one would think in our current climate would be interesting to know (the survey claims that its findings should inform how issues should be framed in the upcoming Presidential election. If that is the case, why the avoidance of economic questions?).

My own more modest campus “survey” suggests that students are trending libertarian (what many would call “conservative”) in the economic sphere as well. In one class I teach at Georgetown, I assign students a short paper asking them to provide a “political autobiography.” I have been struck over the past several years at the increasing number of students who self-describe as “socially liberal and economically conservative.” Their political lexicon is fairly impoverished (doubtless with thanks to our political media), but what they in fact disclose is a growing embrace of a consistent ethic of libertarianism. If we take their fading support of national health care as a proxy for their view about government interference in the economy, then we can indeed conclude that today’s students demonstrate an overall disposition toward “live and let live,” in both the social and economic realms.

Toleration, Diversity and Me

This conclusion, I would submit, ought to be a source of deep concern for those who care about the future of the American polity.

The overarching emphasis in the highest echelons of society–among our “elites,” and especially those working at our public schools and universities, as well as in the media–has been upon the need for “toleration” and “diversity.” The underlying belief informing this widespread view is that a high level of toleration toward others will result in a decrease in social conflict, the cessation of the mistreatment of minorities and outsiders, and a more peaceful and hence prosperous society. This message has clearly been internalized by today’s students: among the worst possible sins one can commit is to be a “Hater”–or, in their parlance, to “H8.” To render judgments or critical views toward lifestyle decisions is to engage in an unacceptable form of prejudice; people should be allowed to behave in whatever way they wish, so long as no one is physically harmed (though, it should be noted, self-destructive behaviors such as smoking are now severely frowned upon–only 2% of the surveyed population today acknowledges being a smoker). In what possible way could one be disquieted by this seemingly praiseworthy disposition of toleration and acceptance of diversity?

What the data also demonstrates is a keen and intense emphasis on the self. Today’s students simultaneously urge toleration toward others, but also expect to be left alone. Their overarching emphasis upon individual achievement–particularly in the area of career advancement–suggests that the message of “toleration” and “diversity” seamlessly co-exists with a self-centered focus on material success and personal lifestyle autonomy. At risk is a cultivated belief in civic membership, a sense of shared fate and even forms of self-sacrifice.

One telling aspect of the survey has, to my knowledge, received no attention: while 72.3% state that the “chief benefit of college is to increase one’s earning power,” only 2% of current college graduates are enrolled in an ROTC or other military program. While likely career choices are fragmented among many possible choices (with the largest numbers of responses clustering around the choices of engineer, physician and business, together totaling 28%), only 1.5% responded that they foresaw a military career; 0.9% intended to enter government or public policy; and .1% stated an intention to become a member of the clergy. As many respondents indicated a likely future of unemployment (1.5%) as those willing to serve in the military!

Increasing Earning Power

Contemporary liberals who significantly shape the views of today’s young (especially through the media – 50% of respondents indicated watching television more than 3 hours a day) believe that they are ushering in a future of toleration and “laissez-faire.” However, this attitude in fact buttresses the other overwhelming finding of the survey: that students today are “in it” for themselves. Their view of college is already determined before they enroll: the purpose of college is to increase their earning power. They are not in college to be liberally educated or to understand the “meaning of life.” They are not there to prepare for a life of responsible citizenship, parenthood and neighborliness. They are “capitalist tools,” people whose lives are dominated by professional ambition and bottom-line accounting.

Several disquieting questions should come to mind: what kinds of citizens will these people grow up to be? What kinds of parents and what kinds of neighbors? They will likely be willing to leave other people alone–but will they care about others? Will they love? Will they serve? Will they sacrifice? According Charles Murray in his recent book Coming Apart, it is the upper classes (which will be composed of the students in this survey) that have largely abandoned any idea of trusteeship and moral and civic responsibility toward those who have not won the meritocratic sweepstakes. The survey suggests that this divide will only deepen in coming years.

I fear that we are not ushering in a utopia of toleration and sensitivity, but one of indifference and self-absorption. Today’s young people have deeply absorbed the lessons that have been taught them by their elders. Do we truly think a civilization can persist when it teaches its young that the most important thing in life is indifference toward others and that the means to happiness is earning the most money?

The BA is a False God

That I disagree with nothing important in Patrick Deneen’s post is a measure of how different this elephant seems, depending on what part you’ve got hold of.

