This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on June 13, 2015.
This is the leading campus story of the last few weeks: Dr. Frankenstein now fears the monster he created.
The Academy let slip the dogs of ideological war during the campus revolts of the ‘60s; now, some academics find that they are collateral damage, and are eager to sue for peace—too late, I fear, unless they abandon the moral-cultural relativism that serves as the source of the censorship and oppression metastasizing on our campuses.
The recent article, “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” informs us that, “Things have changed since I started teaching. . . . [M]y students sometimes scare me — particularly the liberal ones.” The piece is written by Professor “Edward Schlosser,” a pseudonym adopted to escape the oppression about which he writes. Fearing charges from students that he has “not been sensitive enough” to their “feelings”—fearing also a spiritless response from university administrators to such charges, however groundless—he confesses that he has “intentionally adjusted” the content of his courses “as the political winds have shifted.” “Most” of his “colleagues who still have jobs have done the same.”
How have universities, whose defining mission requires that students examine some thoughts and projects that might prove to be unsettling, become such havens of monochrome thinking? Schlosser’s answer: “a simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice” has produced “higher ed’s current climate of fear,” enforced through a “heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity.”
To explain the intellectual basis for this development, Schlosser turns to Professor Rebecca Reilly-Cooper’s analysis of the current campus climate, in which, says Reilly, “personal narrative and testimony are elevated to such a degree that there can be no objective standpoint from which to examine their veracity.” “Personal experience and feelings . . . are the entirety” of “identity politics.” Schlosser adds that the Enlightenment’s core principles “—from due process to scientific method—are dismissed as being blind to emotional concerns and therefore unfairly skewed toward the interest of straight white males. All that matters is that people are allowed to speak, that their narratives are accepted without question, and that the bad feelings go away.”
In the course of his argument, Schlosser points to the plight of Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, whose recent article, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” has caused her to become the subject of an investigation after some students charged that her piece produced a “chilling effect” on their ability to safely report instances of sexual misconduct. Commenting on her persecution, Kipnis writes that “emotional discomfort” has come to be “regarded as equivalent to material injury.” After all, “pretty much anything might be a ‘trigger’ to someone, given the new climate of emotional peril on campuses.”
Sizing all this up, Schlosser locates the ultimate source of our crisis: “It was born in the more nihilistic corners of academic theory.” Nihilism denies that there are any objective grounds for truth, especially regarding morality.
True enough. But I wonder whether Schlosser or Kipnis, or most of academe, understand fully the depths of the Academy’s complicity in the atrocities they cite. Take for example, my own field, political science, which, like all the modern social sciences, is grounded in a radical distinction between “facts” and “values, “ according to which, facts alone are knowable, because “empirically verifiable” (provable using only the five senses). Values, in this account, are subjective preferences regarding facts. Hence, for social science, the terms “right,” “wrong,” “just, and “unjust” are unknowable by reason or science.
And there’s the rub: Neither the academic freedom for which Schlosser and Kipnis rightly plea nor political freedom can be defended authoritatively on the basis of the moral-cultural relativism (often termed, “postmodernism”) taught today in the social sciences and the humanities. Why?
If all “values” (moral principles) are equal due to being equally unprovable through reason, then the embrace in the West of values such as political liberty, tolerance, equality, and the rule of law are demoted to mere “subjective preferences,” which are no better or worse than their opposites—slavery, intolerance, inequality, and tyranny. But while the postmodern Academy asserts reason’s impotence at answering life’s deepest questions, it simultaneously denies that we are capable of the “moral neutrality” that seems to follow from relativism. Simply put, they teach that we have no rational basis to make “value judgements,” but neither can we avoid making them. How, then, ought we to live?
On hearing their answer, we witness how a civilization begins its collapse. Postmodern academics use the alleged impossibility of moral neutrality to license the right of the mightier and more insistent—often referred to today as the “more committed”—to have their way. How often do we hear this mantra?: “I’m a fill-in-the-blank, and I’m very passionate about this issue.” Such declarations have the effect of warning all with a different opinion to shut up, lest they be accused of insensitivity to the other’s feelings. Passion prevails over impotent reason.
