Reducing Our Life Together to Interests, Fears, and Hatreds

It seems every year we have more proof that American universities are failing to engage in civic education, especially if we understand the concept as requiring meaningful reflection about the nature and purposes of government rather than just an awareness of the mechanisms of our government. There are exceptions, but for the most part, it seems unreasonable to expect much from the cafeteria-style general education curriculum required at most colleges. It is just as often remarked that even the civic education that some college students might encounter does not help, either—at least if you are a U.S. citizen who cares about fostering morally serious debate about the legitimate purposes of government in shaping our lives.

The challenge here goes deeper, of course: while all the major disciplinary associations have some sort of standing committee related to civic education, majoring in politics, economics, or American literature offers a poor preparation for citizenship these days. This isn’t simply a matter of trendy content obsessed with race, class, and gender; nor is it a matter just of political bias in the classroom. A bright student with an independent mind can overcome almost any professor’s bias within his or her own mind (if not in the classroom assignments). The real challenge is that our best students, those who commit themselves to the fields we teach, naturally adopt some of the interpretive methods of their fields, and carry them forward into life. And on that point, it isn’t at all clear to me that the humanities or social sciences offer much by way of civic education, or for that matter, the kind of genuinely liberal education that can help guide them through life.

In Democracy in America (1853), Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote that in democratic times, it isn’t just the citizenry that the passion for equality alters; scholars, too, undergo a change. Tocqueville observed that the views of historians of his time differed quite profoundly from those of their counterparts in earlier times:

Most of them attribute hardly any influence over the destinies of mankind to individuals, or over the fate of a people to the citizens. But they make great general causes responsible for the smallest particular events. . . . Historians who live in democratic ages are not only prone to attribute each happening to a great cause but are also led to link facts together to make a system.[1]

Systems of this sort are pernicious in part because they flatten our understanding of what motivates human beings, reducing our life together into interests, fears, or hatreds, and categorizing us by our inherent traits. Race, class, and gender have a genuine use to be sure, but when these categories are married to a general commitment to the idea that only great movements matter, this has profound consequences for individuals who absorb that teaching. Tocqueville argued that this tendency naturally leads to a kind of paralysis in the heart of the person who systematizes in this way. As has been noticed by many, what is true of contemporary historians extends across virtually every discipline in the humanities and social sciences. Tocqueville’s “doctrine of fatality” has spread to almost all of them to some degree.[2]

In a recent essay on this site, James R. Rogers offered a good reminder of how social science rightly understood neither embraces a notion of human life as an iron cage nor encourages excessive ambitions toward social change. We can learn a great deal from humbly approaching puzzles with an eye to understanding patterns in human life. But I think it’s important to remember that not all social scientists are so modest; very few respect the freedom and agency of human beings as Rogers does. Furthermore, I think the same problem has spread widely in the humanities as well, with Friedrich Nietzsche’s postmodern inheritors just as prone as the children of Marx and Freud to spread notions that erode our capacity to see human beings as anything other than prisoners to alien powers.

What the leaders of the human sciences all too often share today is a willingness to embrace views of the human person that dismiss the person’s beliefs in favor of unmasking his or her deeper motives or interests. In some ways, it doesn’t matter whether the theories the students are exposed to are modernist or postmodernist, for while it is true that students from literature or gender studies are likely to doubt the aggressive modernism of economics or urban planning, still, to the degree they view themselves as explainable within the boundaries of their respective theories, all of them are likely to suffer.

Reducing one’s life to what is explainable under the auspices of a theory cannot help but create challenges. One alternative is that the person can unreservedly accept a theory and interpret his or  her life by its lights. Another is to attempt to live as a kind of divided self, restricting the application of theory to the work at hand, and then attempting to live out the rest of one’s life as if the theory doesn’t matter. But passionate students of any subject have a hard time with this. Before he became an advocate of natural law, the philosopher J. Budziszewski did something like this:

I ended up doing a doctoral dissertation to prove that we make up the difference between good and evil and that we aren’t responsible for what we do. . . . I resisted the temptation to believe in good with as much energy as some saints resist the temptation to neglect doing good. For instance, I loved my wife and children, but I was determined to regard this love as merely a subjective preference with no real and objective value. Think what this did to the very capacity to love them. After all, love is a commitment of the will to the true good of another person, and how can one’s will be committed to the true good of another person if he denies the reality of good, denies the reality of persons, and denies that his commitments are in his control?[3]

This passage struck me when I read it because so many of my colleagues in graduate school lived out this problem, by day viewing human beings as interest-driven creatures, and by night trying to date or raise families. No wonder, then, that studies so often show that humanities and social science graduate students have high rates of depression.

Walker Percy called this loss of ability to view the self as valuable or rights-bearing “ontological impoverishment.”[4] Percy’s fear was that we have let ourselves become increasingly lost in abstractions that deny our status as free human beings. Percy articulated this after noticing the way that Americans in the 1950s and 1960s elevated psychology to the role of master science. But I think his claim is just as, if not more, important as a way of describing how an eager college student receives the assumptions of a discipline that he or she has grown to love.

Consider the theoretical prison that modern ethnic or gender “identitarians” inhabit: to the extent they live out their views, they find it difficult to see their lives as products of choice. Rather, they live as the product of cultural influences, myriad oppressions, and the interests and beliefs to which their class or group should hold. This view precludes the idea we can exchange ideas with one another at all in a somewhat detached way. Any argument against “identitarian” views is taken as an assault on the person hearing it. And yet, ironically, even as the identitarians demand that the rest of us treat them as if they had no choices, they are themselves agents who demand that dramatic changes be made in our social and political life.

As a result, I find in teaching that some of my brightest students are completely closed to the kinds of conversations that liberal education should foster, and that make civic education possible. It isn’t just that the students find it hard to believe in the power of human agency or the possibility of reasoned discussion. Sometimes, they express their confusion and offense at the idea anyone could actually believe in these things; as we have seen recently at Middlebury College and elsewhere, other times this stance issues in violence.

I suspect that the only cure for this condition of civic miseducation is patient conversation, which might be daunting. But one might rightly ask: Why else are we teachers? Scholarship is also a form of conversation, and it is vital that this conversation take “what men think and mean to do” seriously.[5]

[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by George Lawrence, edited by J.P. Mayer (Harper Collins, 1969), pp. 493, 495.

[2] Ibid., p. 496.

[3] J. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Wipf and Stock, 2010), pp. xiv-xv.

[4] Walker Percy, “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise,” in Signposts in a Strange Land, edited by Patrick Samway (Picador, 2000), p. 214.

[5] F.A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason (Liberty Fund, 1979), 57.