9-3 academe

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.



A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

9.3 (Summer 2009)


academe in crisis



The Politics of the Professoriate: The Prospects for Higher Education Reform

Michael Sugrue

[Dr. Sugrue delivered the following as a paper-reading at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina last year.  Because he did not intend to take the speech immediately into a print format, some of the citations below do not contain precise page numbers.  This is my failing, whether it be mild or grave, since I persuaded the author to let me publish his paper forthwith and as it stood.  Ed.]


Our universities are in disarray.  Curricula have been prostituted to serve the peculiar enthusiasms of the professoriate.  The education currently offered to our best and brightest has become hyperpoliticized, grossly dogmatic and one sided.  However, the political impulses of those who have degraded our institutions of higher education are not always apparent to those within the academy, let alone to those who look upon the ivory tower from without.   It is high time that parents, donors, students, employers, students, and philosophers call things by their right name, condemn the corruption that has become endemic at universities and colleges across our nation, and take steps to correct these failings.  This requires a close examination of hyperpoliticized education for only with such an understanding, can steps be taken to correct it.

To understand the extent to which ideological peculiarities and the carefully camouflaged self interest of the professoriate has warped American education, one must look to those things that are not being taught, as well as to those things that are.   It is the nature of ideology that those indoctrinated into it do not see it for what it is—a belief system with a tenuous connection to reality—and mistake it for truth.  The tendentious word game of denying that truth exists does not change this.   It is the nature of self-interested action that it does not call itself by that name; it is masked behind rationalizations or justifications that prove incoherent when examined closely.

The clearest manifestation of any hyperpoliticized education is cultural masochism.  There is a hypertrophy of what Nietzsche called “critical” history: an excessive self flagellation of America and the West by its own scholars.  We learn about the Western tradition, if at all, in order to undermine it and replace it with some nebulous nostrum du jour. A target is identified and prudent judgement is abandoned: reason, science, patriarchy, capitalism, the “white race”, the Western intellectual tradition, American foreign policy or whatever is momentarily decried as the source of the world’s evils.  The “blame America” reflex of much “progressive” history is procrustean and deeply ahistorical.  I once had a conversation with a respected historian who thought my view of the Cold War was excessively pro-American.  I noted that Stalin had killed millions.  He retorted that the US had produced McCarthyism, the assumption being that these were comparable evils.  He did not see this as a non-sequitur, and I did not think the conversation worth continuing.

The excessively critical stance toward the West is combined with a diversion of time, resources, faculty and students toward various kinds of victim studies classes which inculcate resentment and alienation from mainstream American culture packaged as group identity.  The ahistoricism latent in abolishing or undermining the Western tradition serves a purpose: it makes utopian fantasies seem reasonable, practical and moral, which means when the real world ignores their political demands, frustration, rage and messianic self-righteousness spiral out of control.  Those without roots or knowledge of the past are more easily led to believe the flattering lie that they need only will something for it to be so.  Without ties to tradition and without a basis by which to evaluate theory against facts, it is plausible to believe reality to be infinitely malleable, and hence within the powers of the intelligentsia to shape as they deem proper.  Reality, we are told, is “socially constructed”.  Soon, I hope, we’ll refuse to socially construct death so we can all live forever.

Unfortunately, those who are ignorant of their history fail to learn not only facts; they also fail to learn from the successes and failures of their predecessors.  They fail to learn the tragic lesson of human limitation and the enormous and genuine achievements of the West.  Hence, those who live entirely in the present and future are more apt to repeat the failures of the past, without benefiting from the contributions made by their predecessors.  Ideology and self-interest in the academy, which manifest themselves through a rage against the West, America and a disregard of history and tradition, have affected the quality of the education that our rising generation of leaders receives in a number of ways.  I will concentrate on several of the most conspicuous symptoms of this disease.

The Western canon is one of the major casualties of a hyper-politicized education, the loss of which would complete our transformation into lotus-eaters.  We are urged to forget who we are and where we have come from, for the sake of creating a generation malleable to a new idiosyncratic view of progress.  In fact, like Polemarchus in the Republic, we are the heirs of a vast argument, a manifold of thoughts, ideas and aspirations.  Regardless of where our ancestors came from or when they left, we are at this moment, here and now, speaking English at an American university.  The institutions we acknowledge, the concepts we use, the language we speak, the objections we raise, are all the product of centuries of historical development.  Our patterns of reasoning and taste and argument did not develop spontaneously ex nihilo.  Like it or not, we are immersed in a culture which is the product of centuries of development within and between Biblical monotheism and Greek humanism.  We have no choice about being influenced by these facts of cultural history; the only question is the degree to which we are conscious of these influences.  One of the proper aims of undergraduate education is to make the students conscious of these influences.  We are not better than those that came before us: we are merely later.  As Goethe noted, every generation must earn the inheritance bequeathed to it by its predecessors.  At present, we are doing a very poor job of teaching the Western intellectual tradition.  We are prodigal sons, squandering our patrimony.

