Here’s my story: I’m sick of narratives. My story, vision, dream—whatever—speaks against the so-called “grand narratives” that populate our rhetorical landscape like so many garden gnomes or pink flamingos. It’s not just that they’re awkward and unpleasant. They distract us from what should be the focus of our attention: the facts. Appealing to a narrative makes the speaker sound lofty in his ideals; it makes a politician’s policy decisions seem inevitable—but that’s just not the case. Call me a narrative skeptic.
The first 40 pages of The Natural Moral Law: The Good After Modernity are exceptional; it’s obvious to me why Cambridge decided to publish it. The book has many admirable qualities: it is daring, encyclopedic, and thought-provoking. Taken as a whole, though, The Natural Moral Law is uneven. Owen Anderson’s “interdisciplinary approach” should have been supplemented with more explicit, rigorous argument. The ideas he considers are too important to leave The Natural Moral Law as his final book on the subject; my hope is that Anderson will write a companion book to this one that is less historical and more…
Ronald Dworkin’s posthumously published Religion without God could instead have been called Law without Religion.
The book is founded in a great hope: that religious believers can be persuaded that they have more in common with atheists than they may think, and vice versa. Dworkin believes that “the zealots have great political power in America now” and that “militant atheism” is “politically inert” (though it is, he adds, “a great commercial success”!).
In Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, a prolific and highly regarded philosopher, defends, by his own admission, “the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life.” He continues, “It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection” (6). Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker is “a canonical expression” of the standard account, and, though it “seems to convince practically everyone” (5n2), Nagel finds it “ hard to believe” (5). His real enemy is “a…
A while ago, I commented on Jim Ceaser’s “Four Heads and One Heart.” Ceaser believes that the four competing intellectual traditions (the heads) that comprise the modern American conservative movement are united by a common loathing of liberalism (the heart). That piece still shapes my thinking, and I still recommend it. But I want to add to Ceaser’s theory by proposing that there’s an intellectual attitude that all four heads share; there’s something on which they all agree.
In a recent piece for the Pope Center, I suggest that the real value of tenure is financial: tenure’s not about academic freedom; it’s about financial security. Both at the Pope Center and at the Phi Beta Cons blog at National Review, anonymous conservative academics have said that, au contraire, tenure is the only bulwark between conservative academics and a complete takeover of the university system by the left. We can put it another way (and still maintain the language of warfare): tenure protects the few conservative academics who stealthily outmaneuver their colleagues in the ideological turf wars on college campuses, and abolishing tenure will remove the last scrap of body armor they have left. If tenure goes, then out go the conservatives.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman created a stir when he offered the following comments: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century… . Our one-party democracy is worse.”
I am reluctant to offer criteria for what it takes to be “a reasonably enlightened group of people,” but if Western academic legal theory and political philosophy stand in for what Friedman’s group believes, then we ought to be cautious in our optimism, to say the least. After all, their position is at times murky, and at times at odds with the American constitutional order. On pressing issues, Chinese academics assiduously studying American court cases, published journal articles, academic books, etc. may find an endorsement of China’s policies, not a repudiation of them. Far from “speaking truth to power,” Western academics may simply have nothing to say.
“There was a palpable silence in the class,” a professor writes, “as I talked about the 620,000 people who died, the 4 million slaves who were liberated, the President (in my opinion, our best President) who gave his life for this cause” (134). He continues:
They were really feeling it now, as was I. My voice nearly cracked. M, L, L, and A were moved almost to tears; M actually had to excuse herself from the room to take a breath in the lobby. As she was leaving, P said, “This makes me so sad that they had to go through this.” Then B added, “But thank God they did.” Silent nodding throughout the room. … After something of a moment of silence, we launched into a discussion of Chesnut’s diary. I was stunned by their reaction: they loved it! … I think Chesnut’s diary satisfied some of the curiosity they had about the ‘other’ perspective on slavery, but still, they were struck by the sympathy she had for the slaves she witnessed at auction … . I was struck, over and over, about how active and imaginative their readings were: seizing on suggestive moments in the text—was she unhappy, depressed, longing for liaisons with other men, antislavery, fully on board with secession?—to offer informed (and sometimes quite provocative) readings of Chestnut’s “inner life.” I was also struck by how much sympathy the women in the class—especially the black women—had for Chesnut” (134–135).
“‘Jack,’ E asked. ‘Are we the best class you ever had?’” The professor’s written response: “They are shaping up to be” (132). His comments are all the more moving because, by this point in Earl Shorris’s The Art of Freedom, you know that the professor is working with a ragtag collection of bright and ambitious, but downtrodden, inner city adults—not clever undergraduates at an elite institution.
A squirearchy of deists, agnostics, and closeted atheists, the American founders erected a wall of separation between church and state to preserve their fledgling republic from the tyranny of an established church. But debating these points is inconsequential: after all, we have their singular achievement, the Constitution, and we can see the wall there. Granted, it is occasionally important to rescue the founders from misinterpretation by, e.g., pajama-wearing bloggers, farmers in overalls, and people who like NASCAR. Fortunately any historical work to be done is decidedly straightforward. One need only state the obvious: though the colonists were devout, the founders…
Robert C. Koons, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has written a piece titled “Dark Satanic Mills of Mis-Education: Some Proposals for Reform” in Humanitas. The problems at Behemoth State University (here Koons self-consciously borrows from Russell Kirk) did not begin, Koons writes, “with Sputnik or the G. I. Bill.”
Instead, Koons—with help from Irving Babbitt and C. S. Lewis—identifies two principal foes, neither one a twentieth century progressive: Francis Bacon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He writes,
We can best understand the modern university by seeing it as built on the synthesis of these two tendencies, Baconian and Rousseauan. We now justify the hard sciences almost entirely in pragmatic and utilitarian terms, as the incubators of technology, not as observatories from which to behold and contemplate the music of the spheres. In contrast, many in the humanities, as well as most in the new fields of “communications” and “education,” have abandoned the hard road of fact to become the playgrounds of “values.” Since all value is the arbitrary projection and construction of liberated egos, there is no true hierarchy of value to be learned and internalized and to structure the course of learning into a true curriculum.
This work is a continuing development of Koons’s earlier reflections on what he calls the uncurriculum that dominates the landscape of research—and many would-be research—universities. Basically, an uncurriculum is the system of distributive requirements that universities demand from students, for the benefit of the professors, under the guise of giving students choices. The result: Professors get to teach whatever they want to teach that furthers their research interests, and students are required to take those classes, independent from their interests or how such classes could help or develop them.