Academic Wrestling

I do not envy the position in which college presidents often find themselves. Although frequently trained for intellectual rigor and exactitude, once they take on the mantle of the presidency, they often find themselves reduced to voicing the milquetoast and the banal as if it meant something. Charged with advancing a sizable institution that has, in principle, a unified mission, they generally find themselves playing mediator or compromiser between hostile, opposed camps within their walls. Life becomes an art of trying to say the least offensive thing in public, while conceding enough to various antagonistic parties to manage and balance an institution, keeping it afloat even as it looks increasingly adrift. As the role of universities and colleges in contemporary American society comes increasingly into question, these extraordinary circumstances likely call for someone who can respond to the challenges of the day in terms quite other than those such “managers” can offer.

Judging from his book, Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses, it remains in doubt whether Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, could be such a figure. Rather than seeing through the dualisms of competing factions to the guiding principles beneath, he promotes the unhappy circumstances of the college president to a full-blown philosophical position, that of the pragmatism he learned from John Dewey and Richard Rorty. The pragmatist does not go abroad in search of first principles, but accepts the dualism found at hand and seeks to muddle through by way of compromise. The pragmatist’s vision of education is “to help people construct a sense of who they are, what matters to them, and what they hope to make of their lives.” We do not propose to impart or to discover these things, but rather to construct them; education is complete not when a person has been conformed to a fuller vision of the truth, but when the student has an individually-fashioned, interior “sense” of “identity,” “values,” and “goals.”

In Bad Faith

In the first chapter of Safe Enough Spaces, it is clear that Roth is primarily speaking to those who already agree with him, so no argument is needed. In the second and third, he attempts to speak to those with whom he does not sympathize—and from whom he has likely received many antagonistic letters—but does so with an argument that simply assumes their bad faith. That is an odd posture for a pragmatist, as pragmatists have this much in common with the ancient sophists: they generally treat arguments as means of persuasion, as a posteriori justifications for felt inclinations or policy preferences. All this notwithstanding, tucked away in these pages lies something stunning and beautiful that provides, I believe, a seed for the renewal of the academy in our times.

Roth argues that the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States poses a grave threat to the university. Trump’s rhetoric is not merely an expression of a wider public distrust of the academy, but a specific danger to academic freedom. His administration’s criticism of affirmative action is “cynical political opportunism,” a mere extension of his “attacking immigrants” by other means, so as “to protect those who already have key social advantages.”

To counter this—if that is the right word—Roth gives a brief history of affirmative action. Such programs were begun in order to give “access” to the university to students who otherwise would not have it. But racial preferences have met resistance that other kinds of preferences (for athletes or the children of alumni, primarily) have not. In defense of such preferences, universities began to assert that affirmative action benefited not only those admitted through such programs, but all students, as they came to encounter on campus “people from different backgrounds.”

This rhetorical shift to justify affirmative action by appeal to the common good presaged a larger shift. Affirmative action remains unpopular, and institutions have accordingly turned their attentions from granting access to facilitating “inclusion” so that everyone “feels equally ‘at home’ on campus.” Administrators naturally have an easier time defending inclusion than racial preferences, and Roth worries that programs promoting “access” will suffer in consequence.

But programs of inclusion have not come without controversy either, and he understands why. Roth holds that a student should feel like part of a campus community but should also be encouraged to develop a sense of “identity,” the conscious cultivation of which may segregate students into small camps. He thinks students have reason to want to find their identities “reflected” in their coursework, but he also thinks that any argument for diversity on campus must be founded on the intrinsic value of “finding strangeness and distance” in that coursework as well. His recommendation is a president’s and a pragmatist’s recommendation: to balance these competing “values,” while maintaining one’s preference for affirmative action. The discussion of affirmative action seems cobbled together from previously published, shorter articles and winds up merely circling about and repeating that preference rather than attempting to justify it.

Conservative and religious voices are mostly excluded on campus, and that exclusion is almost totally invisible to a leftist faculty aswim in its own sense of inevitability.

