An author in the Harvard Crimson has sparked a controversy by arguing that academic freedom should give way to academic justice. We shouldn’t tolerate professors, visiting speakers, or even students defending opinions we know to be unjust. As far as I can tell, she means opinions that contradict fundamentally what the late Harvard professor John Rawls described in A Theory of Justice. Rawls’ theory isn’t just a theory, it’s the theory. Inquiry about the perennial question of what justice is—the kind of inquiry we see displayed in Plato’s Republic—has come to an end. The question has been answered! Now’s the time to make justice reign in the academic community and soon all of America by casting out those who are too obstinate or stupid or evil to see what we can all now see with own eyes, what well-intentioned people can’t help but know. 

The one example given of the teaching of injustice at Harvard given by the Harvard student is Harvey Mansfield. Nobody thinks the uncannily accomplished Mansfield is stupid.  So he must be some combination of obstinate and evil. One key piece of  evidence of his evildoing is  his tendency to vote Republican. He is, a recent study shows, the only member of the Harvard faculty to do so. Devotion to “diversity” doesn’t mean having a faculty or student body with the ideological diversity of our country, a place where more or less  half the population unjustly votes Republican. 

Now, as Ross Douthat notes, those who dissent from the dominant views on abortion or marriage or contraception are regarded as unjustly rejecting the modern liberation of the woman from repressive intolerance.  And we can’t tolerate the intolerant. The intolerant, these days, are using religious freedom as a “cover” for their injustice. No just or merciful God would actually agree with them.

Patrick Deneen thinks, with some good reasons, that what we have in America is a war over the truth. Catholic schools, for example, used to think of academic freedom as in the service of the truth we find in natural law, the truth about abortion, the relational person,  and so forth. Academic freedom that’s officially indifferent to truth or about “the free marketplace of ideas” always serves the forces of progressivist liberation; it implies, as John Stuart Mill seems to teach, a strong bias against truth claims that limit personal freedom or, as our Supreme Court now says, relational autonomy. This understanding of academic freedom is deeply anti-religious, at least religion that claims to authoritatively bind the person with the truth about who he is as a relational creature.

I still think a reasonable American goal might be a kind of Socratic openness to taking competing claims for truth—even or especially about the fundamental human issues—seriously as claims for truth. So the model American classroom would be animated discussion of the cases for and against Roe v. Wadefor and against polygamy, for and against democracy,  and for and against a confessional state. Higher education should be rise above merely civic education and even religious education. 

We conservatives should say that higher education becomes dogmatic insofar as it spares students from being uncomfortable or from being ”triggered.” We should remind our professors and students of the atheist Rousseau’s powerful case against the prejudices of enlightenment. In our time, playing the egalitarian, free-thinking atheist has become an especially complacent form of herd-like dogmatism. The case against enlightenment—which means, in part, the case for dangerous virtues such as courage, for unfeigned and fearless personal openness as opposed to bourgeois politeness or “collegiality,” for loving service to God, country, and the unfortunate, for duties that trump rights, and for really living the customs and manners of the place in which you live—unreasonably languishes today. 

Rousseau says, more or less, that the genuinely unfashionable or thoughtful professor today takes the side of the Republicans, the home-schoolers, orthodox communities of faith, and the honorable, violent, and deeply Christian and charitable Southerner who tears up when he hears Lee Greenwood sing. He takes the side of the real dignity, as Christopher Lasch said so well, of the life of the working man who knows who he is and what he’s supposed to do. He sides against the faux-bohemian sophisticates devoid of real virtue and so who have no idea to how to live well as beings born to love and die. He sides against those so enervated by tranquil and sedentary occupations they whine incessantly with the most minimal techno-breakdown and find themselves so locked up in themselves and their screens that they think of marriage and parenthood as forms of oppression.

The case for genuine freedom of thought, we have to show, is the case against the dogmatism of Harvard’s communal theory of justice. We have to show that the techno-progress of enlightenment is a beneficial gift in some ways, but often at the expense of personal nobility and spiritual flourishing. It opens us in some ways and blinds us in others. We have to begin, as Rousseau suggests, by unmasking the liberals as inauthentically bourgeois.

Articles by Peter Lawler

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