Tag Archives: relativism

Eight Ideas Forbidden on Campus

Heather MacDonald, writing in The Wall St. Journal, says there is a new list of forbidden ideas that can’t be mentioned on the modern college campus. Scott Johnson at Power Line cites the same list but says that even thinking the guilty thoughts puts you at risk of saying them out loud, and they must not be said.

These dangerous thoughts by two law professors, Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Larry Alexander of San Diego University Law School, were published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in an August op-ed, “Paying the Price for the Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture.”

Please remove small children and all heart patients from the room so we can print the unmentionables list. Ready? Brace yourselves—here it comes:

  • Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake.
  • Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness.
  • Go the extra mile for your employer or client.
  • Be a patriot, ready to serve the country.
  • Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable.
  • Avoid coarse language in public.
  • Be respectful of authority.
  • Eschew substance abuse and crime.

Alert readers will note that this is essentially a list of ordinary middle-class behaviors in the generation or so that preceded the cultural revolution of the 60’s, a point that many surveys and studies have made since.

Scott Johnson points out that Charles Murray, who cannot be heard on many campuses without massive police protection, made much the same point in his book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray urged what he calls “the new upper class” to drop its condescending non-judgmentalism: “Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”

But it is not what the campus left wants to hear. Half of the University of Pennsylvania Law faculty denounced the Wax-Alexander column without bothering to make any arguments against it.

“University of San Diego Law President Stephen] Ferruolo’s schoolwide letter was one of the worst examples,” writes Mac Donald. “The dean simply announced that Mr. Alexander’s “views” were not “representative of the views of our law school community” and suggested that they were insensitive to “many students” who feel “vulnerable, marginalized or fearful that they are not welcomed.” He did not raise any specific objections to Mr. Alexander’s arguments, or even reveal what the arguments were.” USD Law faculty member Thomas A. Smith, who blogs under the title “The Right Coast” suggested that the dean should resign as a result of his content-free reaction to the column.

In The Federalist, George W. Dent, Jr, noted that several academics at the University of Pennsylvania chose not to debate Wax and Alexander but to ignore what they said and, instead, to vilify them for things they did not say. The critiques are stunning in their dishonesty.

“Penn Law Dean Ted Ruger responded in a column that tied the Wax-Alexander item to the events in Charlottesville. This was ethically troubling since it associates a Nazi rally with a totally unrelated social analysis. Much worse, however, he said, “I reject emphatically any claim that a single cultural tradition is better than all others.”

“Wax and Alexander made no such claim. What they said is, ‘All cultures are not equal.’ That statement seems not only defensible but axiomatic; would anyone claim that China during the Cultural Revolution is morally equal to China today? If all cultures are equal, then nothing we do can make our culture either better or worse. Is that what Dean Ruger believes?”

How Non-Judgmentalism Undermines Education

Non-judgmentalism has emerged as one of the core values of higher education. Today’s college students have been educated to perceive their sense of personal security with being affirmed and not judged. Many advocates of safe spaces claim that not being judged is one of the main virtues of their institution.

One website advertising “20 Great Value Colleges with Safe Spaces” gives pride of place to Colorado Mesa University’s Safe Space Program. It “emphasizes the importance of creating non-judgmental and non-biased space for students to have an open platform about any prejudicial concerns they may be experiencing.” In other words, one of the major things they want to feel safe from is judgment.

The fact that not being judged is now perceived as a positive virtue that enhances the learning experience of students is a problem for anyone who takes seriously the ethos of a liberal university education. The discrediting and loss of human judgment, which has been historically linked to the making of moral and political choices and intellectual development is now estranging the university from humanist values and critical reflection.

The Fear of True Tolerance

Although non-judgmentalism is represented as an enlightened and liberal attitude towards the world, it is nothing of the sort. The unreflected judgments arrived at through stereotyping are merely manifestations of conformism and prejudice. But the valuation of non-judgmentalism possesses no inherent positive ethical qualities. The reluctance to judge may be a symptom of disinterest or even moral cowardice. Nowadays it is often brought about by a reluctance to offend or to confront difficult and embarrassing questions. Consequently, once a student signals that she is “uncomfortable” with a particular line of discussion, a sensitive teacher is expected to change the subject.

Campus advocates of non-judgmentalism have developed an entire vocabulary of euphemisms to avoid being unambiguous, clear and blunt in its statements. Terms like “inappropriate,” problematic,” “unwelcome” or “uncomfortable” self-consciously avoid making a moral judgment.

