Making Our Universities a Source of Universal Knowledge

In the Spring print edition of City Journal, now available online, I have a long form essay on what can be done to bring together the sciences and the humanities in our universities and in particular revive the latter from the anesthesia of postmodernism. The distance between the humanities and sciences has grown wider since C.P. Snow discussed it six decades ago in his famous essay, “The Two Cultures.” And yet as Snow correctly said, we need knowledge of both to “think with wisdom.”

Here is how I begin.

Harvard University is opening a new campus devoted to engineering and the life sciences. It will be located next to the business school but a four-mile walk from Harvard Square and the main campus. This separation symbolizes how the modern university has cleaved itself in two. One university integrates three steps in the mastery of the natural world: science explains that world; technology creates the tools by which we master it; and business innovates to get those tools to market. The other university focuses on the study of man, his history, and landmark achievements in art and literature. It is traditionally concerned with understanding, not control. At least, it was.

I make three key points. First, the humanities are needed now more than ever because only they provide the understanding on how technology can be used to best help human flourishing. Second, under the influence of postmodernism humanities have been giving up this crucial role in transmitting the best of our traditions, and as a result students have been fleeing their majors. Third, it is imperative to revive the humanities because the faster that man changes the world through science, the more that he needs the humanities to provide the self-understanding to navigate the rapids to come.

I offer some novel ways to reinvigorate the humanities in addition to going back to a close reading of the great books — ways that will also help integrate science with the humanities. The power of technology and science can once again set the humanities on the road to truth seeking as well as provide students with useful skills. For instance, big data allows us better help to understand the past systematically and dispassionately. One example comes from law: the big data approach of corpus linguistics is a tool that can discipline the search for constitutional meaning.  Sociobiology is a science that can help us parse out the claims of human nature that are the basis of much political science. As James Madison asked, what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” Developments in biology help us pin that nature down.  

A final idea is for students to look at the social problems caused by new technologies, such as intervention in the genome. This requires understanding of technology and science but also forces students to confront technology morally and politically — and that requires knowledge of the traditions that shape judgment. In an age of technological acceleration, one of the best ways to make the past directly relevant is to consider the future.

Please consider reading the whole thing.

Reader Discussion

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on April 26, 2018 at 12:58:06 pm

One of the contributors to the Liberty Law Blog (I don't remember which), recently paraphrased the late Peter Augustine Lawler's observation that things are always getting better...and worse. This observation comports with casual experience, and one might ask why this is so. Certainly, human life is better in many ways now than it was in say, the 13th century, and this conclusion may be supported by objective evidence: changes in infant mortality, ease of travel. access to information, and as P.J. O'Rourke noted, dentistry.

It is undeniable that scientific advances and greater understanding of the objective world are largely responsible for these improvements. When Professor McGinnis talks of big data, artificial intelligence and and emerging cognitive technologies, he is references the fruit of a very few talented thinkers; e.g. Girolamo Cardano, René Descartes, Isaaac Newton, Pierre Laplace and Carl Friedrich Gauss. We can also look just about anywhere in the modern world and wonder where we would be without the work of James Clerk Maxwell, and Sadi Carnot.

In keeping with the "three steps in the mastery of the world" structure proposed by Professor McGinnis, one would assign the contributions of the scientists mentioned above to the first step, and note that the second step consists of the contribution of talented, practical people such as Watt, Edison, Tesla, Jenner, Marconi, Borlaug, etc.

Certainly the plight of mankind has generally improved, but one must also note that this improvement is not monotonic. Life in Venezuela in 2018 is objectively worse than it was in 1990. What accounts for this backsliding? Why don't science and technology guarantee unremitting improvement? Didn't Cambodia in 1975 have access to the same scientific knowledge as it did in 1965, and didn't Zimbabwe have access to the same knowledge as it did when it was Rhodesia? What happened to Detroit in the midst of dizzying technological advancement between say, 1965 and 2012? Why are things always getting better...and worse at the same time?

