Retaking American Universities with Inspiration from Asia

Once or twice a year, I make the long journey to East Asia in order to reinvigorate my optimism about humanity in general and the possibilities for the United States in particular. Visiting partner universities in South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam, and interacting with students and faculty from this ambitious region is like stepping back into what I imagine post-war America was like. The universities are hubs for innovation and social leadership that are making life markedly better for the average person.

Not a day goes by when my local colleagues are not in the field helping political, economic, and social actors do better. Whether its cybersecurity, heritage management, youth leadership, digital infrastructure, or urban planning, I find myself stepping into a world apart from the resentful and risk-averse America that I leave behind. I once travelled here while my home university’s “diversity” bureaucracy was investigating me for a litany of made-up complaints that students had concocted to get me fired for being a conservative. Somehow, even that great evil melted into nothingness once I was alongside my serious colleagues in Asia. “Who cares what’s happening in the U.S.?” I recall thinking. “At least there’s one part of the world where the promise of the university is still on vivid display.”

I take universities to be a good litmus test of the health and values of a society. When well-managed, they both produce and reflect the best, when ill-managed, the worst. That is why groups like the National Association of Scholars (NAS), the conservative research and advocacy group of which I am a board member, have come into the spotlight recently. The values of a country are preserved, restored, and redeemed at the university. So its health is of more than nugatory significance. The destructive capture of the university by radicals that was dismissed as mere campus follies in the 1970s is today lodged firmly in our social, political, and economic institutions. Universities in America today not just export but also reinforce everything that is wrong with our republic. Rebuilding universities is the key to rebuilding public intellectual life, and with it American values.

My annual pilgrimage to Asia tells me that the pessimistic “burn it all down” sentiment filled with enmity, doom, and despair underestimates the possibilities of positive change in America. In particular, I see anew in the countries of East Asia (Northeast and Southeast Asia from Japan to Indonesia) how the three fundamental forces that made the West and its universities great – the free market, science and technology, and Western culture – can overcome the ideological cancer that has driven us to rancor and entitlement. These forces, which the NAS embraces in its stated mission to “foster intellectual freedom, search for the truth, and promote virtuous citizenship”, show where the work is to be done and how the future may be brighter than we think. I still find myself surprised by joy at the possibility that the American university and the broader public sphere can be rebuilt with inspiration from Asia.

I lived in Asia for over a decade and have been there often since. I do not exoticize or romanticize the region. Its problems are a mirror image of ours: a prevalence of rote and repetition in learning, a tendency to idolize science such that methods overtake substance, and a persistent authoritarian streak that makes universities dangerously vulnerable to bad decisions. But in the main, I see Asia overcoming its weaknesses and building on its strengths far more than we in the West. “Stand to your work and be wise – certain of sword and pen,” Kipling wrote, rallying England to the challenge of Asia. “Who are neither children nor Gods, but men in a world of men.”

Freedom and Markets

Capitalism is the necessary institution of human flourishing, and don’t let any screaming Swedish teenager or muddled Argentinian pontiff tell you otherwise. Not just economic flourishing, mind you. That one is obvious. Political, social, and even environmental flourishing depend on free markets as well. We can debate how to keep the market aligned with the public good. But nothing can ever replace it as an engine of human betterment.

When Marxists began populating the academy in the 1960s, it was thought to be merely a widening of the intellectual circle. After all, neo-classicists, libertarians, conservatives, socialists, and social welfarists already existed on campus. Adding Marxists to the mix was expected to improve the contention. But by the 2000s, the radical march through the institutions had left on campus only the Marxists, including a new brand of post-Marxists obsessed with the cultural means of production. They claimed that their triumph reflected the progress of history. Capitalism was in its death throes (“late capitalism” was the term of abuse) as was European culture (disparaged as “neo-colonialism”) and universities needed to prepare for a future based on New Socialist Man. Amazingly, the collapse of socialist regimes in Europe had little effect on the campus mindset because the radicals told themselves that this collapse was a result of American Cold War hostility rather than popular preferences.

Communist regimes in China and Vietnam knew better. They survived by embracing markets without political freedom. Socialist parties continued to wreak havoc in Latin America, where socialist norms remain resilient and are remaking the American republic as a result of uncontrolled immigration. Africa remained fundamentally uninstitutionalized and thus an evergreen model for socialist utopias. It is no coincidence that market freedoms coincided with the rise of top universities in China, and now Vietnam, while traditional top universities in the West declined.

This complacent story meant that in the 1990s, rather than waking up to the dawning reality of global competition, the Western academy went into a tailspin. It invented new attacks on the market using jargon about “neo-liberalism” and “racialized inequality.” The spillover effects on society were catastrophic.

Markets are a way of organizing societies as much as economies. They put a moral value on self-control, planning, prudence, hard work, thrift, and responsibility. The attack on markets was an attack on these “bourgeois values”, as my colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Wax, famously called them. The abandonment of these values by wide swathes of American society was a direct consequence of the Marxist capture of the university.

What are the grounds for hope? Like China and Vietnam before us, societies that flirt with a state takeover of national life, whether through expropriation, regulation, or taxation, quickly learn the costs. When President Trump declared in his 2019 State of the Union that “America will never be a socialist country” it was a winning appeal. His Council of Economic advisors in 2018 had issued a report on “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism” that pointed to rising socialist sentiments on the left. A “socialist program for the U.S.,” it noted, “would make shortages, or otherwise degrade quality, of whatever product or service is put under a public monopoly. The pace of innovation would slow, and living standards generally would be lower.”

The report worried about potential socialized medicine or confiscatory personal and corporate taxes. But socialism had already come to the university. The innovation and ambition that characterized American colleges and universities in the post-war era was destroyed by entitled faculty unions, radical bureaucrats, and the use of federal subsidies to socialize campus management.