In addition to adding to existing knowledge, one of the most important functions proper to any university is the conservation and transmission of the intellectual achievements of earlier epochs.  Taught well, the Great Books of the Western tradition have the capacity to inform the judgement, sharpen the reason and cultivate the imagination of our students.  In the last decade, the Western Great Books component of undergraduate education has declined dramatically and is getting worse.  I am a historian and a Great Books teacher.  I can confirm from experience the fact that many younger scholars, because they did not get much collegiate exposure to the Western canon, and because graduate training is deep but narrow, are strangers to the canon, which means they are strangers to themselves.  At Princeton I have seen young scholars struggle with these texts, often for the first time, while they are simultaneously expected to teach them for the first time.  It is impossible to do justice to these works under such circumstances.  Good books and bad teaching do not mix.  Everyone loses.  The junior faculty members suffer, the students are shortchanged, and respect for the Western tradition erodes.  Even worse, the place previously held by the canon is usurped by the mindless relativism of multiculturalism, the infantile whining of identity politics, the cheery totalitarianism of political correctness and the nihilism of postmodernism.

Having taught at Columbia and Johns Hopkins as well as Princeton, I believe that this is also true, mutatis mutandis, at most other American universities.  Those who teach the Western tradition are often hampered by a variety of impediments: cultural, institutional and ideological.  It is useful to distinguish between junior and senior faculty cohorts.  We will refer to the cohort of faculty and administrators currently in their 50s and 60s collectively as “the class of ’68”.  With a few honorable exceptions, they are reflexively antinomian, anti-American, and anti bourgeois.  This is despite the fact that they are Americans, they are bourgeois, and they control the nomos of most universities.  The class of ’68 came of age in opposition to tradition, during an era of crisis when Dionysian self-indulgence was touted as freedom and rationality was regarded as tyrannical.  They later reformed the undergraduate curriculum to reflect their tastes and experiences.  They are the people who either abandoned the teaching of the Western canon altogether or, worse still, replaced the Great Books of the West with morbidly invertebrate curricula that approximate an anti Western canon.  The class of ’68 is here to stay and beyond remedy.  As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Few die, none resign.”  In the long run, I believe that the dinosaurs of ’68 are doomed, because the books they disdain will outlast them.  In the short run, however, I see no hope except early retirement or the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

We will refer to the cohort of younger scholars as the “Class of ’89”.  They tend to be careerists because they are largely anxious, pessimistic and disoriented.  With few exceptions, they take their cues from the class of ’68, but for them there is no serious alternative to the status quo, so they are far less hopeful about the future.  They prefer Prozac to LSD.  They generally are passive, conformist, self-absorbed.  They feel guilty about being dependent on America and resentful that America is not dependent upon them.  They oscillate between a querulous Antinomian hedonism and a strident utopian perfectionism.  They are anxious about their lack of a larger framework into which they might integrate their scholarship, yet they are also reflexively skeptical of all claims beyond the partial, the local, the immediate.  The class of ’89 can be analogized to the natives of New Guinea after the Second World War.  Those primitives organized “Cargo Cults” because they liked and had grown accustomed the magical appearance of the artifacts of Western civilization, but they had no clear idea of where these artifacts came from or how to create such things themselves.

The class of ’89 is a cohort of scholars who don’t know who they are.  They might identify with Telemachus if they had ever read the Odyssey.  Their lack of acquaintance with the Western tradition manifests itself as a kind of spiritual bankruptcy, a frustrated longing for coherence and meaning.  The attraction of identity politics and cultic political rebellion is a consequence of their emotional need, not their intellectual convictions.  The consequences of the generalized, college-induced ignorance of the Western tradition are ubiquitous.  Deep ecology, anti globalization anarchism, the plethora of flaky conspiracy theories popular among college educated twenty somethings are all symptoms of a common cultural malaise.  Recall the events of the anti-globalization protesters in Seattle.  A mass of college-educated young people get dressed up as sea turtles, marching together while chanting, “Another world is possible,” and then destroying Starbucks and McDonalds.  Then recall that these faux tortoises believe that their spontaneous reinvention of archaic nature worship cults is a “progressive” commitment to global justice rather than a pathetic sublimation of their thwarted religious impulses.  These young people are the collateral damage, the civilian casualties of the culture wars.  The class of ’89 are their teachers, and this is the culture they are creating.  The inchoate yearning for conceptual clarity and moral order is no longer directed toward traditional cultural forms and cultural norms.  We are now reaping what we sowed twenty years ago in dropping the Western tradition requirements in the elite colleges.  Achilles is losing his race with the tortoises.

