Today’s identity politics . . . teaches the exact opposite of what we think a liberal arts education should be. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a utilitarian or as a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or as a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem.

But what do we do now? Many students are given just one lens—power. Here’s your lens, kid. Look at everything through this lens. Everything is about power. Every situation is analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult. It’s a fundamentalist religion. It’s a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety and intellectual impotence. . . .

There are two more paragraphs in this Wall Street Journal “Notable & Quotable” from Jonathan Haidt, the last sounding a hopeful note about America’s resilience.

I, too, see signs that the great ship of culture is swinging around on some of the issues that concern me, as, for instance, younger people begin re-populating our walkable cities, many of them choosing not to own an automobile.

There’s no government edict to depopulate the suburbs, and the fears (justified) of peak oil are abated. But as if by instinct, people are behaving as if they grok this little slice of fossil-fuel reality, whether or not they articulate it.

I suspect that some shift will happen, too, in America’s recent tendency toward secularization, though I can’t claim to know how the shift will come about, or just how the new landscape will appear.

No, God never promised that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against the Church anywhere, howsoever temporarily, but I doubt that America’s becoming so unfaithful that Africa must send missionaries with the Gospel any time soon. (To echo Jonathan Haidt, though, I have very low confidence in my optimism about this.)

But I am bearish on Evangelicalism (if you hadn’t noticed). Coincidentally (providentially?), Michael Gerson has some supporting commentary both for resilience in general but with specific bearishness on Evangelicalism:

It is sometimes assumed (including by me) that the presidency sets a moral tone for the nation, influencing what society considers normal and acceptable in a kind of trickle-down ethics. But the sexual harassment revolution emerged from society in spite of — or even in defiance of — a president who has boasted of exploiting women and who stands accused of harassing more than a dozen.

This is a reminder that the moral dynamics of a nation are complex, which should come as no surprise to conservatives (at least of the Burkean variety). This is a big country, capable of making up its own collective mind. Politics reaches only the light zone of a deep ocean. It is a sign of hope that moral and ethical standards can assert themselves largely unaided by political, entertainment and media leaders ….

[R]apid shifts in social norms should be encouraging to social reformers of various stripes. Attitudes and beliefs do not move on a linear trajectory. A period of lightning clarity can change the assumptions and direction of a culture.

I elided some comments about how the country is moving to a better place on sexual harassment, because of that I’m quite skeptical, for reasons I’ve mentioned in recent blogs. But Gerson has a big Evangelical fish to fry:

And where did this urgent assertion of moral principle come from? Not from the advocates of “family values.” On the contrary, James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family (now under much better management), chose to side with GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama against his highly credible accusers. “I have been dismayed and troubled,” Dobson said, “about the way he and his wife Kayla have been personally attacked by the Washington establishment.”

It is as if Dobson set out to justify every feminist critique of the religious right. Instead of standing against injustice and exploitation — as the Christian gospel demands — Dobson sided with patriarchal oppression in the cause of political power. This is beyond hypocrisy. It is the solidarity of scary, judgmental old men. It is the ideology of white male dominance dressed up as religion.

This is how low some religious conservatives have sunk ….

Dobson isn’t just “religious.” He’s Evangelical. As is Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s angry son, a reliable voice in support of guys like Roy Moore. I know of at least one other Evangelical scandal that could explode, involving a substantially fraudulent CV of a prominent Evangelical apologist. I’m not sure why it hasn’t exploded yet.

Some places remain, though, where student are given lenses other than “power”:

Imagine a beautiful garden in the midst of a gray, industrial, bleak city. The city’s architecture is functional only, given totally to the making of money or to the most ephemeral, when not downright base, forms of entertainment. This city is all big box store and mega-super-cinema-plex. But the garden is lovely, lush, and inviting. It is full of beautiful growth and well-crafted stonework. It is a place for true recreation and joyful exercise. And it is ancient, passed down through generations of city-dwellers as a place of relief and regeneration.

What would you think of the generation that let that garden die?

What would you think of a people who intentionally destroyed it?

In short, the main reason Western civilization, with an emphasis on “Great Books,” deserves a prominent—indeed, the prominent—place in the curriculum of the Christian university is stewardship ….

(Benjamin Myers, The Christian University: Steward of Western Civilization) At Myers’ university, there’s a required 15 credits in Western Civilization. Bully for them! Myers:

Let us not cheapen the noble goal of exploring world cultures by pretending that three hours in Polynesian folklore is as good as fifteen hours in Western civilization, when we really just want to open up twelve more hours for the study of management or sports nutrition.

Remember the old quip—I think it was from William F. Buckley—that the problem with liberals (“progressives” probably would have been more apt) is they can’t begin to describe the utopia in which they’d finally be conservative because all at last was well?