Very briefly: I want everybody, not just an elite, to acquire as much liberal education as possible, for the reasons that Deneen describes. But we don’t have to wait until college to get a great deal of that done. E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum is a wonderful example of how much can be done in K-8, and a lot more can be added in high school. At that point, I think this way of formulating our objective is helpful: “The educational system has succeeded when a child reaches adulthood having discovered something he loves to do, and having learned how to do it well.” If that’s the objective, then of course we want to say to the young person who has high academic ability “Here’s why pursuing a liberal education gives you your best chance of finding your vocation.” But if the answer we get is “Thanks but no thanks, what I really want to do is study marketing and go to work,” that student needs options other than a four-year residential program that will leave him deep in debt and have wasted a lot of his time. What Richard Vedder’s stunning statistics about the jobs of college graduates tell us is an indictment of a system that has held up a false god, the BA, as something that is required for social respectability. It is a system that doesn’t even think about helping all young people find something they love to do and teaching them how to do it well.

Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer

For several decades, conservative critics of higher education have argued against trends toward the elimination of “core” curricula and with equal ferocity against their replacement by “distribution requirements” or even open curricula. They have, in particular, defended a curriculum in “Great Books,” those widely-recognized texts in the Western tradition authored by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Mill, and Nietzsche, among others. This curriculum – preserved still in some of the nation’s leading universities such as the University of Chicago and Columbia University – as well as at the heart of the longstanding Great Books approach of St. John’s College – is seen as a bulwark against contemporary tendencies toward relativism, post-modernism, and political correctness.
More recently, even some faculty who would eschew the “conservative” label have sought to restore sustained study of the Great Books to some place of pride in the curriculum. Some twenty years after the height of the “culture wars” over the Western canon – during which the phrase “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go” was chanted on the Stanford campus – there seems to be a growing sense among some moderate faculty that the curriculum has become too fragmented, and that something valuable was lost in the politically-motivated elimination of a common core. Notably, at Harvard an ad hoc effort by some faculty to establish a Great Books track in the “Gen Ed” requirement was advanced before crashing on the shoals of Harvard’s new fiscal reality (as well as the opposition of some faculty).
This reassessment has been most articulately argued by Anthony Kronman – a moderate liberal – in his recent book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Kronman, a professor and former Dean at the Yale Law School, laments the abandonment of a serious engagement with the Great Books. Their neglect has led to the decline of an examination of “the meaning of life,” an activity that he argues should be at the heart of the university experience. He praises a period in the history of American universities which was dominated by what he calls a worldview of “secular humanism.” This period of “secular humanism” followed the widespread disaffiliation of traditionally religious institutions and preceded the rise of the modern research university and the concomitant rise of political correctness in the humanities. He urges modern institutions of higher education to adopt something like the Yale program in “Directed Studies” – in which he teaches – which requires students to engage in a concentrated study of the Great books ranging from Homer to Luther, from Machiavelli to Kant, from Plato to Nietzsche – over a two year span.

Continue reading Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer

Patrick Deneen On Georgetown’s Fuzzy American History

Patrick Deneen, professor of government at Georgetown and founder of Georgetown’s Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy, spoke September 23rd at a luncheon in New York sponsored by the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University. The following is an excerpt. The full text will appear in the winter issue of The New Atlantis.

“Today many university students are taught little to nothing about the Constitution, much less its philosophical and even theological underpinnings. If anything, they are either taught to see its constraints as obstacles to be overcome, or simply to understand it as a “living” document that reflects the sentiments of the day. At Georgetown, where I teach, there is one course in American history – actually called “History of the Atlantic” – that can be taken to fulfill one of the core course requirements in History. This course focuses primarily on issues of race, gender, and colonialism, briefly touching on the Atlantic Revolutions, and at no time on the American Founding. However a disproportionately large amount of time is spent exploring American exploitation. Implicitly our students are taught that the official claims of the Founders were so much deceptive rhetoric, that they employed rationalizations to cover their fundamental will to power. By implication, will to power is the sole identifiable motivation of human beings, and to accept the notion that we are to be governed by a law above ourselves is simply to be a dupe or a patsy. They are not told that the Constitution lays out not only the basic structures of government, but does so in a manner that acknowledges our perpetual need for the lessons of self-restraint through the rule of law.”