From a liberal humanist perspective, judgment is not simply an acceptable response to other people’s beliefs and behavior: it is a public duty. It is the act of judgment that a dialogue is established between an individual and others. Drawing on Kant’s Critique of Judgment, the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes, in Between Past and Future, of an “enlarged way of thinking, which as judgment knows how to transcend its own individual limitations.” According to current conventional prejudice, the act of judging confines the imagination and encourages narrow-mindedness. In fact, as Arendt contends, judging plays a central role in disclosing to individuals the nature of their public world: “judging is one, if not the most,

According to current conventional prejudice, the act of judging confines the imagination and encourages narrow-mindedness. In fact, as Arendt contends, judging plays a central role in disclosing to individuals the nature of their public world: “judging is one, if not the most, important activity in which this sharing-the-world-with-others comes to pass.” Judgment does not simply mean the dismissal of another person’s belief: ‘the power of judgment rests on a potential agreement with others.” This is one compelling reason why a democratic public sphere depends on judgment.

Non-Judgmentalism Undermines Education

The capacity and the willingness to judge is central to the vocation of an academic Indeed academic judgment lies at the heart of the university. The testing of ideas, the questioning of colleagues’ views and the pursuit of intellectual clarity require the freedom to judge. The very idea of academic freedom is underpinned by the recognition that the exercise of judgment can have no limits without compromising scholarship and its vocation. Within the context of an academic relationship students and faculty must be prepared to have their ideas and views judged by others. Attempts to evade judgment or to limit its exercise in an academic environment can only compromise the quality of higher education.

Why has the creative public act of judgment become culturally devalued? To some extent the devaluation of the act of judgment is influenced by intellectual currents that are both skeptical of knowledge claims and argue that everyone’s views ought to be respected. Such relativist currents often denounce people with strong views as “essentialists” and “fundamentalists.” A more important source for the devaluation of judgment is the influence of the belief that people lack the resilience to deal with criticism. This belief is widely advocated by so-called parenting experts and teachers of children in their early years of schooling. School teachers are trained to avoid explicit criticism of their pupils and to practice techniques that validate members of the classroom.

Such sentiments are based on the premise that perceives people as lacking the capacity to engage with disappointment and criticism. The sentiment that “criticism is violence’” has gained significant influence on campuses and amongst the cultural elites. Judgment is often portrayed as a form of psychic violence, especially if applied to children: the sociologist Richard Sennett echoes this sentiment when he writes of the “devastating implications of rendering judgment on someone’s future.”

Far too many educators confuse an act of judgment with an assault on an individual’s well-being. Yet the exercise of judgment is not directed towards demeaning an individual’s identity but towards assessing an individual’s ideas. Its aims to transcend the personal. In contrast, the ethos of non-judgmentalism perceives the act of judgment as directed at an individual’s identity and assumes that everything is personal. Its self-centered failure to distinguish the personal from non-personal concerns bears all the hallmarks of cultural narcissism.

Paradoxically, the association of judgmentalism with intolerant narrow-mindedness is the very opposite of reality. It is the advocates of non-judgmentalism who regard those who question their views as violators of their safe space and who are wary of engaging with views other than their own. Since respecting and validating each other’s views is a foundational principle governing interaction in a safe space it becomes difficult to seriously question and criticize. And institutions that seek to protect their members from the offense caused by the exercise of judgment have lost sight of the meaning of higher education.

Let’s Reject This Endorsement of Free Speech on Campus

Today in the Wall Street Journal, an op-ed by Michael Bloomberg and Charles Koch explains “Why Free Speech Matters on Campus.”

Many conservatives might jump to endorse this article as a welcome indictment of liberal censorship and bias by two powerful campus donors. But that would be a mistake.  Look more closely at what Bloomberg and Koch are saying.  

Whether in economics, morality, politics or any other realm of study, progress has always depended upon human beings having the courage to challenge prevailing traditions and beliefs.

Got that?  Prevailing traditions and beliefs are a hindrance to progress. They are the obstacles to overcome. We must stand up to them, and that means saying things people are going to find uncomfortable. Bloomberg and Koch say nothing about education as the focusing of young minds on religious, political, and artistic traditions.  Nothing about how you cannot “challenge prevailing traditions and beliefs” intelligently until you have studied those things.  No, it’s all about innovation and reform and progress.

Bloomberg and Koch’s examples show how misguided is the approach.

