Next autumn will mark forty years since I arrived on a college campus as a freshman. I’ve never left the academy since then. I have been student or teacher at many types of institutions: the small liberal-arts college, the “Research I” state university that completely dominates a small town, the ambitious urban Jesuit university “in the Catholic tradition,” the middling-quality “comprehensive” state university educating many first-generation college students, the great self-confident Ivy League institution, even a very fine university in an Asian capital city.
Much has changed in these four decades, and I have watched it change. Fewer of us in my undergrad years had televisions or cars, but fewer of us had to work or take out loans to get through school. There were no cell phones, no internet, no personal computers. Distance from our parents in those days was very real—no “helicopter” parents as I later came to know them. This meant our liberation from the constraints of family and home, for good or ill. The collapse of the universities in the 1960s on many fronts was by then largely complete, signified by curricular incoherence, the drug culture, and the triumph of the sexual revolution. (Who does not like the joining of those words “sexual” and “revolution” at 17?)
My undergrad years were thus a crazy combination of prodigally wasted time; plunges into all manner of extracurricular activity; the making of friendships that seemed deep but turned out in many cases (not all) to be evanescent; a wandering into a spiritual desert from which I would emerge after many years with a powerful thirst; and through it all, somehow, real intellectual discovery. It was four years of eros every which way, from the lowest to the highest. I had so much fun I essentially missed the Carter administration. This was not really a loss, but seems odd even to me today, since I was majoring in political science.
If you went looking for it, then as now, there was still an education to be found, and I found one, stumbling into the warm and tolerant mentorship of a real teacher, who treated thinkers of the past as people to learn from, not just about. He introduced me to Plato, Rousseau, the Federalist, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and more. This was a stroke of good fortune for which I have spent four decades being grateful.
Resolving on a career in the academy because boredom was my default setting and nothing else came close to being so interesting, I found that from graduate school onward my studies caused my inclinations to grow more and more conservative along every dimension. Intellectually this meant pursuing the wisdom of dead people whose books had endured—they were reliably more interesting than the work of any living scholars. Morally and politically it meant being pro-life, critical of the sexual revolution, devoted to the dignity of human beings as equal, rights-bearing creatures made in the image of God—and therefore being a patriotic critic of American cultural and political life, friendly to markets, leery of utopianism, skeptical of “experts,” and more trusting of ordinary Americans’ instincts than of the rarefied tastes of my fellow professors.
Academically, conservatism made me a defender of Dead White European Males as preponderant (but by no means exclusive) figures in the liberal arts curriculum, not because of who they were but because of what they say to us (emphasis on the present tense for the best of them). Academic fields traveling under the name of “X Studies”—Women’s, Environmental, Race/Class/Gender, Peace—I came to view as suspect because they nearly always spring from preordained ideological conclusions, not from the impulse of intellectual inquiry. Equally suspect are the latest pedagogical fads (“competencies,” “critical thinking”), or the mania for “strategic planning” that grips the modern administrator who fills his day with memos and meetings.
The proper mission of higher education is to rub one’s mind and soul against materials hard and abrasive enough to hone the edge of intellect and strengthen the spine of character. The day-to-day moral lives of college students are largely their own business, but the modern university does have a responsibility neither to take active measures contrary to human flourishing, nor to indoctrinate students in the latest in fashionable morality, in the classroom or through the medium of student life bureaucracies.
All of the autobiography above is less about establishing my bona fides than about saying to today’s college students that I, and the very small minority in the faculty ranks like me, are the diversity on the modern university campus. We are the dissenters from affirmative action in admissions and hiring, the critics of the hook-up culture, the defenders of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, the advocates of the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, the ones who have a good word for the Constitution, for western civilization, and for the Christian faith, and the people who think you’re more likely to encounter moral probity in the workforce and management of the local Wal-Mart, or the pews of the local evangelical church, or the average Army platoon, than in the faculties and administrations of the Ivy League or the Big Ten.