Following their understanding of the philosopher Nietzsche (and in the process, tagging him unjustifiably with a progressive left agenda), postmoderns largely argue that the will to power is our only remaining foundation when making rationally groundless yet unavoidable moral choices. Of course, their commitment to the will to power is far from “moral neutrality.” Rather, it is a commitment to the superior morality—that is, to the superior way of life—that constitutes will to power. Power is all that’s left to decide moral disagreements after it has been decided that human reason is inadequate to the task. Schlosser recognizes this when he laments that our crisis “was born in the more nihilistic corners of academic theory.” And this explains his students’ recourse to the primacy of “feelings.”
Drifting anchorless in an endless sea of feelings, today’s Academy ensures that Schlosser’s well-intentioned plea of “Can’t we all just get along?” will fall on ears deafened, and souls stunted, by relativism. The students that he and his colleagues fear are simply following to their logical limits the principles they have been taught. If they deserve an F in civility, it is because they merit an A in scholarship. This in itself should lead us to question the postmodern doctrine regarding moral neutrality. But it is precisely such questioning—the essence of higher education’s mission—that today threatens professors’ jobs.
There is a better way. Granting the impossibility of absolute “moral neutrality,” genuine liberal education endeavors instead for something perhaps akin but nonetheless superior to neutrality, i.e., fair-mindedness in examining the great competing moral visions, and all this in an effort to understand better the truth not made but discovered by human beings. Postmodernism’s blanket denial of the possibility of moral neutrality undermines the imperative of such fair-mindedness, with all-too-predictable effects on scholarship and civility, effects all too familiar to Schlosser, Kipnis, and their frightened faculty colleagues.
The genuine liberal education of which I write was born of Socrates’ proposition that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” which in itself implies that there are better and worse ways to live. The deepest question animating a truly genuine education is, “What is the good life for human beings?” The only unqualified commitment a university should thus possess is the commitment to clarity regarding this question. This quest for clarity presupposes that, through study of the world’s greatest thinkers, life’s great questions can become clear, or at least clearer. It presupposes an order external to and independent of human doing and making—a premise now taught to have been debunked by relativism.
Following Socrates, the highest purpose of liberal education is the freedom of the mind; that is, freedom from unexamined assumptions, for example, swings in intellectual fashion, partisan politics, and ideology. Liberty at its peak is thus identical with the pursuit of truth. This pursuit, as Socrates’ fate demonstrates, is not without danger. (Socrates was tried and executed for his philosophic questioning.) Thus, the institutionalization of a regime devoted to intellectual liberty—here, universities—depends on its being situated in a system of political liberty. In the American context, the cultivation of free minds simultaneously transcends and depends on the political freedom enshrined in our founding documents and principles.
This is where the Academy has become suicidal, for the very political liberty on which the universities’ self-preservation depends is taught by these same institutions to be a mere “value,” no better than any others. As the late Allan Bloom argued in The Closing of the American Mind, the humanities today—built on the logically untenable position that the only non-relative truth is that all truth is relative—reduce reasoning about the good life to what they deem more fundamental: power in the service of race, class, and gender, thereby replacing Socrates’ examined life with the ideological conformism documented by Schlosser and the Kipnis case. Relativism was supposed to make all tolerant of all opinions. Instead, it has provided intolerance a license to bully.
Will this assault on their academic freedom lead American professors to a newfound respect for the “old” model of liberal education that I have sketched? As Schlosser and Cooper-Reilly observe, my account of education as the search for objective truth is likely to be greeted by some in the Academy as a sham rationalization through which the ruling class seeks to perpetuate its hegemony. If so, one wonders how, based on their race-class-gender framework, they would respond to this statement: “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas. . . . I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America?”
For those offended by the bald assertion above that there is Truth, and that it is the purpose of liberal education to pursue it, please be advised that this moving passage comes from the book, The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Dubois.