This is really the crux of the issue that arises from the interaction between science, i.e. the facts of the world, and the humanities, figuring out how humans fit within it.

Not wishing to run afoul of LLBs post length peculiarities, I shall return in another post.

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on April 26, 2018 at 13:40:10 pm

Continuing the thought above, look at the technology that science made available to the Third Reich, and look at what they did with it. Now say what you want about Hitler, the guy had at least some understanding of human nature; he had a philosoply, he had social theories, yet hhis views of progress were not views of improvement. Mao Tse-tung wrote a book that can arguable be thought of as a political and sociological treatise. He could probably get an appoint to the humanities faculty at any number of contemporary American universities, but like Marx before him, his theories about what human life should be like did not produce the anticipated happiness when implemented in the real world and imposed on real people. From this, one may make a general observation: The present is generally better than the past because people like Cardano and Newton were able to unravel knowledge of the world as it is. People like Borlaug were able to apply this knowledge to improve human life without undertaking to improve human nature. They made things better by concerning themselves with the physical facts of the world, not with some abstract and unrealistic vision of how the world should be.

This is the source of the drifting apart of the humanities from the sciences. It is not that humanities are inherently corrupt or frivolous or ideological; it is rather that they are more vulnerable to corruption, frivolity and ideological rigidity. A physicist is generally content that the charge on an electron is what it is, without fretting about how to improve it. A humanities professor however is able to indulge in redefining things like justice, the proper role of tradition, the concept of racial identity, etc. Sometimes these theories bear fruit and human life improves; sometimes the opposite happens. Right now the humanities seem to be in a paroxysm of silliness, railing not against technology. as McGinnis quotes Snow regarding Luddites, but reality. Sex is not a social construct any more than gravity is, or the need for oxygen is. The malady goes beyond Luddism, with the malady now seeing to infect science with notions that math is oppressive, and the laws of physics having some weird relationship to white supremacy or something.

When the space shuttle program ended, NASA seem bereft of a focused mission, the technological triumphs of Project Apollo fading into history. One commenter noted that the reason was that NASA didn't have enough philosophers, people to give those technological triumphs meaning. This is probably true, and this is probably a good illustration of not only the value of robust humanities but of the necessity for them. Unfortunately it seems that the humanities are drifting away from a legacy of human intellectual accomplishments, lured by the siren songs of grievance, nihilism and political agendas.

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on April 26, 2018 at 14:40:26 pm

I am not persuaded of the validity of two of Professor McGinnis' core assumptions, above.

First, I am not persuaded that the humanities as currently taught and practiced are defined by post-modernism. Part of the problem is one of definition--unless we can define our terms more or less precisely, we are at some risk of limning caricatures. Here is an example of the kind of caricature that, perhaps, Professor McGinnis is referring to:


The problem with this is that very few people I know or whose work I have read in the academy subscribe to those beliefs. Unless we can describe the beliefs of others in ways that they can recognize and acknowledge--so unless we can describe post-modernism in a way that someone who claims to be a post-modernist can say "yes, that's what I am committed to defending,"--we have instead erected a straw-man.

Post-modernism, as an intellectual movement, is largely spent. Very few people I know today, in the academic conversations I inhabit, would want to defend historicism, atheism, cultural relativism, and so on. Most of my colleagues are believers, to one degree or another, and those who are not do not waste energy proselytizing for atheism . Very few academic historians are actively hostile to religious belief--it is possible, for example, to write a book like Kramnick and Moore's GODLESS CONSTITUTION while at the same time being a practicing and observant theist (I don't know the personal beliefs of either--my point is that nothing in their argument is incompatible with a principled and devout religious conviction.) Very few thoughtful historians are historicists; very few thoughtful philosophers are cultural relativists. Practicing historians tend to assume that the past existed, is at least partially knowable, and mattered. Practicing philosophers tend to acknowledge that some things must be true--no academic philosopher I know denies objective ethics or truth (see, eg. Russ Shafer-Landau, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO GOOD AND EVIL, or Simon Blackburn, TRUTH: A GUIDE).