Most members of the class of ’89 are specialists.  They are poorly prepared to teach anything other than the topics of their dissertations, since they never got a synoptic overview of the Western tradition in college.  Thus the erosion of the Western canon accelerates over time because many new assistant professors who are assigned undergraduate Western canon classes are usually poorly prepared to teach them, which means that many undergraduates are given a substandard educational experience.  Over time, such Western canon courses as are left get a reputation among undergraduates for being onerous and unrewarding, which over time diminishes the enthusiasm and the number of the students.  Why take a dull course on ancient books given by an uninspired, sullen teacher when that same student could be entertained by an animated teacher lecturing on something narrow, contemporary and fashionable?  It is very tempting to study the most important book of the last fifteen minutes.  The comparative weakness of Great Books teachers and courses has powerfully negative consequences. There is a general lack of faculty support for such courses, first from the tenured class of ’68 and later from the pressured, overworked and underpaid class of ’89.  Teaching the Western canon will reach a crisis in ten years or so when these assistant and associate professors become full professors and deans.

The incentives offered to junior faculty are badly skewed against teaching and particularly against teaching the Western canon.  Postmodernism, multiculturalism, and any of the multifarious forms of identity politics can be an instrumentally rational career building survival strategy for harried new assistant professors.  New junior faculty in Great Books courses often find “subversion” attractive because they don’t want to admit that they have not read these texts and the intellectual demands of understanding these works is simultaneously overwhelming and demoralizing.  A serious reading of the Western canon is hard work.  If you doubt this, try it.  It is frustrating, time-consuming and a distraction from scholarly publishing, which is necessary for tenure.  For newly minted Ph.D.s it is far more practical to write a monograph validating the mélange of books they know by hipper than thou postmodern posturing than it is to start from scratch and engage the tradition which ultimately created both the categories of their thought and their suspicions about them.

A second symptom of hyperpoliticized education is the coercive closing of discussion called “Political Correctness”.  Left wing political correctness dominates most elite universities.  All kinds of sacred cows are herded together.  Such heterogeneous items as imaginary “Afrocentric” historical claims, “sensitivity training”, and restrictive speech codes all stigmatize dissenting views and contribute to a chilling climate of self-righteous intolerance.  Discussion is quelled, rewards are distributed to those who flatter their teachers by agreeing with them, and the domain of the student’s moral imagination is truncated.  Nothing could be more contrary to the proper aims of education.

The evils of “PC” are well known.[1]  However, it is in fairness worth noting that political correctness is not exclusive to the left.  There also exists right-wing political correctness, which exists and has existed in certain institutions for a long time.  The Alien and Sedition acts are the most egregious examples from the early history of America.  Right-wing PC also flourished in the Dunning school of Reconstruction historiography at Columbia University in the early twentieth century.  A revival of the Great Books curriculum could easily ossify into ancestor worship and become the mirror image of the politically correct anti-Western curriculum that has done so much harm.  As Aristotle says, “virtue is a mean between two vices”.   Conscientious critics of American university life must practice what they preach by resisting the temptation to indoctrinate students.  Our job is to teach students how to think, not what to think.

The skewed historical understanding entailed in hyperpoliticized education also encourages fragmentation, alienation and the growth of identity politics, the idealization of certain favored groups.  I have often wondered why we have a word like “demonize” for the vilification of people or groups, but no antonym (“angelicize”?) that refers to the idealization of persons or groups as above reproach and beyond criticism.  The Gramscian cultural left proffers pathetic Dickensian images of Tiny Tim and Oliver Twist and pretends that these fictional characters are not only real but that their claims are unquestionable and beyond criticism.  Only a heartless victimizer would point out that Rigoberta Menchu’s autobiography, for which she won a Nobel Prize, is largely invented.[2]  The defenses offered by the bien pensant for the invented portions of her autobiography amount to the proposition that facts are overrated and history is indistinguishable from literature.  The belief that lies are edifying endangers the possibility of history as a discipline.  Historical research that uncritically lionizes victims and fails to expose shortcomings common to us all distorts the human condition.  The result is what Bertrand Russell called “the superior virtue of the oppressed”, an imaginary quality often attributed to those who have been historically ill treated, by students and teachers whose historical education has been twisted by Manichean anti-western bias.[3]