The second half of the book takes up two questions that emerge from the project of inclusion and more successfully treats them. Roth argues that accusations, from outside the academy, of campuses having become soft totalitarian regimes of “political correctness” or “PC culture” are red herrings. A few outrageous incidents are made to seem typical, when in fact schools are largely open-minded and flourishing places of inquiry. No faculty ever actually “think of themselves as ‘PC.’ Of course, nobody ever has.”

He then insists that, while we should all be concerned for increasing “intellectual diversity” on our campuses, that does not entail that the academy should consider, or has ever considered, “free speech” as a primary value. The academy depends on critical review and qualifications as the price of admission and so cannot be a simple “marketplace of ideas.” Those who denounce the advent of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” or decry the student protestors who have disrupted public lectures because they did not like the speaker are nothing but “hypocritical handwringers,” Roth insists.

And yet, in each instance, he winds up conceding the criticisms that are leveled at the academy, its faculty, and its students. He acknowledges a tendency to “retreat to the safety of your own group” and that it leads to the shutting down of speakers whose speech might “marginalize” some students. This, he agrees, does undermine the encounter with “strangeness” and difference that he sees as central and necessary to education.

Against “political correctness,” he says, “we must not protect ourselves from disagreement.” He claims to “share the concern” that “college students today are too open to restriction on discourse” and too ready to curtail speech they find hurtful. The infamous events involving Charles Murray at Middlebury College, and Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State College he (sort of) agrees are deplorable. While he bends over backwards to justify the idea of “safe spaces,” some instances of them on campuses have amounted to “counterproductive catering.” And, finally, he sees that “the lefty consensus” has created “a serious problem of political bias on college campuses.” Conservative and religious voices are mostly excluded, and that exclusion is almost totally invisible to a leftist faculty aswim in its own complacency, sense of inevitability, and right-thinking.

Does Roth contradict himself? Not in his estimation. Yes, these problems are real, but those who decry “political correctness” or demand “free speech” do not argue in good faith. The substance of such criticisms need not be addressed so long as the wrong people are making them.

And Roth’s list of the wrong people does not limit itself to Republican voters. Among the several he mentions is Allan Bloom, whose The Closing of the American Mind Roth discusses, in one chapter, with sympathy and perception, before thinking better of the effort and dismissing Bloom as a “bestselling conservative scold” in the next. This is a shame. As I shall suggest, Bloom could have played a helpful role in deepening and giving firmer direction to Roth’s pragmatic argument.

The Strangeness of Eros

For his part, Roth sees these problems as simply more items for administrators to address, as they confess simultaneously that everything participates “in systems of racist domination” and that conservative and religious voices also need a place on campus. Here is where Roth’s pragmatism, with its tendency to see two intractable sides to every question, reveals its weakness. When one of those sides cannot be dismissed out of hand as acting in bad faith, Roth sees the optimum action to be one of compromise and balancing among coalitions. Spaces of inclusion must be balanced against encounters of disagreement, “flourishing” balanced against “criticizing.”

To linger in such binaries cannot be the end of the inquiry, however. The word “flourishing,” after all, does not stand in meaningful opposition to “criticizing.” Flourishing involves more than someone’s “sense” of having constructed an identity, set of values, or goals. Flourishing entails attaining a genuinely good way of life and, to borrow a concept from Alasdair MacIntyre, “practicing” it. Criticizing seems quite plausibly to be one of those activities a flourishing person might practice, alongside things like bravery, reason, and piety.

Recall Roth’s argument that students are justified in wanting to see their identities reflected in their education, but that they should also be challenged by the “strangeness” of what they learn. If one sees the world as a series of dualisms that must be balanced, such a framing might make sense, but it is really no more helpful than the idea of balancing “flourishing” and “criticizing.” Roth, in his pragmatist’s way, thinks of the “strange” in education primarily as a matter of a student’s encounter with disagreement, with others’ thinking differently than themselves. In reference to Reed College’s—sadly—controversial core humanities seminar (which students protested because of its colonialist, dead white male, western bias), he notes another kind of strangeness: education as the study of that which is foreign and different from our own contemporary culture. We study history and culture to learn that which is unlike us. These are weak conceptions of “strangeness.”