And we who make up this tiny minority have never had a “safe space” on the college campus. Nor do we want one. We want to enlist students in the hazardous duty, right alongside us, of seeking the truth about the world and about ourselves. We don’t demand that students share our opinions. But we think there is such a thing as truth, not just competing “narratives” or “paradigms” but knowledge available to us, theoretical and practical, scientific and moral, social and aesthetic. We think reason can show us much, and maybe revelation can show us more. We treat no inquiry as altogether off-limits for further discussion—but we are willing to condemn evils and call for the righting of wrongs when we are sure that persons have suffered harm (not mere “offense”) or the common good has been endangered.
If conservatives were in charge of the modern university, one could almost understand the recent spate of “radical” student protests. We’re so “judgmental,” after all. We think the racial preferences resulting in the presence of some of our colleagues and students are unjust—which is not the same as objecting to their presence, much less an attack on their “identity” or personhood. We think the campus culture of heavy drinking, “recreational” drug use, and sexual promiscuity is not good for our students. Some of us, in fact, think this because we experienced it ourselves. We think too many of our colleagues and students fritter away the possibilities of higher education in intellectually unserious and even vacuous endeavors. We want no one to have a safe space away from the life of the mind.
But we are not in charge. In living memory we never have been. The student protesters of Mizzou, Yale, Amherst, Dartmouth, Claremont McKenna, and Princeton are squaring off against an academic establishment of which we’ve never really been a part. The administrators and leading faculty of the modern university are the ones who teach their students that all cultures are equally worthy of respect, but the triumph of secular progressivism is both inevitable and good. The ones who reject all truth claims in morality as thinly veiled power plays, but know that some arguments in the moral domain of human relations are “hate speech.” Who are sure that authentic freedom must extend in law to the abortion license without limit, but equally sure that due process is negotiable down to zero because of a “rape culture” on the modern campus. Who think that a young man who believes he is a young woman because his feelings tell him so deserves every institutional consideration in light of that belief, but that young women and men of faith who hold traditional beliefs on sexual morality, and can defend them rationally, deserve none. Who are confident of the pedagogical benefits of every kind of diversity except the only kind—intellectual—that should matter at a university.
I am not the first to observe that the protesters and their targets deserve each other. Watching the protests has been a rich banquet of Schadenfreude, in one respect. Can’t they both lose? is the thought that comes unbidden to mind. But the temptation to react in this way should be resisted.
For there’s really nothing radical about the student demands. They are demands to the establishment, from the would-be future pillars of that establishment, that it become still more like itself. More superficially diverse while less committed to open inquiry; more dedicated to an interest-group spoils system that sacrifices intellect to the appetite for power; more devoted to the physical, psychological, and emotional comfort of students than to their flourishing as thoughtful adults. More affirming of their lifestyle libertinism, with baskets of condoms in dormitory vestibules constantly replenished, and swift drumhead justice for an unhappy few who take it too far and make the others feel “unsafe” in their joyless pursuit of joy.
So far from radical are the demands of these students that they cannot catch the slightest glimpse of the real roots of their grievances. Let us see if we can lay them bare.
Leaving aside the natural sciences, which have their own temptations of intellectual arrogance but at least accomplish some palpable results, the other major disciplinary sectors of the academy—the humanities and social sciences, broadly defined—went into critical condition by the second half of the twentieth century. The humanities, with literature leading the way, became the captives of high theory, low politics, and mediocre taste. Critical theories sapped the life from even the most vital works of art and literature; demands that the humanities be “relevant” to groups said to be “disenfranchised” upended any sense of cultural or aesthetic norms that could be drawn from the works themselves; and “popular culture” came to be regarded as equally worthy of study alongside high culture.
Works of art and literature became “cultural productions” and therefore objects to be “interrogated,” with their creators ceasing to be subjects speaking to us in their own voices. What slipped from view, when it was not actually thrust away with both hands, was any notion that the humanities are engaged in a search for the truth about the human condition. Was there any such thing as “the human condition” about which “truth” could be spoken? Students were bound to doubt the possibility, and in many cases were actively propelled into rejecting it.