Such idealizations of history’s dispossessed then serve to mask power grabs by the professoriate, whose members appoint themselves the spokesmen for the “marginalized”.  The politics of identity is always a rhetorical smokescreen for the intellectuals who wish to empower themselves with “recognition” of their group.  Each of the different sects comprising the contemporary cult of identity is a power play by alienated intellectuals: they are desperate for converts because they are desperate for power.[4]  Identity politics is a deceptive marketing campaign for the “Culture of Narcissism” decried by Christopher Lasch and the “Culture of Complaint” indicted by Robert Hughes.[5]  The Nation of Islam, the League of the South, The Jewish Defense League, The National Organization of Women, The Moral Majority, La Raza, the Christian Identity Movement, and Queer Nation are, despite all appearances, no more different than Marlboro and Winston and even less wholesome.  They are the different brands in the self-esteem industry vying for market share: selves are on sale at affordable prices.  The cost is the possibility of unflattering Socratic self knowledge.  It is a price many are willing to pay.  The apotheosis of capitalism turns such cultural narcotics as “identity” into the ultimate commodities.  The logical result of “identity politics” is not multicultic utopia.  It is a downward spiral from fragmentation to genocide as in Serbia or Rwanda.

This insistence on visibility, the demand to be given things, the demand to be collectively stroked and to be gratuitously approved of, the demand for “recognition” not based on any tangible achievement, but based upon taking up space and making noise and turning oxygen into carbon dioxide, is a cultural pestilence.  Intellectuals articulate an aggressive self-pity on behalf of their favorite group, garnering followers by whining in public and demanding compensation for the fact that other people don’t think as highly of them as they do of themselves.  This is public relations, not philosophy. It always has been and still is a disingenuous power play by frustrated intellectuals.  The “critical” stance so often adopted by the cultural left rarely seems to be applied to themselves, their agendas, their motives.  The “hermeneutic of suspicion” does not regard itself as suspicious.

Closely related to identity politics is cultural relativism.  In the clearcut barren field that is left in the wake of anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Christian historical “critiques”, the terrain is well prepared for cultural relativism.  Ironically, cultural relativism is one of those unique peculiarities of the West that its advocates do not recognize as such.  Intellectuals in Sung China or the Abbasid Caliphate would have scoffed at such masochistic skepticism. They would surely have pointed out that demanding that all identities be recognized and every culture equally valued is internally incoherent.  If we recognize the equal value of the Indian caste system and contemporary liberal democracy, then we are left with a nihilistic relativism and there is nothing to complain about.  At night all cows are black.  If we object that liberal democracy is superior to and the Indian caste system (or any other cultural tradition), then we are not valuing their culture equally with our own: our morals are superior to theirs.  Of course, cultural relativism is not truly relativistic.  Implicit in it is a judgment, generally by an academic claiming to represent a marginalized culture, that his vision of a particular group is valid or legitimate and should be accepted by others.  In the contemporary academic world, politics has replaced religion as the locus of fanaticism.  Only the political motivations that underlie the ideology can explain the ease with which notable academics, who are perfectly capable of seeing through such nonsense under other circumstances, subscribe to a vision that is patently incoherent.

This is acutely true of illiberal versions of liberal democracy.  For example, in her book Multiculturalism, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Gutman, has written that free speech is insufficiently moral.  “The controversy on college campuses over racist, ethnic, homophobic and other forms of offensive speech directed against members of disadvantaged groups exemplifies the need for a shared moral vocabulary that is richer than our rights of free speech.”  This will appeal to people who think universities are no place for free discussion.  It will leave others wondering, who is to decide which of these controversial labels will be applied to which utterances?  Who will legislate for us definitively which beliefs are morally respectable and which are not?  What qualifications are proper to crypto-Platonic censors in a liberal democracy?  Would an encounter with the Form of the Good or a chat with a Burning Bush be required or would some other Gnostic conversion experience suffice?