I cannot overemphasize how important it is that universities and liberal arts colleges like Myers’ be left unmolested because those who would homogenize education and stamp out unfashionable truths are themselves unstable chasers-after ephemera and delusions. This has been my conviction for nearly 50 years.

Have you read A Canticle for Leibowitz, by the way?

Resilience. I like that hopeful word. It’s a nice balance to my usual doom and gloom.

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.


Where fun goes to die

It’s Saturday noon. Tens Hundreds of thousands of University students are highly inebriated and on their way to watching kickoffs.

But my thoughts turned earlier to the educational enterprise.

Several years ago Robert Zimmer was asked by an audience in China why the University of Chicago was associated with so many winners of the Nobel Prize — 90 in all, counting this month’s win by the behavioral economist Richard Thaler. Zimmer, the university’s president since 2006, answered that the key was a campus culture committed to “discourse, argument and lack of deference.”

[F]ree speech is what makes educational excellence possible. “It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears,” Louis Brandeis wrote 90 years ago in his famous concurrence in Whitney v. California.

It is also the function of free speech to allow people to say foolish things so that, through a process of questioning, challenge and revision, they may in time come to say smarter things.

If you can’t speak freely, you’ll quickly lose the ability to think clearly. Your ideas will be built on a pile of assumptions you’ve never examined for yourself and may thus be unable to defend from radical challenges. You will be unable to test an original thought for fear that it might be labeled an offensive one …

That is the real crux of Zimmer’s case for free speech: Not that it’s necessary for democracy (strictly speaking, it isn’t), but because it’s our salvation from intellectual mediocrity and social ossification. In a speech in July, he addressed the notion that unfettered free speech could set back the cause of “inclusion” because it risked upsetting members of a community.

“Inclusion into what?” Zimmer wondered. “An inferior and less challenging education? One that fails to prepare students for the challenge of different ideas and the evaluation of their own assumptions? A world in which their feelings take precedence over other matters that need to be confronted?”

These are not earth-shattering questions. But they are the right ones, and they lay bare the extent to which the softer nostrums of higher ed today shortchange the intended beneficiaries.

(Bret Stephens, profiling University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, emphasis added)

But I’m not sure that Zimmer’s answer to the Chinese is complete. He’s standing on the shoulders of Robert Hutchins:

After the 1939 season, Hutchins abolished football at Chicago University. And he did it during Christmas break, while the students were off campus.  This decision (along with Hutchins eliminating fraternities and religious organizations from campus) caused a decrease in enrollment and financial backing.

Now to his credit, Chicago became one of the premier schools in the country ….

Well, yes, there’s that, I suppose. Where fun goes to die and future Nobel laureates go to do whatever magic it is that makes Nobel laureates.

But I was surprised to learn that the University pioneered women’s sports and is still involved in intercollegiate athletics, having been a charter member of a unique Division III conference (as once it helped found the Big Ten):

In 1987-88, Chicago became a charter member of a new and unique NCAA Division III conference, the University Athletic Association. Comprised of some of the nation’s leading research institutions, UAA members include Brandeis University, Carnegie Mellon University, Case Western Reserve University, Emory University, Johns Hopkins University, New York University, the University of Rochester, and Washington University in St. Louis.

The UAA provides its member institutions and student-athletes with some of the best athletic competition in the country, as evidenced by the fact that the UAA has sent 129 teams to NCAA postseason play and has produced 11 national champions in its 11-year history. Many student-athletes at UAA institutions are capable of competing at the NCAA Division I level, but choose the UAA experience because of the unique combination of academic, athletic, and travel opportunities the Association afford its members.


Mitch Daniels has deservedly gotten much attention for innovations to prepare Purdue for a changing environment, but I see no sign that his vision is as bold as dropping out of Division I to focus more on education.

Is it okay that I had fun poking around a bit, reminding myself that Division III isn’t incompatible with first-rate education, and writing this?

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

50th Reunion

I spent the weekend at my 50th high school reunion.

I’m at (something of) a loss for words to describe it, but that may be because I don’t want to do kiss-and-tell, and I don’t want to generalize (at least publicly) about the 26 or more precious individuals who came (out of a class of about 60, with at least 6 having died). But I can still reflect on it for an audience only one of whom, so far as I know, was there over the weekend.

There’s an unusual reason why my reunions are such a draw for me, though they’re at a campus some three hours away: for about 40% of us, including me, it was a boarding school. And I entered at age 14. It’s a major life landmark to get that much “distance” (geographically and emotionally) from parents at that age especially. Maybe college means that to you, but it’s probably less intense because you were older.

The 50th reunion, I think, is a draw because we’re all feeling our mortality. Where in the heck did 50 years go? How can 10% of our classmates be gone already? Does anyone know how Jane died? Cal? Randy? (We knew what took Rich, Gwen and Carol.) Most of us looked pretty healthy, but one of the really rowdy and athletic young men is crippled (his own word) as a result of accidents the bade well to kill him. But he’s glad to still be here. And we were glad he made it, too; his undiagnosed ADD made him pretty unforgettable.

Ten years ago, one of our classmates was awarded alumnus of the year and I couldn’t remember him! There’s a good reason for that: he was there only 5 months, second semester senior year, and had to study constantly to compensate for his prior educational deficits. He didn’t even have time to run track, where he would have excelled.

In the world of evangelicalism, he’s our most famous classmate, but I didn’t know that, either, as I had left evangelicalism, at least equivocally, about the time he joined the little evangelical charity he turned into a huge evangelical charity. He’s the kind of guy of whom evangelicals might say “You know him?! Too bad the answer would need to be “sort of.”

The weekend brought testimonies of how the school changed us, including that former alum of the year. But the world has changed, too, and we’re in the middle of a continuing revolution in how devout Christians will be allowed to live in the culture. So Saturday night, some of us were huddled earnestly discussing how our grandchildren or great-grandchildren are going to survive the unfolding social revolution as Christians.

One of us, now retired from teaching, said “Classical education. Then Hillsdale, or St. Johns, or Thomas More.” I tend to agree, but would generalize: some place that has had the foresight, integrity, and private support to shun government money, and maybe even to scorn the accreditation martinets.” I could go on a little longer, too. Read The Benedict Option, and Shop Class as Soulcraft, and some of the delightful books of Joel Salatin, even — maybe this (which I’ve read) or this (which I haven’t). [UPDATE: Or anything by Wendell Berry, of course.]

I wish we’d had time to probe “why classical education” at greater depth. But I’m going to connect that to something a school leader said in my hearing Saturday morning. He is adamant about the name “Academy:”

“High school” is a made up category, born of the industrial revolution. And it’s going away.

I appreciate the vision that tacitly says “our mission is too distinctive to do exactly what other high schools are doing at the moment but with a little Jesus thrown in. The current ‘high school’ model isn’t even very healthy.” Classical education gives the tools for being a good person in any kind of society.

My alma mater is not a classical school, then or now, but with leadership like that, it has, I think, the integrity to make costly refusals of the unacceptable demands that I’m all but certain will be coming. The open question is whether the prosperous parents (who probably have big influence in the school’s leadership) will understand why the Academy cannot offer even one pinch of incense on the altar of Leviathan.

At a closing Alumni Chapel Sunday the Alumni Choir sang something that I’d never heard before:

We’re pilgrims on the journey
Of the narrow road
And those who’ve gone before us line the way
Cheering on the faithful, encouraging the weary
Their lives a stirring testament to God’s sustaining grace

Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses
Let us run the race not only for the prize
But as those who’ve gone before us
Let us leave to those behind us
The heritage of faithfulness passed on through godly lives

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave
Lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful

After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone
And our children sift through all we’ve left behind
May the clues that they discover and the memories they uncover
Become the light that leads them to the road we each must find


Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful

(Find us Faithful, by Steve Green)

As we rehearsed it, I thought “This is kind of a thin gruel, middle-class-American version of why my Church has icons. ‘Those who’ve gone before us’ are the great cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 11. They’re not just stories. They had faces and bodies and can be pictured. They’re worshipping with us as we worship. They’re cheering us on. I appreciate the visible reminder.”

And many of them suffered, and entered into glory, for refusing to offer that pinch of incense.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think anything that bad awaits us in the U.S. during even my grandchildren’s lives. But we’ve gotten soft. It might not need to be threat of death to trigger apostasy. It seems to me that it’s very, very likely to reduce us from middle class to a kind of dhimmitude, but under secularism, not (yet) Islam.

I remember nothing about Fox’s Book of Martyrs, the only martyrology the Academy knew back in my day, except the feeling “those dirty, murderous Catholics!” I knew nothing of the pre-Protestant heroes of the faith, Catholic and Orthodox, whose martyrologies leave one not hating their killers, but marveling at their lives and courage and how they won glory.

I’ll try to be fair to evangelicalism at its best, which I caught many glimpses of this weekend, but they need to get to know the earlier martyrs. In fact, they need to get deeper into history generally; the Church did not disappear, or become contemptible, with Constantine and until Luther.

Ultimately, they need to get into the ark that is the Orthodox Church, but the troubles may be coming sooner than that’s plausible. May God find my old friends faithful anyway.

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.