The problem was not the absence of “intellectual freedom” as many of my colleagues on the right insist. The lesson of the Cold War was that intellectual freedom was inseparable from market freedom. The claim that we just needed to inject some conservatives and classical liberals into campus like artificial insemination was a myth. Rather, it was the growing capture of institutions of higher education by federally-funded radicals that was the problem.

The lack of intellectual freedom and pluralism is today endogenous to the American university. The Marxist socialization of higher education – not just the funding but the use of the funding to impose all manner of federal and state regulations as well as ideological mandates – is the problem. Any freedom injected into this setting will be punished and expelled, like the hapless peasants who tried to keep kitchen gardens in Mao’s China. That’s why “cancel culture” is wholly unsurprising, and frankly irrelevant.

Intellectual freedom and pluralism will be restored only once the fetters of Marxist control are removed. Then, we will get a rebalancing of perspectives on campus. If universities cannot be radically marketized, then much of their research should be pulled out of them and into standalone institutions. This would allow universities to divide their units into standalone profit centers not dependent on the cross-subsidization of gender studies and sociology departments. Deadweight costs emanating from DEI bureaucracies and mandates would be saved. New schools and colleges offering job-relevant skills and services to society would proliferate, while liberal arts colleges would thrive only if they actually taught the liberal arts.

My host institution in Thailand, the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University, is a standalone profit center that has to pay rent on its land and overhead costs to the university. As a result, it is a dynamo of teaching and public outreach, and its enrollment is surging. It cannot afford ideological follies. The only “inequality” of concern in Asia is an inequality of opportunities for individuals to be absolutely better off than their parents. With broad economic growth and value-adding educational systems, this concern is close to non-existent.

I have seen the future, and it is neo-liberal. It is also rife with inequalities of the best sorts. And I see an eventual awakening from state planning in American public life that will usher in this change. In this American future, students will again be the masters of their souls, not the slaves of campus ideologues. They will be directed to their own behavior and contributions, not to “grand narratives” about victimization and powerlessness fed to them by socialist planners. They will take initiative, add value, see opportunities, and make positive changes. That’s what I see at Asian universities, and that’s the first way that the socialist pandemic will be defeated in the American public sphere.

Science and Truth

The creation of markets was not the only key event in the rise of the West. The other was more breathtaking because it had no antecedents in folk cultures or primitive societies. This was the discovery of a conception of disembodied, impersonal, and non-contingent truths that an individual could discover, and then follow. Science was a formalization of this shift. It took place in Medieval Europe with the discovery of the individual as freed from social determinism, governed only by the immutable laws and love of a transcendent God. The belief that humans resemble God by virtue of being conscious of themselves and able to understand and know things about the world around them remains the irrevocable religious foundation on which all modern science is based.

So widespread did the basic tenets of science become – measurable concepts, disprovable theories, logical justification, openness to new evidence, etc. – that even the study of human societies was made scientific. The “social sciences” achieved its greatest breakthroughs from roughly the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. While academic philosophers today with no knowledge of the actual practices and evidence of the social sciences dismiss the possibility of relatively dependable laws of society, much of our contemporary world is based on such laws. The Federal Reserve is raising interest rates to combat inflation because we know a thing or two about how humans respond to borrowing costs. When you file your underpaid taxes this year, the IRS will suggest planning better for next year because we know a thing or two about human psychology. I could go on.

Despite the obvious fruits of the scientific method for both natural and social understanding, the academy experienced another dysphoria beginning in the 1970s, and another march through the institutions by the confused. The pilgrims this time were not the Marxists advocating communal planning of society and the socialist road in order to overcome the oppression of “the system.” These radicals had after all insisted that they were following “scientific socialism.” The parvenus were more nearly in direct opposition to them, insisting that all knowledge claims were mere individual beliefs, hopelessly subjective. In place of campus as a place of liberation, we got campus as a place of irony. These postmodernists of various stripes saw their mission as rescuing students from the paradigms and grand narratives that had been created by the rich, the powerful, and (latterly) the white.

The cracks that allowed this fungus to infect the tree of knowledge had been made by the scientists themselves. The British philosopher Walter Gallie wrote a seminal article in 1956 on how social concepts like “democracy” changed their meaning over time because of their “appraisive” nature. But he rejected that view that there was no logic in human affairs. To fall into a “new obscurantism” was to lurch from the mistake of Marxist universalism to that of postmodern relativism, he warned. “Since the Enlightenment a number of brilliant thinkers seem positively to have exulted in emphasizing the irrational elements in our thinking,” he noted.

Another scientist working on the social aspects of the search for truth, American philosopher Thomas Kuhn, warned in his monumental 1962 book on progress and setbacks in science that his work should not be used to advance a lazy slide into relativism. If anything, he argued, the social sciences made more progress than the sciences because “there are always competing schools, each of which constantly questions the very foundations of the others.”

Too late. Postmodernists seized on Gallie and Kuhn to argue that all knowledge is relative and political. The diligent work of scientists and social scientists ended up producing a cadre of smug and cynical professors whose march through the institutions slightly displaced the Marxists who had marched before them. The “deep concord” of faith and reason, as the national treasure Alvin Platinga, a Notre Dame philosopher called it, was pushed aside by the “superficial concord” of a new belief in atheistic naturalism and a human reason now untethered from any claims to transcendent validity.

Truth was now tumbling along the shifting sands of social justice. Scientific claims were disparaged by the Marxists if they did not comport with social justice, and by the postmodernists if they took a dislike to the skin pigmentation or genitalia of the claim-maker. This did not start in the gender, queer, black, native, and Chicano departments. These intellectual wastelands were an effect not a cause. Rather, it started in the core liberal arts departments: sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and history. Now it is mainstream and weather-proofed against the cold winds of rational debate.