John Stuart Mill wrote, “All suppression of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”  I am not infallible so I cannot help but wonder, is one student’s calling another a “noisy water buffalo” racist?  Is publishing Black Athena racist?  Is publishing The Bell Curve racist?  How does one sustain any unique answer except by pounding on the desk?  Administrators might decide to protect college students by banning a racist, sexist, tract like Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, but this is poor judgement.  It would be a better idea to tell the students that controversial ideas are what they came to school for and suggest bluntly that they grow up and get over it.  To confront and be confronted by disturbing opinions is unavoidable in any education that deserves the name.  As Nat Hentoff has written, a substantial proportion of students have succumbed to the idea that “they have a Constitutional right not to be offended.”[6]   This is often associated with the students’ Constitutional right not to think or speak or learn.

If a student says that the Bible condemns homosexuality as sinful and that he believes the Bible to be true, are we to respect the right to utter such an opinion or are we to silence him and inform him that his religious beliefs are unworthy of respect by advanced thinkers of the type that are now acceptable at universities?  Perhaps he could pray in the snows of Canossa.  If a student cites the views of Plato in The Laws and says that he agrees with Plato and thinks homosexuality an unnatural vice, are we to inform him that his philosophical beliefs do not merit respect from his moral superiors?  Shall we force him to recant and genuflect in the direction of his betters?  The enforcers of PC at contemporary universities implicitly claim to have superior powers of moral discernment, inaccessible to the hoi polloi: a claim they do their best to obscure and deny.

Once again, what we see is that ahistorical group idealizations serve primarily to advance the interests of academics who defend them.  An intellectual fraud like Ward Churchill could never have had an academic career if his dishonesty and lack of intellectual achievement had not been obscured by the vehemence of his anti-American jeremiads.  If the cultural left is right and there really are very smart people who can be relied upon to have superior powers of moral discernment denied the rest of us, then, of course, Plato was also right: democracy is an immoral and illegitimate form of government.  Unfortunately, in a democratic political culture like that of the US, such a claim is embarrassing, and it is all the more embarrassing when it is espoused by those who purport to be democratic theorists engaged in “emancipatory projects”.  Consequently some eminent members of the class of ’68 make grossly implausible gestures towards an ideal Democracy, analogous to the old-fashioned Leninist idea of a vanguard party advocating what the demos would believe if it were not weighed down by false consciousness.  The “ideal speech situation” touted by Habermas is the most sophisticated example.  These protestations are vacuous and their argument is internally incoherent.  The advocates of identity politics are claiming a privileged cultural standpoint from which to judge the moral status of other peoples’ evaluations of cultures or individuals or practices.  How did the identity politics elite achieve this august, not to say messianic height?  Whence arise these gnostic transcultural, transhistorical insights?  Not from Platonic metaphysics, but from a Nietzschean act of political will, the will to power.

Amy Gutman continues, “There is no virtue in misogyny, racial or ethnic hatred, or rationalizations of self-interest or group interest parading as historical or scientific knowledge.”  Yet this is exactly what her argument is: it is a brief for the group interest of disaffected intellectuals in the soft sciences that are otherwise marginalized.  Advanced capitalist society has left the mandarins behind and they resent it, which is why they feel such nostalgia for the tottering remains of the Frankfurt School.  Irrelevant to contemporary economics and political praxis, the majority of humanistic intellectuals in America are saturated in gnostic resentment.  The argument made by Gutmann in her book on multiculturalism is a perfect example.  Charles Taylor has the same problem in his work on identity politics.  Richard Rorty’s philosophical indulgences in which he simply insists that he knows best are another.  All legitimize with a smokescreen of verbal histrionics a Foucaultian power play by intellectuals who wish to empower themselves as conceptual censors and speech police.

Their totalitarian intellectual ancestor, Rousseau, wanted to force people to be free; now one must “celebrate diversity”… or else.  The Orwellian argument amounts to this: Equality, Morality and Virtue in a liberal democracy can only be preserved by having society defer to the superior ethical insights of a small elite.  It is hard not to wonder, “Where will we find such reliable moral guides?”  Canada has first claim on Charles Taylor, John Rawls has died.  King Solomon has been dead for centuries.  Philosopher Kings are in short supply.  The rich hypocrisy here is that the multiculti like Gutman claim that other people (“essentialists”) arrogantly trumpet their cultural superiority in an unjustifiable fashion.  The cult of self-esteem is even worse than the totalitarian cult of personality, because the latter merely destroys the body, while the former destroys the mind.

