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I have an article on the modern university in the upcoming Fall 2009/Winter 2010 issue of The New Atlantis which also includes a piece by our own Peter Lawler. Below is a short excerpt: 

This tension can also be seen in the description Jefferson gives of the natural “moral sense” that makes happiness, education, and political life all possible for human beings. He frequently defines this moral sense as the source of our basic sociability—we are fundamentally drawn to moral conduct “because nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses” (as he put it in an 1814 letter). Contrary to Locke, who argued that whatever principles of action are innate to us are largely inconsistent with morality, Jefferson makes the natural moral sense the foundation of all moral and political life. Jefferson’s account of real moral experience is also markedly less abstract than Locke’s: Jefferson at least pays deference to the whole moral spectrum of obligation, sacrifice, and even love. He goes as far as to articulate moral life as premised not only upon the entitlements of defensive rights but the selfless devotion to others: self-love, the narrow concern for one’s own, is “the antagonist of virtue.”

Paradoxically, Jefferson paints the same moral sense in strikingly individualistic strokes. The moral sense accounts for our social bonds with others and the fashioning of community, but moral action is also a useful good for the actor. Jefferson goes as far to call “utility” the “standard and test of virtue” rather than a good in itself. His conception of happiness as the ultimate goal of virtue is colored by a Stoic sense of self-sufficiency: true morality reveals, Jefferson argues in Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), that happiness “does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed [us], but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.” In some of his writings, his lionization of self-sufficiency as the apex of virtue and happiness is self-encapsulating, as in this 1786 letter: “The most effectual means of being secure against pain is to retire within ourselves, and to suffice for our own happiness. Those, which depend on ourselves, are the only pleasures a wise man will count on.” Instead of an active participation in politics demanded by the small-scale republicanism Jefferson typically subscribes to, the consequence of genuine virtue would be the Epicurean tranquility and contemplative peace that comes with solitude. On other occasions, however, Jefferson seems to claim that the height of human happiness is captured by ceaseless industry or the avoidance of the indolence that so often issues from impractical contemplation and the arts.

Jefferson’s account of the university is dominated not only by the sciences but specifically the practical sciences to encourage a sense of rational independence and productivity. He generally permits for religious instruction, but a decidedly non-sectarian approach, one that treats its supernatural elements as didactic myth rather than genuine metaphysics, and only to be introduced into the curriculum after a student has been thoroughly steeped in scientific method. The university is also intended to promote patriotism and civic duty by disciplining the natural moral sense, to inspire a decent respect for art and culture, and to open up new theoretical vistas for those rare students of superior philosophic aptitude. Jefferson envisions the university as a conduit for transmitting Enlightenment liberation, but also a means for embracing one’s political dependence—it must free us and bind us at the same time. He vehemently advocates for academic freedom for his professors but also argues that their teaching, especially on religious matters, be tightly controlled. Similarly, he extols the virtues of student liberty to engineer their own educational plan but also subjects them to the most austere discipline and supervision.

While Jefferson is less impressed by the abstractions of Locke’s account of a radically autonomous, detached individual, he struggles to base his educational program on a fuller account of human experience. A proper university will be based on a plan that is “broad and liberal and modern ”. He is far more attentive than Locke to that part of the human soul that is not entirely satisfied by either productivity or politics but sees recourse to religion as foreclosed by the modern repudiation of it. Unlike Locke, Jefferson distinguishes between civic, scientific, and philosophic education, but he is also pulled by the modern scientific tendency to reduce a manifold complexity of phenomena to an overly simplistic and monolithic account. While Jefferson could palpably sense the contours of human life that defy its reduction to a featureless scientific view, he finally succumbed to the narrative of Enlightenment victory as he could discover no scientifically legitimate theory to capture it. It is unsurprising that Jefferson read his own highly idiosyncratic political preferences into the university mission, an anticipation of the vulnerability our universities today have to aggressive politicization. Generally speaking, the schizophrenic character of the modern university, incoherently aimed at both moral collectivism and individual rational liberation, owes much to Jefferson’s own irreconcilable tendencies and his finally fractured account of the human person.

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