Post-truth academics could now be only two flavors: atheist Marxists fighting for the lumpen proletariat; or cynical doges of “diversity” fighting for epistemologically victimized. The flagship research university in my home state of Oregon has for the past two years forced all incoming undergraduates to read a counter-Enlightenment manifesto named Braiding Sweetgrass. In it, a SUNY botanist who claims native ancestry, Robin Kimmerer, tells students to learn to talk to plants and that “Western” science has obliterated brilliant native insights. The Dave Barry codicil requires constant refrain: “I’m not making this up.”

The attack on science necessitated an attack on free speech, or to be more particular, speech that questioned the nostrums of Marxist social justice, intersectionality, postmodern flightiness, or the evils of the West. This was dressed up as “inclusiveness” and “diversity” and, lately, “anti-racism”, but it all meant the same thing: Don’t subject our post-truth agenda to your contest of ideas.

The COVID pandemic provided a stark reminder of the costs. Cut off from social pressures of the sort that Kuhn applauded, the scientific establishment proved a menace to society as great as the Marxist regimes of the past. But an equal and opposite menace came from the postmodern conspiracy theorists and quacks for whom all scientific claims were a narrative intended to attain power. A delicious irony was the fact that the political left, forced to choose, opted for Marx over Foucault, the all-powerful centralizing state imposing the dictatorship of the vaccinariat on the people. It was the political right, especially the libertarian right, that embraced the worst of Foucault. All public policies were intended to “discipline and punish”, and the public health system was no better than a lunatic asylum. The American campus is what laid the groundwork for both.

Over in Asia, meanwhile, universities have been running on high-octane science with tremendous results. Neither cynical about science nor insisting that it serve social justice, they have allowed it to play its apt role. When I explain to my colleagues in Asia what has been going on in the United States, they stare blank-faced, mouths hanging. Then a nervous laugh. And again: “Who cares? It makes it easier for us to emerge on top.”

And Godspeed them. Those of us who travel in the region for business, research, or government know how fabulously committed our colleagues in Asia are to evidence-based advance. In a word, to science, broadly understood as the quest to discover and live by the truths of His dominion.

To be sure, there are militant feminists and obscurantists in Asia too, mostly trained in the West and going on about queering this and decolonizing that. They are oddballs in Asian academic departments, looked upon with pity and never likely to have any influence on society.

Can it change? My hope lies in the fact that America is the place where faith has not yet been defeated despite the best efforts of European intellectuals. It enrages the American academy how American society stubbornly refuses to conform to European norms that encourage fatherless births, a lack of marriage, the obliteration of religious belief, and sheep like dependence on state-run medicine, education, and media. Because of these twin impulses — the market-led free society and the pervasive refusal to give up on the idea of transcendent Truth — American remains the last best hope in the West as a gathering place for scientific excellence.

A few centers of excellence have even escaped from the treason of the intellectuals, showing that the left has failed to snuff out the light of science and truth. Caltech, for instance, remains a miracle of excellence and meritocracy, especially given its location. Its ranking has never fallen. There are efforts in many Republican-controlled states to remove research funding from universities that impose Marxist or postmodern ideologies on students and faculty, especially via DEI mandates. Rebel bases like Bluefield State University in West Virginia and its self-described “campus maverick” president Robin Capehart keep appearing. More will come.

Like the belief in truths that survived the Communist propaganda in Soviet and Maoist days, the curiosity, humility, and long game of the truth-seeking mind cannot be destroyed. We’d better get a move on. Asian research on all things – science, business, social science, technology, engineering, medicine, etc. – is moving ahead faster than we know.

Virtue and the West

The first line of the old Thai constitution used to read: “Let there be virtue.” The current version repeats the phrase in eight different places, always referring to the teachings of Lord Buddha. Asia today is the only region of the world where ritualized acts of virtue grounded in dominant cultures continue to be a part of everyday living. This in turn permeates into strong social norms of conduct. Ritualized notions of respect, kindness, and accountability permeate campus. Students do not send emails of the sort I receive every day that begin “Hey Bruce”. Professors do not show up in the classroom in jeans and t-shirts and then tell the students about their failed marriages. Religion and the majority culture are integrated seamlessly into campus life from Hokkaido to Bali.

That word “integration” has taken on new urgency as Western countries have begun to disintegrate under the anti-cultural forces of Marxism (“Culture is false consciousness.”) and postmodernism (“Culture is oppressive.”). This disintegrating turn has been fueled by an influx of migrants from outside the West whose cultures are distinctive enough and persistent enough to represent enduring poles of non-majority culture that are slowly erasing, both statistically and conceptually, what the ghoulish like to call “white culture.”

The strategy of political parties of the left is to bide time and run out the demographic clock. European peoples are not having babies, and non-Europeans ones are migrating en masse. They just want safety and “the system” as it is and will put up with a little herding by plantation managers since it is still infinitely better than what they left behind. Pick off a few segments of white culture, especially college-educated women with no children, and you have an enduring coalition indifferent or hostile to the values of the West.

The result is that public rituals on campus, and increasingly beyond, are no longer centered on dominant Western culture, but are instead attacks on it. Land acknowledgements, pronoun declarations, architectural removals and renamings, BIPOC-only events, hostile “whiteness” studies, and “decolonizing” movements have turned culture into anti-culture.

Under those circumstances, how can it be possible to advance the third NAS principle, namely the promotion of “virtuous citizenship?” How, in other words, can universities and broader cultural institutions define and promote a concept of citizenship grounded in a shared conception of virtue when the virtues at stake, which have drawn billions of migrants to the West, are now the target of systemic erasure?

This is perhaps the knottiest challenge of the three because it is where conservatives must beg leave of their classical liberal, libertarian, and otherwise free-thinking colleagues. Like new migrants, these brethren often take the cultural basis of a free society for granted. They want all the West’s rule of law, stable politics, wide freedoms, flourishing market economy, and social trust without any of its cultural foundations. Indeed, new migrants are often more keenly aware of the precious cultural heritage of the West than these unsociable anchorites, whether leftist eco-warriors or rightist militiamen.