Many ideas that the majority of Americans now hold dear–including that all people should have equal rights, women deserve the right to vote, and gays and lesbians should be free to marry whom they choose–were once unpopular minority views that many found offensive.

This is the standard justification, and it’s a misleading one.  It overlooks a giant contrary category: things that came along and were hailed as forms of progress but sooner or later exposed as terrible mistakes.  Some instances: early-20th-century eugenics, open classrooms in secondary education, the destruction of Penn Station . .

Bloomberg and Koch compound their blindness to the dangers of progress in the very next sentence.

They are now widely accepted because people were free to engage in a robust dialogue with their fellow citizens.

To claim that the same-sex marriage controversy has been settled through a “robust dialogue” is to rewrite history.  Has any conflict in recent times been less civil and open than this one? 

The progressives on this issue have used tactics of shaming, demonization, intimidation, and litigation, not those of debate.  There is no tolerance for differing opinions, which Bloomberg and Koch hail as a proper effect of liberal education.  They believe in a society in which “individuals need not fear reprisal, harassment or intimidation for airing controversial opinions.”  We don’t have one right now, not on this issue.

The problem in Bloomberg and Koch’s declaration is a discursive one.  They praise progress, in the process setting the status quo as a roadblock to it.  But what, then, about people who believe in the status quo?  And what if the conflict turns upon deeply held beliefs, perhaps religious ones, that won’t be managed and accommodated so smoothly by a marketplace of ideas. 

Let’s face it: some commitments run deeper than that.  Moral positions can be visceral.  Bloomberg and Koch think that “open minds and rational discourse” may proceed if we only show more tolerance. 

But to Bloomberg and Koch tolerance is simply a pathway to shedding principles important millions of students.

Second Place – Bloom Essay Competition

“The Hungry Student: Reopening After The Closing of the American Mind”

At the end of the introduction to Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, Bloom mentions that only Socrates knew that he was ignorant, albeit “after a lifetime of unceasing labor.” Bloom observes at the time of his writing that every high school student knows he is ignorant. Like the psychology professor Bloom describes in his introduction, the goal of many a professor is to rid students of prejudice so that they can know that they do not know, so that like Socrates, they can be open-minded. But as Bloom finds, harkening back to Plato’s Republic, the professor’s endeavor to rid students of prejudice enervates the very imagination that projects images onto the cave wall. That is, the professor’s endeavor actively dissembles civilization and burns its parts so that they may never be reassembled into a whole. And students are somehow more like Socrates as a result? At issue in Bloom’s essay is the end to which education, particularly higher education is directed. Does opening minds, as liberal learning through reading Great Books, involve some taste, as remote as it may be, of a love or eros of wisdom? Where does such liberal learning cease? And has it? Bloom finds that while the endeavor of American higher education has sought to open minds, it is directed toward ends which do the opposite. Perhaps Bloom is correct. But after Closing, perhaps there is some conscious attempt among a select few to rekindle the eros that characterizes liberal learning in the university.

Cosmopolitanism, tolerance, specialization, and devouring nature’s fruits. These are the ends to which the modern university would appear to be directed. My own university places a premium on these self-described virtues. But it does so having uttered the language of its Jesuit heritage: ‘educating the whole person.’ Presumably the university attempts to implant in its students the theoretical and practical knowledge which together are crucial to love of truth and passion to live a good life, as the elementary reader of Aristotle knows and Bloom is quick to note. Nevertheless, in practice, these classical ideals, which surface in Closing, today often materialize as something less than the liberal learning that Bloom describes. That is, while students are required to study literature, theology, philosophy, and perhaps even political philosophy, much less is made of reading great old books than of learning critical methods for denigrating the thought of “dead old white men” or conceptualizing them as products of history. Few are those courses that engage in sincere dialogues with the great old writers who perhaps are esteemed enough to be regarded as lovers of wisdom. While American students are fortunate to have some attempt at liberal learning, gone are the days when Alexandre Kojeve could read his students’ term papers and see that they refer to Aristotle as ‘Mr. Aristotle’ as though he were a contemporary engaging in living discussion on matters of truth, right, and beauty.