So, for example, Woody Holton, a prominent contemporary constitutional historian who has sought in his work to revive the progressive, Beardian approach to constitutional history, very clearly believes that it is possible to recover an objective past. I disagree with his work--but it is a gross mischaracterization of his scholarship to accuse him of the kinds of belief that ones finds in the allaboutbelief definition of post-modernism. Gordon Wood, Alan Taylor, Jack Rakove, Jon Kaminski--whatever else these guys are, they are not post-modern.

Excellent conservative scholars--Kevin Gutzman, for example--may well receive their share of criticism. But not for their apostasy from some putative (and non-existent) post-modern orthodoxy.

I would submit that a guy like Holton (or Taylor, or Wood) is a characteristic exemplar of contemporary academic positions, at least within the study of history. I have lots of colleagues who find Holton's work persuasive.

Most humanities scholars I know care intensely about what is happening in what they take to be an objectively real world, and believe with some intense and admirable passion that there are objectively better and worse ways of conducting one's life The world, they argue with conviction, does not reduce to mere power relationships, in the cynical fashion projected by, say, House of Cards. It is emphatically not about winners and losers, in which there is no moral content to victory or defeat. Victory and defeat, in their work, matter--but for their objective moral and ethical content. Such beliefs are not compatible with post-modernism.

Second, I don't think that the decline in the humanities is the result of post-modernism. It is, rather, driven by the democratization of university education, a quite understandable focus on the economic benefits of university education, and the concomitant marginalization of more spiritual, humanistic, or civic understandings of the value of education. My students don't recoil in horror at post-modern indoctrination (they mostly don't recognize what post-modernism is and are largely unfamiliar with it, precisely because that is not the focus of the courses they are taking, in ANY of the disciplines other than, perhaps, English Literature)--rather, they worry that they won't be able to get a job. It is an uphill battle, culturally speaking, to persuade them to care about the life well lived.

If we care about the humanities--and we should, since arguably they contribute to sustaining a free (liberal--let us please recall the proper meaning of that word!), democratic polity--then it is a mistake to focus on post-modernism as the source of our contemporary ills. When we do that, we are fighting yesterday's battles. Guys like Simon Blackburn and Russ Shaffer-Landau (and Ian Hacking--see, eg. THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF WHAT?) won those battles. I don't see any compelling need to refight them.

I am much more concerned with the older progressive and neo-marxist ideologies I see around me, than I am with post-modernism. The notion, for example, that everything important reduces to an underlying economic reality, and that all meaningful contests are ultimately defined by base rather than superstructure, is alive and well and pervasive, and not just in our universities.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on April 26, 2018 at 16:54:21 pm


That is quite a nice take on post-modernism, it's impact / import (or lack thereof vis a vis young students). I tend to agree. I also agree that there is far more to be concerned with in the area of Progressivism and neo-marxism as a recent LLB essayist demonstrated with the current Pope.

I would only add: "The notion, for example, that everything important reduces to an underlying economic reality, [race, gender, patriarchy] and that all meaningful contests are ultimately defined by base rather than superstructure,...

Our problems, as they are DEFINED FOR US by the Proggies / Marxists, are apparently far more extensive and terminal than mere economics.

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on April 26, 2018 at 17:37:25 pm


I would want to distinguish progressivism from neo-marxism, since they strike me as having distinct ideological origins. Theodore Roosevelt was a proponent of American capitalism in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln, so it makes no sense to accuse him of being an advocate of socialism or communism, or a proponent of Marxist ideas. But he absolutely wanted to employ the power of the Federal government to regulate corporate capitalism, especially of the tendency of large accumulations of capital to form monopolistic enterprises in order to control competition. Competition is good for a capitalist economy, but it is not necessarily good for stockholders of individual corporations, who stand, under some conditions, to make more money if there is less competition, not more.