The virtue generated through culture comes of a humility of checking one’s egotistical impulses, impulses now given high voltage by digital technologies. The NAS may applaud the work of fellow-travelling iconoclasts who make fun of the Woke academy. But atheism, hyper individualism, and ego are often their bywords. The American republic, and the public square that animates it, can never be retaken by individuals obsessed with their Tik Tok views.

The source of the virtues of the West is its culture and traditions. This means the inherited practices, habits, and systems that have worked well. With apologies to Monty Python, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords — like strange men lying in the Pennsylvania State House distributing two senate seats per state — is precisely the basis for a system of government. But preserving that system requires constant reverence for and delight in the uniquely Western culture that produced it.

So who or what is the “Lord Buddha” to which we must bend the knee in silent reverence? In a word, the Western canon: the precious ethical, literary, artistic, philosophical, theological, historical, and architectural accretion that layered Greek, Jewish, Roman, Catholic, Protestant, and finally Enlightenment cultures one on top of the other. Each country then bit off a particular morsel – for the United States it came ashore in 1620 with the powerful idealism of the New England Puritans – on which to craft its national virtue.

Calling this “white culture” is shorthand at best. Whatever the later associations of the West with the more fair-skinned and small-featured peoples of northern Europe, the origins lie in the Near East and Mediterranean. The bride of the Song of Songs is “black but comely” due to long days in the vineyard sun. And, not to be mistaken for an insult, the bridegroom sings to her: “Your nose, the Tower of Lebanon.”

More important, it is the uniquely universal accessibility of Western culture that makes it so powerful. Black Americans may opt out of American society into delusions of African grandeur and brilliance. Native Americans may likewise dwell in dreams of some lost cultural paradise wiped out by the white man. The South Asian radicals rapidly rising into power on the left may equally style themselves as bearers of some Hindoo moral mandala needed to save the West. But two things bear repeating. One is that although the left can pick off some key demographics of the white population, the right will have much more potential picking off key demographics of the non-white population. After all, the right’s message is not based on fear and condescension. It is based on colorblind Western universalism. Some of the most passionate and articulate voices in support of American greatness and Western values are no longer white (a return to historical form, so to speak). Let me sing the praises of the “black but comely” Carol Swain, senior fellow for constitutional studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Allow me to compliment Conservative British prime minister Rishi Sunak, his nose “the Tower of Lebanon.” Dare I further invoke the Song of Songs in adoration of the freedom-loving essayist and activist Wenyuan Wu, her hair “black as a raven”?

Second, white groups are remarkably resilient. WASPs are not going away and have no intention of giving up their uniquely important role in the preservation of American freedoms. Nor, for that matter, are white Catholics, European Jews, Appalachian crooners, Minnesota Nordics, Wyoming cowboys, Pennsylvania Germans, and red-headed Scots-Irish. In the face of an elite culture emanating from Hollywood and Madison Avenue that has sought an erasure of white culture, it just keeps going. Try to black-wash the Lord of the Rings, a parable of medieval Europe, or the novels of Jane Austen and you will fall on your face.

The “virtuous citizenship” practiced in Asia through everyday ritualized reminders and ongoing education in dominant cultures is a model for Western countries, and the United States in particular. Begin the day with the Pledge of Allegiance. Decorate your public spaces with images of Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington. Teach Magna Carta and the Puritan sermons. Read widely from Homer to Hamilton. Do all that and along the way, take time to notice and delight in the variety of peoples from many cultural backgrounds who stand on the frontlines whistling “The Battle of the Kegs.”

We thus might amend slightly the NAS slogan—“For reasoned scholarship in a free society”—to make it less eloquent but more precise: “For reasoned scholarship in a free and Western society.” A simple formula that packs a punch. Swords and pens, gentlemen. Stand to your work and be wise.

A native of Calgary and a graduate of Trinity College, Oxford and Princeton, Bruce Gilley is professor of political science at Portland State University. His latest books are In Defense of German Colonialism and The Last Imperialist. Sir Alan Burns’ Epic Defense Of The British Empire.

Featured: Gallery of Views of Modern Rome, by Giovanni Paolo Panini; painted in 1759.

The Catholic Challenge to Progressivism

Thomas Michaud’s book, After Justice: Catholic Challenges to Progressive Culture, Politics, Economics and Education, is an attempt to address the decline of Western Civilization. Michaud believes that this decline has occurred incrementally, and he is intent on identifying the reasons for it. Convinced that ideas have consequences, Michaud records how competing ideologies have upset the West’s moral compass. The most conspicuous of these ideologies is Progressivism. For the author Progressivism is something of an umbrella term covering several left-leaning visions of individual and communal life.

Since this volume is a kind of polemic, one might expect it to have a bellicose tone, followed by a mournful quality. But to the contrary, Michaud’s book is curiously bright and hopeful, despite its critical aims. Michaud’s polemic is buoyed by its enthusiastic reliance on Catholic social teaching and Catholic wisdom in general. Michaud is confident that the long historical arc of Catholic wisdom provides the resources to teach how the decline of the West can be arrested.

Michaud discovers in the Catholic tradition the principles of a rich theological and philosophical personalism. On this earth God’s glory is most manifest in a human life fully lived. In personalism the wonder of the mysterious depths of human person as an embodied soul, endowed with intellect and will, is the metaphysical foundation for explaining human nature and civilized life. Accordingly, personalism, comprehensively understood, is the remedy for what ails culture. This book is basically a reminder that Western Civilization is at its heart Christendom, a vision of society built on Jesus Christ as the standard of humanity. Personalism applies its principles on cultural, economic, and political life, since the triad of culture, economics, and government constitutes society and its development. Michaud’s volume shows that Western Culture now is in distress because it has forgotten the person as the proper foundation of this triad.

Upon summarizing the book’s structure, an Introduction and Seven Sections of essays, one can see how Michaud in his own way prosecutes this triad. The Introduction provides autobiographical details which illuminate key elements of Michaud’s own pilgrimage as an educator, philosopher, and Christian intellectual. Next follows the book’s seven broad sections, each containing a “Section Introduction,” which is exceedingly helpful. The Sections cover a wide variety of subject matter. Section I: Lectures and Editorials treats issues ranging from electoral politics to sports. Section II Marcelian Perspectives speaks to the influence of Gabriel Marcel on Michaud’s philosophical work. Marcel’s influence is evident one way or another throughout the entire volume. Section III: Leadership Formation summarizes reflections on the nature of leadership, a subject on which Michaud has lectured extensively, appreciating that principles of leadership disclose how organizations, including civilization itself, can succeed. Section IV: Environmentalism and Realism, a discussion Michaud takes up because of the many ideological assumptions implicit in the environmentalist movement. While environmentalists profess to be green, they also tend to be red since they hope to commandeer big government to advance their various agendas. Section V: Critiques of Progressive Politics, Pluralism, Political Economy and Revolution is a set of essays wherein Michaud speculates about the reasons for social decline. Out of the plurality of essays in this section, Michaud recommends five of them for special consideration: “The Problematic Politics of Postmodern Pluralism,” “Diversity within the United States’ Culture and Politics.” “Democracy Needs Religion” “Blasts from the Preclassical Past: Why Contemporary Economics Education Should Listen to Preclassical Thought,” and “Anatomy of the Progressive Revolution.”

The first two of these five essays express Michaud’s conviction that tolerance and justice have been altered by Progressive culture to insinuate a social philosophy akin to Marxism, especially in the form of identity politics. These essays also suggest Michaud’s agreement with John Adams that America will thrive so long as her citizens remain a moral and religious people. As a group, these five essays consider how Left-Wing ideology depersonalizes society, the effects of which are evident in the past few generations. Michaud salutes the influence of Alexis de Tocqueville and Michael Novak for their implicit personalism, especially evident in the way they worry about the erosion of morality and the dignity of the person in economics. The fifth essay reminds us that Progressivism is not just a movement aiming at reform but seeks transformation of Western Culture.

Section VI: Progressivism’s Challenges to Education and Millennials’ Happiness relates how questions of social organization impact individual happiness. The book closes with a fascinating Short Story which narrates an event from Michaud’s autobiographical record.

The persistent theme percolating throughout Michaud’s book is that political correctness is a toxin. Political correctness is not just an annoyance caused by ideological busy bodies. It is an assault on truth by the manipulation of language. By means of that manipulation, people become confused and social standards become transformed, which causes confusion as people habituated in traditional language are bemused by its change. Political correctness in its extreme is Orwellian, represented by Winston Smith conceding in 1984 that indeed 2 + 2 = 5. By control of language, authorities can control thought. This outcome is now evident in the way universities equivocate on truth and turn education into indoctrination.

A keen insight is Michaud’s observation that in recent times, champions of political correctness have refined two social tools to serve their purpose of transforming Western society. These tools are (1) a modified, ideological adaptation of tolerance and (2) an alteration of fairness in the form of social justice.

Tolerance and social justice are subtle devices since they exploit the hope that people will assume that tolerance and social justice today mean what they have meant for centuries. Who would oppose openness and fairness, which principles tolerance and justice imply? However, tolerance today and social justice are a new kind of pluralism and fairness and are effectively equivocations on the ancient meanings of those terms. The politically correct are clever, which is demonstrated by using terms which have appeal because people think they signify what they have traditionally meant. But by the sleight of hand of Leftist ideologues, the meanings of justice and tolerance have changed.

Justice classically means relating to people in a way that they deserve. But social justice is different. It interprets desert not in terms of merit but in terms of identity politics. Consider that political correctness adds an adjectival qualifier which alters meaning. When the word “social” modifies justice, a different meaning is attached to fairness. Traditionally, justice is an individual’s habit or virtue of being respectful of others, who deserve respect. Social justice, on the other hand, is a kind of identity politics, in which one divides people into groups and stereotypes them. Once the groups are stereotyped, the effort is made, often by means of government, to favor some groups and disfavor others. The virtue of justice classically understood implies impartiality and equality of standards in the application of fairness. But this is not how social justice applies today. Instead, social justice suspects traditional ideas about impartiality associated with meritocracy or earned desert. Social justice comfortably accepts partiality and inequality of application, which the politically correct call “equity,” a principle inspired by the aim of restorative justice, the remedy of past wrongs perpetrated by some groups against others.

Aware of these points, Michaud regards social justice as a Marxist trope. By using politically correct language, social justice insinuates that justice is about groups, not individuals. Because human beings are social animals, as Aristotle long ago observed, there has always been sociability implicit in the idea of justice. But the status and significance of the individual was nonetheless at the heart of the classical meaning of justice because it involved individual judgment and habit formation. Social justice, however, is a Marxist tool to eliminate the individual and reduce justice to a matter of group identities and relations. For example, when a teacher discovers that a student is cheating in class, he or she ought not judge that the student is an individual wrongdoer. That would imply that he has autonomy and moral agency. Such judgment is simplistic and does not consider how we are shaped by social forces. No, it is not the cheater’s fault. It is society’s fault, which has somehow made the student a victim. If schools weren’t compromised by an unfair social system, students wouldn’t cheat. Not surprisingly, victimology is common in the exercise of social justice, a point of view that echoes Vladimir Lenin’s conviction that the proletariat cannot commit crimes because of their disadvantage before bourgeoise power. Of course, the radical political implication is that when injustice occurs, social justice warriors cry out for big government intervention to remedy the problem. Hence, social justice becomes an excuse to expand government. As a tool of unbridled political correctness, it can encourage formation of a totalitarian state.

Tolerance is another classical virtue that has been malformed by political correctness. Historically, tolerance was understood as a virtue of justice which impels a person to allow something he disagrees with because, if he were to disallow it, a kind of injustice could follow. In the spirit of traditional tolerance whole peoples with profoundly different beliefs and values have gotten along and have even lived as neighbors. But this vision of tolerance is less popular today, especially when ideological disagreements are the issue. Today, those who profess to be among the most tolerant are often content to seek refuge in tribalistic separateness. Among Progressives, tolerance is a kind of virtue signaling, a way in which a person authenticates himself as an enlightened human being by accepting the directives of politically correct thinking.

Accordingly, Progressives, while preaching tolerance, often appear intolerant. For them, tolerance is not a species of traditional justice but a politically correct instrument to transform society. Of course, one could say that it is a species of social justice. In this way, tolerance conforms to the Leftist agenda to transform the West. Hence, the Progressive’s exercise of intolerance is quite coherent with their own worldview, even though it is out of step with the classical view of tolerance. Conservatives often do not understand this progressive application of tolerance, dismissing the Progressive’s attitudes and practices as inconsistent. But Progressives are consistent according to their own imperative: be intolerant of those who champion traditional tolerance, which is based on corrupt, benighted values. A tolerant person, as Progressives see it, is enlightened, and an enlightened person knows that intolerant people should not be tolerated. Intolerant people are unenlightened, and they are people who do not support or advance the interests of Progressive politics and culture. As a result, they are a social menace. So why should society tolerate them? An intolerant person, on their view, is indeed a regressive person, someone, like a practicing Christian, who tries to maintain traditional values and institutional beliefs that, while they pass as civilized, are, in fact, benighted.

Michaud’s book is a reminder that conservatives could help themselves by better understanding these nuances about tolerance in the Progressive movement. Instead, conservatives tend to complain tirelessly about inconsistency and censorship, failing to grasp and address the deeper motivations in Progressivism. Conservatives must recognize that they are dealing with a collision of worldviews. The Progressive worldview has endured longer than many conservatives realize, having emanated out of the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose ideological heir was Karl Marx.

Conservatives would do well to appreciate how champions of political correctness play them. Michaud appreciates how political correctness has taken over universities. Allan Bloom, in his instructive book, The Closing of the American Mind, explains in detail how the University became a stifling culture against free thought, changing from an institution that sought to instill liberal education, freedom and independence of thought, to a system repressing the exchange of ideas. This happened, Bloom explains, as Leftists indoctrinated students in relativism, claiming there is no truth, and that no idea is more defensible than any other. Bloom explains that this relativism, akin to nihilism, would nullify educators’ efforts to instill moral and intellectual ideals in students. The only virtue, intellectual or moral, that students wanted taught, was openness, a curriculum without judgments. The students would pay a price as this relativism became the cultural norm at the university, an outcome Bloom captured in the subtitle of his book: How Higher Education Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Without moral judgment there is no nutrition for the soul.

Michaud understands that this is what happened to the universities. But, of course, the strategy of political correctness recognized that this nihilism was just an episode. No culture can exist without judgments and constraints. The politically correct just pretended for a while that the university was a bastion of non-judgmentalism. After removing traditions and curricula on grounds that they were biased, the new politically correct leaders took over most universities and imposed a bureaucracy of bias and censorship of their own, mainly through the formation of programs and committees that might make old-time fascists envious. For example, universities made traditional educators remove speech codes and standards. But they celebrated this removal only until they came to dominate the university and inflict innumerable speech codes, behavioral restrictions, and censorship rules of a sundry kind. The politically correct played the Rope-a-Dope game to perfection. The conservatives on campus, wanting to appear open, accommodating, and non-judgmental (in short, wanting to appear “Progressive-Lite”), fell for the strategy: from radical openness to repression in two generations.

Conservatives would do well to learn to resist political correctness at every turn and not play the game by its rules. This is one of the lessons of Michaud’s instructive book: conservatives must learn to fight back, and with intelligence.

Curtis Hancock is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit institution in Kansas City, Missouri, USA, where he held the Joseph M. Freeman Chair of Philosophy for twenty years. He has a B.A. and M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Oklahoma, and a Ph.D. from Loyola University of Chicago. He is former President of the American Maritain Association and co-founder of the Gilson Society. He has published several books, including Recovering a Catholic Philosophy of Elementary Education. He has also published numerous articles and reviews.

Featured: The Liberation of St. Peter, by Antonio de Bellis; painted ca. early 1640s.

Teenage Secessions: The New Mutineers of Panurge

If there is one place where everyone can observe the numerous and diverse rebellions that are taking place in France, it is the school. Every teacher is aware of this—school is no longer the civic and cultural mold that used to “make” the French. On the contrary, it is now up to the educational institution and academic knowledge to adapt to the “French archipelago,” to use Jérôme Fourquet’s expression.

In all classrooms, the new cultural and ethnic cleavages are now evident. Sociologists have long been analyzing the various adolescent tribes that have populated the playgrounds of high schools and colleges since May 1968: “goths,” “geeks,” “riffraff,” “rockers,” and so many other possible affiliations for adolescents in search of an identity that is both gregarious and rebellious. These clans once formed a set of counter-cultures opposed to the official culture condemned since Bourdieu as “bourgeois” by a whole section of the teaching profession itself. However, the current situation offers the attentive teacher some new features.

School Cultures and Counter-Cultures

Classical culture no longer exists, at least as a reference culture, either among the students or in the content of teaching. With the exception of a few large inner-city high schools, most students have no idea of its importance. Their own civilization is now essentially foreign to them, since it is assimilated to a simple collection of meaningless old things—what good is Moliere or Descartes when their understanding requires an effort that the tyranny of immediacy has abolished? Everything converges towards a simplification of the language. This phenomenon explains the collapse of the mastery of the French language, the mother of all school secessions. In this respect, one can refer to the precious indictment of Professor René Chiche in La désinstruction nationale (2019). He has the courage to speak of “quasi-illiteracy” to designate this implosion of the common language observed during the correction of hundreds of copies of the baccalaureate “written in a gibberish that borrows vaguely from French as from a foreign language.”

As for the teachers, either they no longer know this culture of reference, or they are ashamed of it, or are forced to admit defeat by the spirit of the age—self-censorship and the simplification of knowledge triumph, even if it is at the cost of yet another renunciation. Certainly, there are still a few chains of transmission that work, a few students who are attentive to this legacy of the past; but these students only survive in a universe that is now hostile to the idea of a cultural hierarchy. This is the great seesaw: the former reference culture has become a minority counter-culture in the school, one of the many islands in the school archipelago—and this among students and teachers. This is the first condition of secession, when the norm becomes the exception and the exception the norm.

Among all these counter-cultures that face each other, is there not one that does not tend to dominate the others? It would be naive not to believe this, for nature abhors a vacuum. In most establishments, demographic evolution has made the difference—it is now Islam, even if it is not well known and because it is not well known, as well as rap culture that dominates mentalities. As far as Islam is concerned, most students grant the Muslim religion the prestige that the Catholic religion once held—in biology and philosophy classes, the new norm of the sacred is indeed Islamic. How many teachers have faced widespread disbelief in evolutionism? And because it is authentically sacred in the eyes of most students, Muslim or not, it is a norm that one must necessarily deal with, as a student on the playground and as a teacher in the classroom.

On the Koran, Ma!

The philosophy course on religion often turns into an insurmountable challenge. It is impossible to stay within the Christian theological framework, even though it is perfectly adapted to Greek rationality, since these references seemingly exclude students of the Muslim faith, and all students, including non-Muslims, find fault with these references. It is also impossible to discuss Muslim dogmas and texts, since the teacher would dare to interfere in the sphere of the sacred shared by most students—the new bigotry is of Koranic origin but internalized by all. The “wallah” and “on the Koran” are the backdrop of recesses as well as of interclass periods. More surprisingly, teachers discover to what extent some Christian students in the minority proudly claim the practice of Lent, unconsciously copying that of a Ramadan that has become predominant in many schools. It is therefore deference to Islam that serves as a common reference point.

As for rap culture, which it is now absurd to call a “counter” culture, its hegemony is undeniable, including in the more bourgeois high schools where tracksuits and rap have been crushing the competition for several years. The lyrics and the imagination of this musical genre now grant it a monopoly on subversion, vehemence and virility. Victory has thus gone to the most aggressive tribe. But in the peripheral high schools, exhibiting this obedience is not only a sign of good adolescent taste, it is above all a means of integration, even of social survival. For boys, adopting the social codes of the dominant group gives them hope of immunity from harassment. The girls themselves are not mistaken—adopting the codes of the “street” is a very effective defense mechanism to make themselves respected.

The Colony of our Colonies

Obviously, this new dominant culture, halfway between Mecca and the United States, has a common ground—the massive immigration of the last decades. “Conquered Greece has conquered her fierce conqueror,” said Horace (Epistles, II)—by one of those dialectical reversals that history possesses the secret of, the descendants of the formerly colonized populations are now consciously and unconsciously imposing their spirituality and aesthetics on the natives, who are obliged to pay allegiance. Nomadic identity has replaced the sedentary culture of the former majority, since it is now shameful not to have origins—when one is a “little white boy,” one comes to dig up Italian or Polish ancestors to cultivate one’s extraterritoriality.

Thus, at school, minorities that have become the majority are now capable of tyrannizing the majority that has become the minority. This secessionist matrix, to which everyone seems to be resigned, has many repercussions, including for the rare families who still seem to escape it—bypassing the school map, private schools, private lessons. It is then multilateral tribalism that emerges to compensate for cultural disaffiliation, as Michel Maffesoli already noted in Le temps des tribus (1988): “Tribalism reminds us of the importance of the feeling of belonging to a place, to a group, as the essential foundation of all social life.” And in the average high school, teenage tribes are about to be overwhelmed by the most proselytizing and most fertile of them. Michel Maffesoli’s world is thus answered by Philippe Muray’s world of prison-guards and mutineers of Panurge.

The school and the world of tomorrow will not be the paradise of intersectionality but the hell of incommensurability—a conflicting space without true culture; that is to say, without any common measure capable of transcending the particular tribes.

Paul-Élie Aengler writes for the revue Éléments.

Dennis Prager, High School Principal

Dennis Prager is many things, but a high school principal he is not. Maybe a frustrated non high school principal, but not an actual one. This, however, does not stop him from offering a wise, witty, erudite, inspiring speech that he hopes will become the template for all those who take up this position.

He is also very courageous. He uses the “N” word all spelled out. True, his usage of this prohibited word is employed so as to forbid his students, white or black or anything else, from so doing. He does so in the spirit of Lenny Bruce, who also used that word in a similar context. But, still, it took great valor to do so; tenured faculty have been fired for emulating him in this regard. I myself in sharp contrast am an abject coward. My university employer would like nothing more for me to engage in such word usage, tenure be damned. I dursn’t.

He announces that the school will “no longer honor race or ethnicity: I could not care less if your racial makeup is black, brown, red, yellow or white.” There will be no school clubs based upon such considerations nor any celebrations on that basis; they just drive people apart.

Classes, he avers, will all be conducted in English; a strict dress code will be implemented; obscene language will not be tolerated (this includes use of the “N” word, “even when used by one black student to address another black”); further, “there will be one valedictorian, not eight.” Principal Prager also inveighed against scaring students about global warming. He concluded, right before instituting the Pledge of Allegiance that “There will be no more attempts to convince you that you are a victim because you are not white, or not male, or not heterosexual or not Christian.”