Ultimately, the legacy of Socratic self-doubt is the most important of the legacies cast aside by the class of ’68.  Socrates spent a lifetime undermining the self-esteem of his fellow citizens because he believed their self-esteem was fraudulent and corrupt.  Both now and then, self-esteem was understood by some as an unmitigated good, as an unassailable democratic value.[7]  Socrates held the peculiar notion that it was beneficial to have one’s self-esteem threatened because an honest examination of conscience always discloses guilt: the unpleasant certainty that we are not what we could have been.  Now that we are beyond this sort of critical self-examination and everyone has a right to be stroked and praised and flattered on account of showing up, we see the error of his mode of life.  His dismissive irony made intelligent people uncomfortable and highly regarded people wince.  Alcibiades was certainly right in running away from anyone so unjust.  A man like Socrates, who would not worship the idols of the tribe, his or ours, was a dangerously insensitive individual.  No wonder he was killed by men as pious as Euthyphro, as clever as Meno, as candid as Protagoras, as virtuous as Callicles.  It is more important to feel good than to be good; the certainty of being flattered is so much more comfortable than the possibility of being honored.  We have improved upon the ancients, “better an ox satisfied than Socrates unsatisfied”.

The erosion of the Western tradition and history in higher education has resulted in a concomitant erosion of moral understanding.   As students and professors do not know themselves as bearers of tradition and participants of a flawed human nature, they have lost notions of honor, virtue and self-sacrifice which inspired previous generations.  They easily mistake serious moral self-examination for shallow self-interest decorated with a veneer of platitudinous self-congratulation.   This lesson is reflected in the work of so notable a scholar as Charles Taylor, who has written:

Morality has in a sense, a voice within.  The notion of authenticity develops out of a displacement of the moral accent on this idea.  On the original view, the inner voice was important because it tells us the right thing to do.  Being in touch with our moral feelings matters here, as a means to the end of acting rightly.  What I’m calling the displacement of the moral accent comes about when being in touch with our feelings takes on independent and crucial moral significance.  It comes to be something we have to attain if we are to be true and full human beings.[8]

When the lush rhetorical undergrowth is hacked away, this amounts to the Humean idea that ethics ultimately reduces to taste and sentiment, which means that moral disputes have the cognitive content of rustling wind chimes.  It is about time someone provided some worrisome counterexamples.  Pol Pot was authentic.  So is (or was) Osama bin Laden.  Saddam Hussein was a true and full human being, in touch with his moral feelings, and so are David Duke and Louis Farrakhan.  This is not to underestimate the ingenuity of Professor Taylor, the grand intellectual shark of leftist communitarianism, or of the school of intellectual remoras that follow in his wake.[9]  No doubt it is possible to make ad hoc modifications, additions and limitations to the theorizing of identity politics, until only those causes preferred by the class of ’68 are vindicated.  It is worth pointing out that this is the most dubious and overt kind of special pleading, and that the need for this sort of conceptual cleanup brigade is always a sign that a theory is in trouble.  Ptolemaic astronomy can be rescued if you add enough epicycles. Écrasez l’infame.

Professor Gutman tells us that “essentialists” who advocate the Western canon are dogmatic; the unargued-for implication is that multicultic dogmas are somehow better: they just are.  Professor Gutmann informs us that “Deconstructionists” are skeptical of the Western Canon and want to empower themselves; multiculti are skeptical of skepticism and create a rhetorical fig leaf to cover their otherwise naked power grab, which makes the candor of the Deconstructionists seem quite attractive.  Only self-contradictory intellectual desk pounding can hold together this nihilistic, something for everyone self-indulgence.  The theorists of multiculturalism, identity politics and political correctness are protected by their own logical inconsistency, of course, because tolerance, perspectivalism or some nebulous relativism will alternate with its opposite; equality or dignity or identity or something being touted as the transhistorical, transcultural Ur-norm.  Ironically, both will be justified on the basis of the same inexplicable gnostic insight into the ultimate reality of Righteousness.  This will be done to save liberal democracy, understood as that system of government where certain intellectuals legislate what is morally respectable and what isn’t.  As the Wizard of Oz said, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

The loss of traditional conceptions of virtue in American life leaves a void in political thought that is soon filled with empty rhetorical gestures about dignity and rights and entitlements.[10]  This is connected to the overcompensating vogue of moist political theories that undermine human achievement and replace virtue and excellence with bathetic feel good paeans to mediocrity.  As Garrison Keillor quipped, eventually all men are strong, all women beautiful and all children above average.  Since the external world constantly gives the lie to such pathetic narcissism, it becomes necessary to adopt the collective solipsism that reality is socially constructed; that the world, despite all appearances, is what we decide it is and want it to be.  If it weren’t, then this saccharine self deception would be a waste of time.