As for the social sciences, they had imbibed Max Weber’s call to be “value-free,” to emulate the natural sciences by treating “facts” as their subject while relegating moral norms to the realm of “values” not amenable to rational treatment. But while leading scholars in the social sciences strove (without notable success) to fashion a true and morally neutral science of human behavior in their research and scholarship, the social science classroom increasingly became the scene of political posturing at best, and ideological indoctrination at worst. This was not really a strange or surprising development, inconsistent with the disciplines’ scientific ambitions. It was in large measure a consequence of those ambitions.
In the classroom, the subjects that are unavoidable in the social sciences—wealth and poverty, the powerful and the powerless, freedom and constraint, the legal and the illegal, social acceptance and rejection—carry enormous moral freight. If the research dogma of the disciplines is that the moral dimension of their subjects is not something to which rational analysis can be applied, the result will not be a detached shrug, the blinking nihilism of Nietzsche’s “last men.” Normal, healthy men and women around twenty years of age are not disposed to such ennui. If they are deprived of argument, if they are never introduced to rational thought on moral questions, they will suit up for a contest of wills on the basis of mere passionate commitment.
But commitment, uninformed by argument, is a volatile fuel. It can be lit on fire by the first emotional response that seizes the heart—whether it is a response to one’s own personal, ethnic, sexual, or cultural situation, or a response to the real or perceived situation of others, near at hand or far away, with whom one is drawn to identify. As for their teachers, to paraphrase Leo Strauss, they have fiddled while Rome is burned by this fuel, and have only the excuse that they do not know they fiddle, and do not know that Rome burns.
With a choice between “facts” and “values,” young people with heart will choose “values” every time, and so will many of their middle-aged teachers. What goes missing in the choice presented by the modern academy is an older alternative that did not divorce but married “facts” and “values,” in a quest for understanding of the truth, both about what is and about what ought to be. But “truth,” as an inter-subjective possibility where minds can meet, has been sent packing from the contemporary university, and “commitment” to what is true for me has taken its place. Unlike argument, passionate commitment seeks no interlocutor, no partner in pursuit of knowledge or of the good. It requires the dutiful listener, obsequiously acquiescing in demands, giving way to one after another until the passion is spent and anger mollified—for now. Passionate commitment is willing to shriek obscenities, and thus pride itself on its authenticity. Since it usually gets its way, why shouldn’t it?
The professors and administrators who have lately been flummoxed by student protesters should reflect on the extent to which they are now on the receiving end of lessons they themselves have spent years teaching. It takes a peculiar kind of eros to take up the life of the mind and acquit oneself well—a combination of devotion and detachment, of solitary study and voluble sociability, of respect for everyone’s mind and trust in no one’s wisdom, of focus and discipline on the one hand and abandonment to risk-taking on the other. It also takes a kind of faith, that there is truth to be found if one works hard enough.
No one is a perfect model for this life; I certainly am not. But the leaders of my own generation in the modern university have been engaged for decades in communicating to students, by precept and example, that a passionate commitment, the louder the better, especially if it is wrapped around a throbbing sense of grievance, will get institutional results. To borrow the no doubt “culturally appropriating” language of Tom Wolfe, the flak-catchers have been schooling their students in how to mau-mau them.
And other than the handful of deans and presidents who have forfeited their positions or had their comfortable cages rattled in other ways, there’s no real reason why the flak-catchers should even mind being mau-maued. They are the establishment, and they will remain the establishment, easily surviving the latest unrest no matter how much more of the university’s intellectual credibility they trade away. The protesters are the establishment’s children and future inhabitants, and are really quite incapable of harming their elders in power, who will wobble but never fall down.
It is the small minority of dissenting faculty who will feel the pressure on their freedom of speech, who will be screamed at for making the university “unsafe,” who in some cases will be hounded out of the academy altogether, and the campus will become more intellectually monochromatic. And that will mean real harm to the modern university, to the pursuit of truth that is its real raison d’être, and to the “radical” students themselves, who will only succeed in making their four years in college less life-changing, precisely to the extent they are made more comfortable. Their elders who persuaded them that their education had anything to do with getting comfortable in the world will have much to answer for.
Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center for Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute, professor emeritus of political science at Radford University, and visiting lecturer in politics at Princeton University.