There is a third sort of strangeness, however—one that has more in common with the students who want to see their identities reflected in their education than is usually acknowledged. That is the strangeness exemplified, at least in part, by that very figure Roth almost dares to take seriously: Allan Bloom. Bloom shared with Plato a vision of education as the process by which our natural desire—our eros—is initiated into a great tradition that will, in turn, be formative of that desire. Education as formation entails not so much the building as the planting and cultivating of the soul, so that it may arrive in the presence of the Good, contemplate it, participate in it, and finally be transformed by it.

The most conservative idea in our day is to suggest that the truth might be something worth loving.

Eros is natural to us, but it is also, at first, blind. It hungers but does not know for what; it likes but does not yet like what it ought. A school and the intellectual tradition it stewards are there to open what was closed and to fill what was empty. What appears strange—bizarre, unattractive, and foreign—to the young student will become, by the end, a second nature perfective of the first. This is education envisioned not as a series of compromises among static, competing interests, but as the overcoming of difference and disagreement in order to enjoy the truth in its unity and become a better, more unified person in turn: a person conformed by love to the True.

Those who think of education as reinforcing their “identity” are correct, insofar as it is our very selves that have “skin in the game” when we learn. It is to help us to become more truly ourselves that liberal education first came into being. But liberal education begins with the assumption that we do not yet know who we are.

Roth rightly sees that conservative and religious voices are largely missing from campuses and proposes an “affirmative action” for scholars who can be identified as such. But the reason to hire more conservative and religious faculty may be more profound than mere “intellectual diversity.” Such faculty are often the only ones with a sufficiently substantive vision of the eros for the Good and the True as to make the proper “strangeness” of education possible. The weakness of the contemporary academy, with its heavy tilt of “lefty” faculty, is that it cannot really propose that there is anything worth our becoming, except, perhaps, for the noble profession of being practical managers of difference and disagreement. The most conservative idea in our day is to suggest that the truth might be something worth loving.


Roth senses this, I think, and suggests as much with an elegant and powerful flourish late in the volume. There, in what seems almost an aside, he tells us a story. Roth’s father has died. A secular Jew and atheist, Roth nonetheless wants to pray the Kaddish, a prayer that cannot be said alone. He soon happens upon a group of fellow Jews and begins to pray with them. Later, he says, he begins to study Torah with them as well. Roth describes these engagements as acts of wrestling—wrestling with those who pray and with himself, wrestling with “questions of love and judgment, justice and violence, grace and forgiveness.” And, in these words, we hear, of course, a deep echo: Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at Peniel in Genesis 32:22-32.

Older than the dialogues of Plato, the episode of Jacob and the angel is the very prototype of the intellectual life, not to mention the classic proof text of contemplative or “mystical” prayer. Man engages with the truth, struggles mightily with it, and will not let go until the Truth Itself condescends to tell him his name.

In this struggle, Jacob discovers that there is something divine in him—that he has the potential to see the truth in all its transcendent fullness (as the episode of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28 also hints to us). He is a man of flesh and bone, however; the truth comes only through agony and, afterward, we shall walk with a limp, having been touched by what so absolutely exceeds us. Jacob wrestles the angel not to comfort himself in his present state, not to indulge his curiosity for the strange, but to become someone new—to become Israel, the one who struggles with God.

Jacob is a man on a journey. He is going somewhere definite, though where exactly he cannot yet fully say; and to arrive there will involve becoming something other than, more than, what he has until now understood himself to be. This is what it means to “flourish.” And, despite his pragmatic disposition, I believe Roth also sees that true education sets the soul on a journey through eros and challenges us to wrestle with truth, just as Jacob learned to wrestle and was greatly blessed.