Since I work at a technical institute I will tread carefully in my criticisms of the problem an obsession with technology poses to the university. James has already announced this excellent symposium in The New Atlantis but it’s now available in its entirety online. Our own Peter Lawler has a searching contribution that examines the university in light of the nature of human dignity. There are also terrific pieces by America’s leading Porcher Pat Deneen, Shilo Brooks, and Rita Koganzon. I want to say there’s no substitute for purchasing a copy of this handsome journal but free access is pretty close to one. Below is a short excerpt from my own effort:
Conservative commentators proffer two entirely reasonable but not obviously compatible criticisms of the modern university today. First, they admonish administrators and faculty alike for creating an intellectually oppressive environment; instead of inspiring an open exchange of ideas through Socratic inquiry, they impose speech codes, a stifling regime of political correctness, and a heavily politicized program of moral indoctrination designed to recruit students to the favorite causes of leftist activism. On the other hand, conservatives reprimand the same crowd for being excessively permissive, even libertine, when it comes to issues of morality, especially the realm of sexuality. Hyper-liberal universities today are simultaneously too restrictive and too indulgent, seamlessly if incoherently vacillating between the two extremes.
The two criticisms only seem contradictory, though, when viewed in isolation from the modern university’s historical context. Today, the university still claims to champion the perfection of reason, even if the idea of rational liberation, following the postmodern deconstruction of it, has been whittled down to the virtue of nonjudgmental tolerance. Moreover, the university still claims to function as the shepherd of young students’ souls, although its latent Hobbesianism prevents it from using such old-fashioned and overly religious terminology. It still claims the moral authority of in loco parentis, going so far as to radically reform — rather than merely reinforce — the moral teaching provided by inexpert parents. Today’s college administrators actually do break from their intellectual inheritance in no longer being haunted by a worrisome skepticism that their institutions are not properly suited to the tasks assigned to them, or that the tasks themselves are mutually exclusive.
While conservative critiques chastise the university for its opposition to free and unimpaired philosophical exchange, they also censure it for no longer taking seriously its commitment to civic education — the task of inculcating not just the virtue necessary for democratic participation but also the patriotic attachment to the nation that is its precondition. In effect, conservatives are duplicating the Enlightenment tension between authority and rational liberation that generated the precipitous decline of the university in the first place. Essentially, conservatives want to combine the rational and erotic elements of the human soul but often without a clear idea of what this means. They instinctively and rightly understand that the disciplines have become disordered and disconnected, and that, in turn, the curricular requirements at even the best of institutions no longer abide by any unifying principle. However, they are no longer certain what could offer such a unity of either man or the disciplines that would serve him.
Much of the conservative critique’s confusion is a symptom of its intellectual debt to the most influential book written on the topic, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987). For Bloom, the dampening of our erotic longings, or the woeful flattening of our souls, can be diagnosed in the symptomatic decay of university life and the crisis of confidence in its general mission. Where Bercier attempts to rescue the medieval Christian version of the university as a conduit of tradition, Bloom’s objective is to defend the Socratic essence of the university against the effects of promiscuous egalitarianism. Despite his influence on the conservative critique of the university, Bloom’s motivation cannot be considered truly conservative: the Socratic university, like Socratic philosophy, is radically detached from political and moral life and so a vehicle of liberation from tradition. For Bloom, the de-Christianization of the modern university would not be evidence of decline per se as long as it resulted in the triumph of the life of reason over faith. In Bloom’s view, the only true community is the community of philosophers — which is tantamount to casting doubt on all real, historical communities, including the university itself.