Necessity is the mother of postmodernity.  Postmodernism is not life as we know it.  It is a conceptual fungus that grows on the fallen redwoods of the Enlightenment.  Charles Taylor is acute and helpful as always:

We can distinguish two changes that together have made the modern preoccupation with identity and recognition inevitable.  The first is the collapse of social hierarchies, which used to be the basis of honor….  As against this notion of honor we have the modern notion of dignity, now used in a universalist and egalitarian sense….  It is obvious that this concept of dignity is the only one compatible with a democratic society, and that it was inevitable that the old concept of honor was superseded….[11]

Students at Princeton will in the future sign a “Dignity Code”.  Judges should be addressed as “Your Equality”, Cardinals as “Your Inconspicuousness”, Chess Grandmasters as “Your Average Playerness”.  It seems that we must eliminate such odious antidemocratic relics as the Olympic gold medals, the Congressional Medal of Honor, the National League Most Valuable Player Award, and the Nobel Prize for Physics.  Or perhaps we should award all of these honors to everyone, lest we discriminate on the basis of ability and thereby threaten people’s self-esteem.  Everyone’s a winner!  Prizes galore!  The ill-concealed resentment and frivolous vulgarity of this kind of contemporary political philosophy ennobles us all equally.  Postmodern politics is pretentious Hegelian pseudo-omniscience: a disguised end of history argument which provides a rhetorical veneer of legitimacy for a political power grab by alienated intellectuals.

Welcome to the end of history: the age of totalitarian niceness.  When arete is devalued, ethics becomes trivial; we find out that it is nice to be nice to the nice.  Of course, what’s nice and who’s nice is perspectival and relative, unless certain intellectuals are feeling intransigent, in which case it’s not.  In practice this means that we absolutize the whimsicalities of the social stratum from which American intellectuals are drawn, what one author called “Bourgeois Bohemians” and what another called the “white wine and Volvo set”.  The most outlandish example of moral self-congratulation by the cultural left can be found in the work of the late Richard Rorty, an exemplary member of the class of ’68.  Since he disapproved of “foundationalism”, he acknowledged that his moral preference for “solidarity” is “contingent” in the sense that he might just have easily advocated something else, and that it is “ironic” because he concedes that he could not possibly have any better reason for advocating what he does than anyone else could have for advocating whatever they do.  Rorty is generous enough to tell us that he will approve of us if we approve of the things he approves of, but he is candid enough to acknowledge that there is no reason why we should care about his approval.[12]  In order to fully appreciate this languorous act of ubermenschlich will, one must imagine Nietzsche on antidepressants in a country-club community.   This suburban epistemology is easily attached to any political theory that is handy.  It is, after all, a wild card which can be paired with anything that makes sensitive people feel weepy.

Rorty bluntly explained the pedagogical implications of his groundless commitments.  People with conservative political and moral beliefs are “frightening, dangerous, and vicious”.  They need “education” in order to hold opinions that are entitled to respect.  They will be “educated” when they think as he wishes.  Only students who hold views that approximate Rorty’s can be “participants in our discussion”.  Those Rorty regards as “bigots” need not speak.

It seems to me that the regulative idea that we heirs of the Enlightenment, we Socratists, most frequently use to criticize the conduct of various conversational partners is that of “needing education in order to outgrow their primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions”….  It is a concept which I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities, invoke when we try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own….  The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire “American liberal establishment” is engaged in a conspiracy.  The parents have a point.  Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students….  When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures.  Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization.  We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank…. You have to be educated in order to be… a participant in our conversation….  So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.  We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours….  I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei [domination-free] about my handling of my fundamentalist students.  Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft [domination] of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents….  I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause. [13]

Primitive “fears, hatreds and superstition” will be supplanted by sophisticated fears, hatreds and superstitions.  Those who disapprove of homosexual conduct have a disease: homophobia.  It can be cured by repeated doses of academic failure.  Those who are Christian believers (“fundamentalists”) need to be “discredited in the eyes of their children” and “stripped of their dignity” because this was the only properly moral stance for a teacher like Rorty to take.  Rorty’s smarmy self-congratulation at his own moral and intellectual superiority was such that he pretended that those who contradicted him were mere children, in need of domination, not dialogue.  His goal was to make views he disapproves of seem “silly rather than discussable”.  Professor Rorty was confident that he served a better cause than the Nazis because he approved of the things he was committed to because he was confident he had better taste.  This is how he could be sure that indoctrinating his students in the way that the Nazis did is much better morally: because the content of his indoctrination was different.  The ultimate irony is that Rorty pretended that this dogmatic self-righteousness was “Socratic” rather than acknowledging that this sophistry was robustly Protagorean.  Candor has its limits.