Replacing ‘Mr. Aristotle’ is too often a mode of education that intends to ‘educate the whole person’ as a citizen not of any particular city but of a soulless world. And in order to graduate from such education, one must be void of all prejudices. One must be simply a material animal without any activity of soul that exhibits excellence. As in Plato’s Republic, the civilization that resides in the cave and the philosophic endeavor to ascend from the cave are usually not the ends of most cities today. That is, rather than cultivating one’s soul within one’s own city, as is the original meaning of culture, citizens abandon their cities for a more cosmopolitan place, the world. Culture is no longer an activity of cultivation within cities but a source of understanding without prejudice. In Max Weber’s thought, which Bloom in light of his teacher traces to the root of most modern social science endeavor, the student cannot make a truth claim as to the value of one culture or mode of cultivating one’s soul over another. The end of the professor is to foster not love of truth but love of toleration. Toleration in this light precedes truth. In opening the student to a cosmopolitan world, the university then closes the student from any interest in truth.

There are students at almost all American universities who dedicate their time to more inward pursuits than this brash cosmopolitanism, which Bloom sees as replacing dialogues with the great writings of human history. These are often the students who not only embrace the division of labor in Western thought, but do so without any desire for a vision, misguided or not, of the whole. And if they seek some vision of the whole, it is usually not a vision at all but a taste of nature’s fruits. These students, in their course of study, do not seek to be graced by nature’s grace in tasting nature’s fruits. Rather they seek to conquer nature and to devour it. For them, my own university is currently constructing two new buildings to occupy the physical center of campus, a business school and a science research center. Indeed, the economics of the household, which characterizes the pursuit of the businessman, occupies sizeable space in Book I of Aristotle’s Ethics and thereafter in much of the Western canon. And science as natural philosophy teaches any student a great deal about his nature as a human being. But both these pursuits in their current states are instrumental to overly specialized utilitarian ends at best. They are hardly concerned with the meaning of human nature. Much of the research that will take place in the new science center on campus will not seek some knowledge of the whole aware of the “sanctity of human nature.” Rather, it will seek to conquer human nature and nature more broadly. That these buildings should occupy the physical center of campus reflects a withdrawal from the dialogue for love of wisdom and passion for the good life in place of some utilitarian ends. It is still true today that the physicist gains nothing but mild “spiritual uplift” from reading Shakespeare and seeks nothing more too often.

Cosmopolitanism and the tolerance it requires redirect the student’s interest in truth. Specialization marked by a desire to devour nature’s fruits through conquering nature limits the student’s ability to make even an attempt at grasping knowledge of the whole. As a student, I fear that if the university does not look back to an earlier pursuit, one interested in cultivating virtuous citizens and teachers, then our society more broadly will be susceptible to the danger that Bloom evokes from Tocqueville – a society’s enslavement to public opinion or passions. Our universities still lack the philosophic experience that Bloom sees as the lifeline to philosophic endeavor more broadly. If we as students cannot distinguish the laws that killed Socrates from laws that enable his survival, philosophy is doomed. And if philosophy is doomed in our society, we find ourselves living in nihilism. The university as the bastion of liberal learning can be the preserve of philosophy. The university can be the place where we the citizens and students bring ourselves from the cave that our ancestors dug beneath the original cave. To do this, we must read things which much of our core curriculum has abandoned in place of things cosmopolitan or things specialized for the sake of instrumental knowledge. We must ask those ultimate questions in the academy, and not limit ourselves to learning techniques in glorified trade schools. Our professors must let students know about classic philosophers. With all these needs facing our starving universities, Bloom leaves us with a choice: embrace a rebirth of liberal learning or fall deeper into the cave.

Despite the replacement of cosmopolitanism and tolerance for citizenship and truth in most curricula, and despite the new epicenter of the college campus in the instrumental sciences, the neo-Gothic towers of the old campus have not yet been demolished. Like the pseudo-Gothic spires of the University of Chicago, which Bloom describes as his first discovery of life, or the life dedicated to contemplation, these Gothic towers still reflect the contemplative life in the university. And while few and far between, courses are available for the student to read the writings of great thinkers and engage in a living dialogue about truth, beauty, and right. Academic forums for students that seek to revitalize liberal learning are sprouting up across the country. But these forums are still in their infancy. Perhaps a few students with the help of a few professors at leading universities will start to seek those ultimate questions from education. Perhaps those students and professors will call for a reopening of the American mind in true liberal learning. For love of truth, beauty, and right, the last bastions, a few professors and a scant offering of courses, I the hungry student feed on the only food I find nourishing. And I hope. I hope that the American moment in world history, “the one for which we shall forever be judged,” as Bloom describes, is a success. A reopening of the American mind.