You Don’t Need an Education to be Outraged

Molly Worthen wrote a good piece at the New York Times about the way that conservatives take ideas seriously (and by implication, liberals not so much):

The syllabuses and faculty range from say, the secular Jewish milieu of Hertog to the libertarian Cato Institute to the Christian traditionalism of the John Jay Institute. But all these programs seek to correct the defects they see in mainstream higher education by stressing principles over pluralism, immersing students in the wisdom of old books and encouraging them to apply that wisdom to contemporary politics.

Liberals have their own activist workshops and reading groups, but these rarely instruct students in an intellectual tradition, a centuries-long canon of political philosophy. Why have philosophical summer schools become a vibrant subculture on the right, but only a feeble presence on the left? The disparity underscores a divide between conservatives and liberals over the best way to teach young people — and, among liberals, a certain squeamishness about the history of ideas.

Liberals, however, can’t afford to dismiss Great Books as tools of white supremacy, or to disdain ideological training as the sort of unsavory thing that only conservatives and communists do. These are powerful tools for preparing the next generation of activists to succeed in the bewildering ideological landscape of the country that just elected Mr. Trump.

One reason that liberals and progressives don’t study the past or its leading voices is that so many of the authors fail so quickly on the left’s moral grid of identity righteousness/victimhood (race, class, gender, sexual orientation). If John Stuart Mill was on the wrong side of women’s liberation or Immanuel Kant wasn’t a proponent of civil rights for blacks — a bit anachronistic, mind you — then what could they possibly teach about the plight of trannies in search of a public bathroom? It worked the same way in the world of mainline churches. Who reads Henry Sloane Coffin, William Adams Brown or their evangelical enablers like Robert Speer? These modernists or doctrinal indifferentists were on the cutting edge of reducing the conservative orientation of the PCUSA. But by the 1960s when sex, Civil Rights, and Vietnam were the topics of debate, the old contests of the 1920s had no value.

In point of fact, activism needs no serious reflection if you listen to interviews with contemporary Ivy League students like this. Sure, the Princeton University editor is respectful and intelligent in some respects. But he has no clue about the impropriety of going to college to learn while also saying that faculty need to be re-educated about race and safe spaces. If this student is representative, today’s college students, the really smart ones, can’t tell the difference between being policed in Ferguson, MO or by campus police at Princeton University. Heck, they even think that the oppression African-Americans have confronted historically is on a par with what women, gays, and trannies face.

Meanwhile, the therapeutic quality of contemporary activism should never be discounted. The idea of not hurting students’ sense of empowerment is prominent in discussions of critical race theory like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s in Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex. Where that leads was the subject of Judith Shulevitz’s New York Times piece on safe spaces discussed here.

With all the smart people running the world for the last 8 years, you might think that colleges and universities would themselves provide the sort of intellectual training for which Worthen calls. Why do you need supplemental education when you are in a four-year accredited and, in some cases, prestigious university? The reason is that universities, even the good ones, treat students like this:

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?

Imagine that: a good novel, historical investigation, and even philosophical deliberation might lift a person out of their own set of ideas and consider those of other people. They might even experience empathy with hillbillies (or they can simply deconstruct and carry on impervious to others).

Yes, there are lots of good faculty, serious students, and great classes across the board in U.S. colleges and universities. But the limits of smarts are well on display. Can U.S. higher education self-correct? Can the Vatican? You do the math and set the odds.

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