As the extraordinary arrogance of the cultural left makes clear, the politics of education is in dire straits.  Although the situation in higher education today is grim, all is not lost.   We still retain the keys to reforming higher education so that it serves its function of imparting both fair-minded knowledge of historical fact and a respect for the traditions which made us what we are: Westerners speaking a Western language at a Western institution in a Western society.  What is needed is more rigorous teaching of history, particularly American history, and a revitalization of the Western canon.  We need a less tendentious account of our history and a more thorough understanding of our philosophical tradition.

Theory or ideology needs a healthy dose of factual knowledge against which it is to be assessed.  History is a humbling discipline because serious students eventually learn there is nothing new under the sun.  The crisis of faith which is so widespread—the pervasive spiritual bankruptcy currently seen in the academy, including moral relativism, political correctness, etc.—has been confronted before, and sometimes with more resolve.

The best way to strengthen appreciation of the Western canon is by teaching the teachers, particularly new Ph.Ds taking doctorates in the elite national universities.  The class of ’89 is not ineducable if its members are provided with the appropriate incentives.  Young scholars are the bottleneck or choke point where the maximum benefit could be achieved at the least cost.  I would like to propose a remedial reading program for newly minted Ph.D.s.  During the summer after they take their degree, before they are set loose upon unsuspecting undergraduates, young scholars should be given a chance to read landmarks in the Western canon and attend a seminar led by those professors who know these books best.  This is particularly true of those new Ph.D.s who will be teaching in one of the surviving great Books courses required at institutions like Columbia, Chicago, Mercer University or Boston University.  It is impossible to fill all the gaps in such a short time, but some reading of the Bible, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe would improve undergraduate education noticeably.

Universities are more than havens for malcontented whining.  Freedom is more than a mere means for inventing a spurious collective identity and demanding other peoples’ flattery.  A university education which will offer an alternative to such poisonous confections might encourage real achievement rather than creating a vocabulary with which to make excuses for non-achievement or abolishing the category of achievement altogether.  Envy, rage, and self-pity are not virtues; aspiration, veracity and prudence are.[14]


[1] E.g., Richard Bernstein, The Dictatorship of Virtue (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1994), and Kors and Silverstein, The Shadow University (New York: The Free Press, 1998).     return

[2] Elizabeth Burgos (ed.), I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (New York: Verso, 1984), and David Stoll, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, expanded edition (Boulder: Westview Press, 2007).     return

[3] In Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays (New York: Norton, 1928).      return

[4] My insensitivity is so militant that I am unable to discern any significant difference between Clyde Wilson, “The Confederate Battle Flag: A Symbol of Southern Heritage and Identity,” Southern Cultures 2:2 (Winter, 1996) and Randall Robinson, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (New York: Dutton, 2000).      return

[5] Christopher Lasch,  The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Norton, 1979), and Robert Hughes, The Culture of Complaint; The Fraying of America (New York: Oxford U P, 1993).      return

[6] Nat Hentoff, “The Twilight of Free Speech at Colleges,” Washington Times (October 15, 2002).    return

[7] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard U P 2005), 179.  Carried into practice, this quickly becomes unfunny self-parody.  The Governor of California was doubtless impressed when he accepted the “Final Report of the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem….”  <http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/ custom/portlets  /recordDetails/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED 321170&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED321170>.     

[8] Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition.” Reprinted in Amy Gutman (ed.), Multiculturalism (Princeton, Princeton U P, 1994), 28.      return

[9] This is not intended as a criticism of all communitarian thinkers; see Amatai Etzioni, The New Golden Rule, for a more plausible and Aristotelian set of arguments.      return

[10] CF. Michael Sugrue, “Why I am Sick to Death of Self-Esteem and Bored to Tears by Authenticity,” Posthumous Works (forthcoming).      return

[11] Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” 26-27. Reprinted in Amy Gutman, op. cit.      return

[12]Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (New York, Cambridge U P, 1989), 44-48 and passim.     return

[13] “Universality and Truth,” in Robert B. Brandom (ed.), Rorty and his Critics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 21-22.     

[14] Cf. Alasdair McIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1984).     return

Michael Sugrue received a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University in 1992.  Having taught in a Great Books curriculum at Princeton for almost a decade, he moved on to become Professor of History at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida.