Half a century ago the word “discrimination” had already among its meanings the making of adverse distinctions with respect to persons. Today, following some fifty years of incessant attention to discrimination in that sense, it hardly supports any other. Such things happen to words, of course. What fastidious clergyman today would think of using the word “awesome” to evoke the majesty of God? What poet would claim that daffodils had made him gay? But more has happened to “discrimination” than just being smeared with the ink of journalism and selective usage. It has not merely suffered by having all its meanings crammed into one. To make adverse distinctions, i.e., to discriminate, especially regarding persons, has also passed from a neutral to an invariably negative sense. It has come to imply conduct of which one should be ashamed, moral wrongdoing, unwarranted action, such that to say “He discriminated wrongly against so-and-so” sounds tautologous, like “He murdered so-and-so, which was not right” or “So-and-so was inappropriately raped.”

When word-meanings are diminished, speakers of the language are affected in several regrettable ways. A good expression lost makes it more difficult to think of the concept it used to convey. And the entire process of communication, fallible at the best of times, becomes still more precarious. Will the words you select, even if you choose them carefully, convey the message you intend to those who are not so scrupulous? Loss of meanings even can be said to flatten the general appreciation of our world, when words are not there to define and hallow its contours.

Some there are, of course, who profit by verbal obfuscation, indeed strive to bring it about. Advertisers are not displeased if the public thinks of vacuum cleaners as Hoovers or paper tissues as Kleenex. And demagogues frequently believe in the premise of Newspeak, namely, that to control language is to control thought, and they dream of limiting speech and thinking to a rude little lexicon of politically correct grunts, just enough for efficient exploitation of those they rule. But when left to itself the evolution of word meanings is an occult, unpredictable, and unfathomable process.

The career of discrimination falls somewhere in the middle: its evolution is neither entirely contrived nor wholly spontaneous. The topic that demanded and received the attention of the West after the Second World War was the atrocities of Nazi Germany. In order to make it difficult for anything like them to recur, measures were taken to prevent discrimination (in our imploded sense) against Jews. The repugnant facts, the attendant moral imperative to address them, combined with unrelenting publicity during the period of war trials (88,000 in Germany alone prior to 1966) drove the word “discrimination” deeper and deeper into the rut of synonymy with “invidious differentiation.” Once the semantic ground was so prepared, new discriminations of that type became easier to identify. As a result, the mass movements of American blacks and Indians became possible. So also, in decreasing order of plausibility, each a caricature of its predecessors, feminists, militant homosexuals, and a seemingly endless chain gang of “victims” have trudged noisily into our consciousness, for the most part uttering groans quite incommensurable with their burdens. It is no wonder that the pejorative sense of “discrimination,” by dint of so much incantation, has conquered the semantic field.

It is one thing to understand the circumstances that shrink the meaning of this word, another to understand the word itself. By etymology, discrimination is a close relative of discernment”( crimen being derived from cerno ). Both involve therefore the neutral skill of grasping differences. Discernment, however, has come to mean grasping the good of something, and is therefore itself almost always meant positively, while discrimination has followed the unfortunate downward career described above. If restored to its proper sense, the word would connote the skill of grasping differences. Warranted discrimination would then mean grasping differences when it is appropriate to do so.

When would that be? To that difficult question I shall devote the rest of my observations, though confining myself to warranted discrimination within the setting of the university and particularly of my own specialty”philosophy.

I have before me as I write the notice of a recent publication of the Indiana University Press, edited by D. W. Curtin and H. Heldke, titled Cooking, Eating, Thinking and subtitled “Transformative Philosophies of Food.” Everything about it resembles a notice of a philosophical book. The blurb justifies its publication, makes it appear to satisfy a need, chides philosophy for having so long ignored this vital area of research, and draws it to the attention of philosophers and the adepts of feminism and environmental ethics. Everything, then, is made to look as if this were a real book on a real topic. From here, the charade is bound to continue. One or two people who pretend to be professors of philosophy will make the book mandatory reading for what pretend to be philosophy courses, and people who pretend to be students will pretend to discuss it. And the universities to which they belong will pretend that none of it is pretense.

Is there no one who can grasp the difference between works like Cooking, Eating, Thinking and serious scholarly inquiry? Of course there is. But the pretense is kept up because grasping such a thing would be an act of discrimination, and discrimination, in contemporary usage, is evil. And so these abominations swell to the hundreds and the thousands, fill up bookstores and libraries and courses and, in time, we get women’s studies, black studies, semiotics, deconstruction, in wave after undiscriminating wave, not only not challenging but closing the minds of our students, as Allan Bloom nicely put it in his most famous book.

You might say that people who choose to study such things get what they deserve. “What about the content of serious courses in serious disciplines? It can’t all be thinking about eating!” That is true, but consider another ill-starred travesty closer to philosophy’s core. In the early eighties, after the publication of A Nation at Risk , the report of an American task force on education, universities began to worry that they might not be able to go on graduating illiterate students forever and face no consequences for their reputation. The business world demanded that graduation from college entail at least having some rudimentary knowledge and some minimal competence. On the other hand, government at all levels demanded that a university education be accessible to all, including the incompetent and those incapable of acquiring knowledge. Undiscriminating administrators said yes to both demands, graciously overlooking their incompatibility, and in many universities (my own being one), prescribed as remedy an obligatory course deceptively titled “Critical Thinking.” Here, in two hours a week over two semesters, everything from congenital idiocy to the waste and error of the first eighteen years of life is simultaneously overcome and rectified. Students, many of whom have hitherto held no genuine book in their hands, are taught to be discerning and critical readers. Those who never before have noticed that language can be used with demonstrative intent are made capable of lucid, cogent argument. Or so we pretend.

But if, in such courses, you try to teach logic, the bare bones of critical thinking, or try to teach by example from classic paradigms of compelling argument, you will find that a certain portion of your students think it “a crudey coarse,” as one of mine devastatingly put it. Some faculty members therefore become chastened realists. They decide that if they could only bring the students up to the level where they could have a critical understanding of the editorials in middlebrow newspapers, they would accomplish more than could reasonably have been expected. The same group of students finds this “interesting, but real hard.” Nevertheless my colleagues and I, whatever our pedagogical decisions, all pretend that we are teaching the same thing; we pretend that all our students are teachable; we pretend to be able to pass most of them; and we pretend not to be pretending all these things.

In many universities the demand is also made that every course have some feminist or some non-Western content or both. Some go so far as to demand that every newly engaged professor be able to teach his subject from a feminist point of view. In philosophy departments, as in others, this is greeted with everything from enthusiasm to lukewarm acceptance; rarely is it opposed. Never does it receive the hoots of disbelieving ridicule it deserves. But why? Does anyone seriously think that there is an alternative body of philosophers of the stature of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, or Heidegger worthy to displace them from the curriculum? Does anyone seriously propose that there is a feminine point of view different from the schools of thought associated with many of these great names, and so far above them as alone to be obligatory for all? “Not to replace them, but to join them,” some conciliatory feminist might say. But given the finite number of courses and years at the students’ disposal, to “join” is, in effect, to displace. And if the alternative curricula are to bring about such displacements, they need to have some reason for doing so. Such a reason has not yet been produced, at least with respect to the pretensions of feminism, by any serious historian of philosophy.

Non-Western thought is a different case. There is undeniably a worthy philosophical tradition, for example, both in India and in China. And there are Sinologists and Sanskritists able to teach it. But few are their students. The Western enthusiasts of the East are seldom seen beginning, almost never seen to complete, the many years of Sanskrit or Chinese and the decades of anthropological acculturation necessary to become functionally bicultural. Nor could they do it without a firm grounding in their own culture. Nor, finally, should they do it without a calling. In any case, such a study is certainly unnecessary for the sake of an education. Just as Matthew Arnold observed that the workman who cannot get an education from Shakespeare and the Bible will not get one from Homer and Plato either, so it is all the more true that the student who cannot master his own tradition and its family of languages and literatures will surely be incapable of mastering one that is radically foreign.

So why do we greet with enthusiasm programs that are either too hard to implement, or without merit, or both? It is because we are afraid of discriminating. And perhaps, given our lack of practice, we are increasingly incapable of doing so. Yet if anyone is to get an education this is precisely what needs to change.

Dieticians discriminate. They recommend meals containing fruit, vegetables, and meat. Nothing, of course, prevents someone from insisting that gravel, twigs, and hair are just as good. But the latter diet will not be without consequences to health. Similarly, conventional reading lists of traditional subjects in universities were also discriminatory; they consisted of those things thought to build and exercise strong and educated minds. To ignore them will just as indisputably have consequences. There is no denying that we could be wrong about Aristotle”just as we could be wrong about meat. Both have been challenged. But the point about Aristotle is that he was put on reading lists by discriminating people and he should only be removed by still more discriminating ones. It is not some notion that every intellectual diet is equal to every other that could ever justify an alternative to Aristotle. Only the discovery of something better”if such could ever be found”will do that.

These anecdotal reflections suggest that there are two things in need of reform: the curriculum and the admissions policy. In both there must be discrimination. The two go hand in hand. I was told recently of an Ontario law school that, in a flourish of good will towards designated victim groups, pledged no longer to discriminate against the mentally handicapped. Though my informant saw little evidence of past discrimination in this regard, he supposed, reasonably enough, that this new policy would herald some further dilution of the curriculum, students and requirements continuing to regress in harmony.

If there is to be education, we must begin with some native ability and build upon it. Only discrimination in admissions will produce the student material; warranted discrimination in curriculum will then challenge the students produced. This is not a matter of singling out the mentally inferior for punishment, but singling out the mentally able for cultivation of their talents. To say that universities ought to discriminate in favor of the clever is not to imply that those who are not clever ought to be forgotten, any more than to ask track teams to discriminate in favor of the swift is to suggest that we gas the slow. It is rather to counsel ourselves, while there is still time, in the fine words of Michael Oakeshott, to “remember who we are: inhabitants of a place of liberal learning.”

For Oakeshott, a university is a classically appointed room echoing with the conversation of mankind”a fallible, flickering, but still faithful inquiry into everything that matters, handed down as a craft from times past. It is easily occulted by war, fashion, loudly proclaimed certainties, yet is patiently taken up again in the cool of the day by those with inclination and ability.

We are, as he stresses, heirs to an institution we found but did not make. Yet it also has another dimension, on which Oakeshott does not dwell. To illustrate, let me take an example of an older but very small Canadian college”Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec. It was founded in 1846 to bring the great institution of liberal learning into what were then the wilds of Lower Canada. If recent developments in universities had been, by and large, improvements, we might expect something very crude by contemporary standards in this pioneer college. Here, instead, is what the Rules, Orders, and Regulations , published in 1849, required of undergraduates:

The ordinary course of study at Bishop’s College will extend over a space of four years. The subjects taught will consist of Classical and English Literature and Composition, History, Mathematics, Natural and Experimental Philosophy, Chemistry, Logic, Rhetoric, Moral Philosophy, Hebrew, and Divinity.

There are few serious academics under fifty who would not eagerly exchange their own undergraduate education, wherever obtained, for an educational experience like that.

Careful study and reflection on that curriculum, moreover, will reveal that it is designed to produce not simply a haphazard heap of expertise, but to cultivate a certain unified vision of the world, a Christian catholic (in the nondenominational sense) outlook. This is made explicit in the Convocation address of the then-principal of the University, Jasper Nicolls, in 1860:

It is the business of a University to gather into itself all the branches of learning, to adopt and interweave with the old and well- tried, what is new and modern; to assist in its measure, and according to its capability in the work of scientific discovery, but far more to sanctify scientific discovery. When man searches and investigates, argues and proves, pronounces at his study-table that this or that field or rock produces or does not produce a certain precious metal, or indicates by calculations the existence of some hitherto undiscovered heavenly body, and points out the very spot it occupies at the moment; when the human mind thus strides onwards, let it be the University’s privilege to demonstrate that the excellency of all this is not of man, but of God; that while man discovers, he discovers what God has made, what God gives him to understand. Universities let us remember are Christian Institutions.

I choose Bishop’s University, not because it is extraordinary among universities of its age, but because it is not, and therefore stands as evidence of our forefathers’ aspirations. Nine years later, in 1869, the much older and more prestigious university community of Harvard was exhorted by its new president, Charles William Eliot, in these terms:

We should all labor together to make Harvard a noble University”a seat of learning which shall attract the best teachers and most ardent students”a University which shall retain all the good of the past, and go forward to welcome the advancing light of the future. So may the priceless gift of our fathers be transmitted to our children, not only unimpaired, but constantly renewed and bettered. Let each generation do its part to make it more worthy of this great country, this advancing civilization, this ripening age. In the largest sense, let it be devoted to Christ, the great teacher of truth, and to his Church, the great means of human education.

Nicolls and Eliot in their day, like Michael Oakeshott in ours, counsel us to remember who we are, heirs of a liberal, but also of a Christian, tradition. And to remember is to be prepared to discriminate in our favor, as we attempt to uphold and be worthy of that tradition.

Of course the cries of bigotry, of narrowness, of anachronism will be raised on all sides, as the spleen of our age pours into well-worn channels. But could it reasonably be denied that Christian catholicity, any less than liberal education, was among the fundamental treasures that it was the purpose of a university to hand down? I think not. And therefore we must pause before turning our backs on either, or risk losing that great good place altogether. It seems to me that universities cannot be separated from these deep-running traditions, except in death.

How then did universities aspire to be when their traditions were more vigorously maintained? (Of course they did not always live up to their principles, but that is a constant among all institutions.) Their aim was not the suppression from the curriculum of all that would challenge received views, but rather the exclusion of all that would not comprehend them, of all that, by its sheer idiocy or baseness, was unworthy of them. And they sought the inclusion of what was excellent and high-minded. This is the type of discrimination that still is warranted, no, indispensable, in admissions and in curriculum.

Imagine now a university in which the students were admitted according to their abilities and the curriculum chosen for its excellence. It would then be necessary to discriminate in hiring faculty as well. But in this claim, at least, I encounter much less opposition from today’s reformers. Those who detest and reject the sort of discrimination discussed above, demanding universal admissibility for students and universal pablum for curriculum, will nevertheless agree that we need discrimination in hiring. Gone are the days when educational reformers pled for selection solely by merit, that is, for color- and gender- blindness. Today they want us to discriminate in favor of women, ethnic minorities, and so forth. Educational conservatives, judging the argument bad by the company it keeps, frequently find themselves arguing against discrimination, and for strict meritocracy. I think this, at best, a partial truth on two grounds: first, because meritocracy should be acknowledged to be itself a form of discrimination, though, of course, warranted, and second, on the other side, because it stops short of discriminating to the extent that is warranted.

The notion of merit is brother to the job description. Both are at home in the factory, whence they derive, but the latter is not at home in the university. There, precisely because the task is not mindless, it cannot be reduced to the abstractions of a job description, nor can merit be calculated piecemeal, by publications, marks, letters, distinctions, and so on. Nor, usually, is it best judged by committee. Hiring is far more the all-around concern of finding a person fit to teach certain things, fit to lead a scholarly and philosophical life in public, and likely to win able young people to that life as well. One should not normally expect to find many candidates fit for a given position. Only when such rare embarrassments of riches obtain would relative “merit,” as it is nowadays conceived, come into question.

To think that abstractly conceived merit alone can establish a university is in fact to go along with the very metaphysical principle from which the radical reformers draw their strength. Their view is that institutions have no essences, no natures, but that they are infinitely malleable, always ready to be reshaped more nearly to the heart’s desire. The liberal and Christian catholic institution is nothing to them. Worse than nothing. They view it with shame and ignorant hostility. Under pressure of such anti-essentialist thinking, years before the ripening of the current crop of reformers, we had already traded away our universities for what Clark Kerr called “multiversities,” vast conceptual warehouses, with no unifying purpose or principles. Alumni who strive to see that the building, the campus, the titles and names of the alma mater survive, often fail to realize that the institution they loved has long since had its body snatched by alien and unlovely invaders. The new reformers simply want to use the all-purpose pluralistic site our campuses have now become for their own political ends, getting rid of every vestige of its original vocation. They would like to see it put to multiple, indiscriminate uses by a hodgepodge of unregulated tenants. The conservative, who in place of this can only offer some feeble talk of meritocracy, is seen by reformers with some plausibility to be merely another political assassin, though a particularly greedy and arrogant one, casting lots among the others for the robes of academe.

Resistance likely to make any difference comes only from two groups, one of which is dwindling fast”those old enough to remember what universities were like. The other consists of young people who perceive that they have been cheated of their inheritance. But what are these groups’ chances of success? None, in my opinion, if success is conceived as a victory imposed by force on universities or societies. The reform must start from groups and individuals committed to it, who grasp the meaning of Chesterton’s mot ”there’s something wrong with the world and I’m it. Students who want an education must seek it actively and, as they grow in discernment, pass the word about those who can and those who can’t, or won’t, provide it. Professors who still know anything must seek capable students willing to learn it. And those with an influence on hiring must try to see not that abstractly conceived “merit,” the sterile notion of the multiversity, prevails, but rather proficiency in Oakeshott’s “conversation of mankind,” broadly construed as including our Christian as well as our liberal inheritance.

I am not recommending the parochialization (in either sense) of education, nor the reintroduction of doctrinal tests of admission or hiring, nor yet an “index” of deviant curricular materials. I am echoing the challenge to “remember who we are” and discriminate accordingly, hiring those who have gathered strength out of our culture and who can communicate its historical vigor to the young. Every clergyman knows that the zealous atheist is not half so dangerous to believers as an unbroken series of professors who, from ignorance and sloth, have no religious views. Similarly, the liberal-for-want-of-a-better-name, the Nietzschean “last man,” by his unreasoned nihilism is a menace to his students, whereas the learned antinomian or culture critic merely provokes them to develop skills in disputation. The university, therefore, need neither fear, nor exclude from its faculty, our culture’s most articulate detractors. But neither must it repeat the error of making them the center of its mission. Instead it must urgently consolidate and further our great heritage which, by grace rather than merit, has not yet been everywhere irreparably destroyed. To serve this end would be to engage in warranted discrimination.

Graeme Hunter teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa.

Articles by Graeme Hunter

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