I also want to distinguish the concerns of at least some historians, political scientists, and public intellectuals regarding the degree to which the American republic confronts an existential crisis from progressism or neo-marxism. I don't think such concerns are to be found solely on the left, nor do I think that the anxieties of our liberal friends are a product of their progressive or marxist ideologies.

Conside, for example, the core argument of Levitsky and Ziblatt, HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE. They assert a four part rubric for the kind of authoritarian politics that they argue have the potential to destroy democratic regimes:

1. Rejection of or weak commitment to democratic "rules of the game," including commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law, support for anti democratic measures (like cancelling elections or suspending the constitution), endorsement of extra-constitutional means to change government, and attempts to undermine the legitimacy of elections.

2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, including: describing political rivals as subversive or opponents of the constitution, and claiming that they constitute an existential threat to the nation, baselessly accusing opponents of criminality, and baseless accusations that political opponents are agents of hostile foreign powers.

3. Toleration and encouragement of violence, including: ties to armed gangs or paramilitary organizations; sponsorship of mob violence against opponents; tacit endorsement of violence by their supporters, by refusing to condemn it; praise for use of violence elsewhere in the world.

4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. This includes: support for laws that restrict civil liberties, such as expanded libel or defamation, or laws that restrict protest or criticism of the government or political organizations; threat to take legal action against political rivals; praise for repressive measures taken by other governments elsewhere in the world.

Academically, Levitsky and Ziblatt are students of authoritarianism in Latin America and Europe. They derive their four part rubric inductively, from their analysis of the failure of democracy in places like Venezuela or 1920s Italy.

What I find striking in their analysis is the absence of the kind of "revolution of the proletariat" that I would expect from a Marxist scholar, or the "promise of American life" kind of account I would expect from a disciple of Herbert Croly. These guys may be modern liberals, but I don't see anything, just in what they have written, that could not have been written by a conservative scholar.

I think we can, if we want, challenge the inductive typology of authoritarianism they assert. That will stand or fall based on the quality of their analysis of the collapse of democratic regimes in places like Venezuela. But I don't see anything in what they have written to suggest we can reject their thought a priori, as indected by false ideology.

Frankly, I find their analysis scary, and the parallels they draw worthy of taking seriously.

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Kevin Hardwick
on April 27, 2018 at 10:34:36 am


Agreed on the potential Four Causes as well as the 'absence" of a revolution of the proletariat as that class often lacks the energy, vision and tools to implement the tools of the four Causes, as it were.

I would add only this.

As human attention / vision is often focused on images in the foreground, it is not unreasonable for observers to concentrate on what is before them. Daily, we see instances of intolerance, suppression of speech, denial of basic rights and dignity AND life (see the UK case of the little boy Alfie this past week. this rightly focuses our attention.
And all, or almost exclusively, these actions are being initiated by the Left (Proggies, neo-Marxists, etc).

I will concede that the *possibility* of similar actions being proposed and undertaken by the Right are possible, and indeed in some South of the Border nations, such has occurred; yet, within the larger Western community, EU and English speaking peoples, what occupies the visual and intellectual foreground is the predominance of Leftists / Progressives in the cadre / vanguard (to go Marxian, here) of those forces seeking to impose their WILL, irrespective of the Law and traditions, upon those with whom they disagree.
As for right leaning proponents / exponents of this type of tyranny, they are usually viewed with great skepticism indeed perceived and presented as wild-eyed *cranks* and are invariably dismissed by any reasonable observer.

And yes, there may be some overlap in the "aspirational" writings / analyses of Right or Left scholars; the trick, however, is in the recommended policy prescriptions. At present, it is the Left that occupies the foreground of intellectual / rhetorical debate.

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If Angels Educated Men

While there are many strong pedagogical reasons for homeschooling, protecting children from the ideology of the system is, itself, a good reason.