When Campuses Became Dysfunctional

In recent years the stakes for entrance to the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities have risen to absurd heights, with students (or, their families) not only now paying significant sums for private school tuitions (or the entry cost into good school districts, namely expensive housing), SAT training, and coaching for application writing, but increasingly specialized services such as student “branding” – in which students (or, their families) hire “branding” professionals to develop a marketing strategy for “selling” a student to the top universities – and even such morally damnable practices as anonymously informing schools about the reprehensible qualities of competitors who apply to the same university. Clearly things have gotten out of control, but there are very few people – whether inside or outside the university system – who are willing or even desire to rock the boat by pointing out the absurdity of the current state of affairs.
The reason for this conspiracy of silence is that the current system benefits those who are best positioned to take advantage of the root causes for these absurdities: namely, families with the background, wherewithal and education to know how to “game” the system, and the elite colleges and universities whose denizens benefit in all sorts of financial and professional ways from their placement at these exceedingly small number of desirable schools. A confluence of interest bonds these financial and cultural elites in their ambition to maintain the current arrangement, namely a desperation on the parts of the families to put their children in a position to succeed, and the desperation on the parts of these elite institutions to be the exclusive grantors of the imprimatur for such success. In our profoundly competitive world order, in which increasingly few people can hope to emerge as the “winners” in a system that ruthlessly winnows out those who will not join the small club of the international elite – financial, political and cultural – all stops must be removed, all measures pursued, all efforts expended.
In compensation for their success, students are privileged to join an elite group of similarly-situated peers who harbor the same ambitions of worldly success and achievement. They are simultaneously thrown together as colleagues and competitors, a condition that will continue to define their relationships throughout their college years and beyond. The elite institutions are populated by star professors and a steady stream of noteworthy dignitaries, intellectuals, artists, public intellectuals, and so on: exposure to this class – as well as to the future incarnation of these winners in the form of their classmates – constitutes a considerable share of the education that takes place on today’s campuses, namely a socialization in success, the learned capacity to emulate their predecessors who have successfully navigated the shoals of hyper-competitive globalization and emerged as its leaders and beneficiaries.

Continue reading When Campuses Became Dysfunctional

Academic Gibberish And The Hermeneutics Of Mistrust

Overwhelming evidence attests to the liberal tilt on our college campuses. Studies show that the faculty at most mainstream institutions are overwhelmingly registered with the Democratic party and give a disproportionate share of their political donations to left-leaning candidates. A recent study of donations by faculty at Princeton University during the current Presidential election season shows that every faculty donation went to a Democratic candidate. Were such unanimity to manifest itself for conservative candidates at an academic institution, one can be certain that our leading academics would decry the lack of diversity.

Anecdotal evidence everywhere further attests not only to the liberalism of most “mainstream” faculty, but the disproportionate share of radical professors in our humanities and social sciences. Innumerable stories have been circulated of aggressive efforts to “destabilize” gender, to question “normativity,” to challenge backward institutions such as marriage and family, to encourage students to break out of pre-conceived social notions they may have inherited from parents and community. A recent article in my campus’s newspaper, The Hoya, reflects this sort of radicalism. In the column, philosophy professor Mark Lance introduces himself thusly:

I’m an anarchist, a rationalist, a feminist, a man, a pragmatist, an evangelical agnostic, a friend, a philosopher, a parent, a teacher, a committed partner of one other person and a nonviolent revolutionary. These labels are all, to different degrees, important to me; they define my sense of self. You could call them my identities, but all are “works in progress,” which is to say that the label stays roughly the same, but my sense of what it means changes and grows. (For example, I still have no idea what I mean by identifying as a man, though over the years I’ve figured out many things I don’t mean. Some days, I wish that one would drop off the list.)

Aside from its unbearable self-indulgence, it’s a predictable indication that Lance would seek to reject the one form of his “identity” that is actually given by nature. This is the one unbearable aspect of identity, because it is not chosen or willed.

Conservatives are often satisfied to register their righteous anger and indignation at this state of affairs, and have tactically adopted the language of victimhood and demands for diversity as a way of combating this left-wing hegemony. This may be politically effective and may in fact help raise awareness of the current campus culture to potential supporters outside the academy. However, these arguments are only tactical at best, and fundamentally obscure deeper investigation into why this state of affairs has come to pass and what would be required to begin a more fundamental reform of higher education.

Continue reading Academic Gibberish And The Hermeneutics Of Mistrust