James Bruce

Dr. James E. Bruce is an assistant professor of philosophy at John Brown University. He has degrees from Dartmouth College, the University of Oxford, and Baylor University. His book, Rights in the Law: The Importance of God’s Free Choices in the Thought of Francis Turretin, is forthcoming from Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht this year.

Who Wants To Be Hornswoggled?

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.

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The Tenured Conservative

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.

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Nothing to Say: Western Legal Philosophy and China

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.

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A School of Second Chances

“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.

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As Parents Write Tuition Checks to Behemoth State

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.

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Four Heads and One Heart

James W. Ceaser, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, has an excellent essay called “Four Heads and One Heart: The Modern Conservative Movement,” in his recently published Designing a Polity: America’s Constitution in Theory and Practice. I read it for this year’s Miller Summer Institute, sponsored by the Jack Miller Center, in partnership with the University of Virginia’s Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy.

It’s an eye-opening piece: Ceaser helped me understand both the unity and the disunity of the right, its agreements and its squabbles. First, the agreement: It’s found in conservatism’s one heart, a heart that hates liberalism. A common “antipathy to liberalism” unites conservatives, not shared intellectual principles.

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Rev. Robert Sirico’s Moral Case for a Free Economy

A word of advice about Rev. Robert Sirico’s just released Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy: Do not tell yourself that you will “just read a chapter” in your office before settling down to do the work that you absolutely must do before your week begins. I made that mistake, and read about two-thirds of the book in one go. I only stopped reading because there was nothing left to read; I finished the book.

Sirico at one point says that a favorite compliment is “being told that I have put into words what someone has thought for a long time but never been able to articulate” (106). I can’t pay him that compliment; I can say something stronger: Sirico puts into words things I’d never thought of, but wish I had. I found myself, while reading the book, trying to take a mental note of some of his very best one liners, turns of phrase, and examples, in an effort to store them for future use.

Sirico shows repeatedly, and even doggedly, that the enemies of free markets have it exactly wrong. One doesn’t have to choose between helping the poor and markets; between health care and markets, or between protecting the environment and markets. On the contrary, as he puts it, if you want to help the poor, start a business; if you want people to receive health care, then don’t let a state-funded bureaucracy suck the compassion out of medicine, and, if you want to save tigers and elephants, then give people property rights in them, etc.

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Slouching into the Past: A Marxist Read on the Riley Kerfuffle

In response to “Black Studies: ‘Swaggering into the Future,’” Naomi Schaefer Riley penned “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” To put it mildly, her piece generated no small amount of controversy, ending (or beginning) with her dismissal from The Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog Brainstorm. Both in print and online Ms. Riley tells her side of the story in the Wall Street Journal. She ends her remarks with the following:

My longtime familiarity with the absurdities of higher education did not, I confess, prepare me for this most absurd of results. The content of my post, after all, is hardly shocking; the same thing could have been written 30 years ago. And perhaps that’s the most depressing part of all this. Despite the real social and economic advancement that has been made by blacks in this country, the American faculty is still stuck in the 1960s.

Consider the following modest proposal: a Marxist read on the Riley kerfuffle. It’s a return to the 1960s, but it’s not about race. It’s about economics.

Here’s the argument: Criticizing a single tenured academic does not threaten that academic’s income nor the income of his colleagues. If someone is criticized, then that could be fantastic for the discipline, and for that academic, too (file the criticism under to power, speaking truth). However, if the entire discipline is criticized, then, from an economic point of view, professors have a problem, for at least two reasons.

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Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, Utilitarianism, and Statism

Do bleeding heart libertarians have an argument against statism? My concern is that they do not. Take Mike Rappaport. He writes that “[1] I have always been a Bleeding Heart Libertarian who is concerned about the effects of liberty on the poor and … [2] I now base my political views on a utilitarian approach.” This post shows how (1) and (2), taken together, keeps one always open to (3) statism, which Rappaport says is “similar to other negative ‘isms’ like racism and sexism.” (I.e., it’s a bad, bad thing.)

Here’s the problem in a sentence: If (1) bleeding heart libertarianism acquires its moral standing from (2) utilitarianism, which relies on an account of human welfare in terms of pleasures and pains, then bleeding heart libertarianism has no principled argument against (3) statism; it has at best a pragmatic objection.

So we’re clear, Rappaport himself, in “Statism I,” defines statism and decries it. He is not a statist; he is against statism. Agreed.

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No More Flukes

The Obama Administration has pushed the regrettable term abortifacient—a term I cannot spell without assistance and a word I dare not attempt to pronounce—into our public discourse. President Obama faces opposition that he cannot resist; he simply will not be able to win this debate, because he is attacking a fundamental liberty, enshrined as such in our Constitution and recognized as such but also believed as such by the vast majority of people. I have wondered why he would even attempt such an outrageous maneuver in any year, much less in an election year. The current rhetoric defending the birth control mandate centers on access to contraception for all women. But that’s clearly not what’s at stake.

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