Comes the question; should all high school teachers buy into this perspective (to say nothing of college presidents)? Would they do so in the free society, given that the desiderata was good education? Yes! A thousand times yes.

But there are other possible goals. One of them is economic freedom. Here, in contrast, the motto should be: “let 1,000” flowers bloom. Well, actually, far more than that since in the free society each school would be free to inculcate whatever policies it wishes.

There is nothing incompatible with just law and the use of the “N” word. Surely there are some educational consumers who would take it amiss to have their free speech rights trampled upon in such manner. They might well prefer to patronize other more linguistically free educational establishments. Then, too, opinions vary as to the propriety and desirability of several other Prager policies.

I, personally, would want my children and grandchildren to be enrolled in a school predicated upon the principles articulated by Mr. Prager. If I were a high school teacher I would vastly prefer to be employed by this man. However, in a free society, not everyone would share the views that he and I do. The two of us would be no more justified in shoving these principles down the throats of the entire society than are the wokesters who are presently attempting to do just that to the rest of us.

But Mr. Prager is articulating his own preferences; this is well and good. No one should interpret him as attempting to make these principles mandatory for anyone else.

Walter Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University, New Orleans.

Petition: What went Wrong with Higher Education and How to Begin Fixing It

Going back to their origins in the Western European Middles Ages, the humanities were tasked with the articulation, preservation, critique and transmission of the fundamental values of western civilization.

Higher Education was understood as the initiation into that inheritance and as an adventure in self-understanding, an intellectual and moral inheritance of great splendor shared by both teachers and students.

When transmitted to students who possessed the intellectual capacity and maturity to absorb it they would serve as society’s elite leadership. This was the ideal of a liberal education.

Those values continued to underpin the rise of the sciences and markets in the modern world. The evolution of modern American universities came to encompass the humanities, scientific research, and preparation for their practical application. Beneficiaries of that education prospered in their individual careers and contributed to America’s prosperity, its world-wide dominance economically, politically, and culturally.

Like everything else, things started to go wrong in the 1960s. Seemingly challenged by the then USSR, the US government initiated the first federal loan program, the National Defense Student Loan, now the Perkins Loan, in 1958. In 1965, the federal government began guaranteeing student loans provided by banks and non-profit lenders.

The vast and sudden expansion in the 1960s of so-called higher education had serious consequences.

First, the humanities and social sciences, recently followed by the hard (i.e., real) sciences, were captured by the political left leading to the conclusion that the Western inheritance and the U.S. in particular were responsible for all the domestic and international evil in the world.

Second, the federal government was now subsidizing its own executioner! Buoyed by such misguided and self-destructive generosity, institutions of higher education…

  1. raised tuition way beyond what inflation required;
  2. hastily produced several generations of lower-quality-to-incompetent teachers who acquiesced in the now dominant left-leaning ideology;
  3. expanded admissions to include vast numbers of either ineligible (democracies have a difficult time dealing with the fact that there are inherent differences in ability) or under-prepared students;
  4. used the vast expansion to create a bloated bureaucracy (which turned out to be jobs for ideologues who served as “commissars”);
  5. lowered standards both to cover up the inadequate preparation of the students, disguise the laxness of the faculty, and maintain the high levels of funding;
  6. no longer committing themselves to defending western values, these institutions largely stopped teaching the basic texts of western literature and philosophy, making it impossible for students to understand these values;
  7. and engaged in undermining the legitimacy of the US as a nation state by accepting vast sums of money to engage in scientific research on behalf of Communist China!

The consequences are now obvious. First, there is a mismatch between the product and the market (this was already known by the 1980s). When 2% of graduates had a traditional college degree, they enjoyed many economic opportunities and personal prosperity (companies competed to hire someone who was both smart and demonstrated both responsibility and diligence). When 65% have a recent vintage degree that is enough to belie the argument that college graduates automatically earn more. Moreover, when their degrees are a total mismatch to the job market, they will have both no serious job and no way to repay the loans. Yes, we have a student loan crisis! But we have a crisis in higher education’s very raison d’etre.

We need to begin the process or retrieving our heritage, providing meaningful education for all students so that they can experience individual prosperity, and contribute to America’s prosperity and greatness.

Toward that end, we offer the following petition in the hopes that influential people will read it, sign it and that Congress will complete the process of amending its role in higher education!

Please access the petition by clicking here.

Featured image: “Allegory of wisdom,” attributed to Giovanni Domenico Cerrini, 17th century.

The Invisible College

Nick Capaldi and Nadia Nedzel have inaugurated a new organization, Invisible College.

The organization seeks to promote live conversations about important books and topics through Zoom and other media, as well as in person. In addition to its own scheduled “conversations,” it will help others organize their own.

In the following conversation, Nick Capaldi and Marsha Enright discuss the meaning, origins, methodology and purpose of the conversations.

Featured image: Treatises On Natural Science, Philosophy, And Mathematics, ca. 1300.

The University Is A European Christian Institution Par Excellence

The existing consensus among historians is that the “university” was invented in medieval Christian Europe. The first university was Bologna, founded in 1088, followed by Oxford in 1096. By the end of the fourteenth century, in 1400, there were about 34 universities across Europe; and in 1500 there were 66, and none outside (Verger, pp. 57, 62-65). In 1789, the year of the French Revolution, there were about 143 universities in Europe, with only one university outside in Turkey. The original Latin word universitas designated any corporation (from the Latin corpus, corporis a body) intentionally created by a group of individuals, be they guilds by craftsmen, associations by merchants, or municipal communes by town residents—to regulate their own affairs and security, independently of customary law, kinship ties, or religious and state authorities. While corporations were invariably self-organized and not originated by the state, the university was said to exist when it was authorized to act as a single entity (“born out of statute”) by an official document or edict from the Pope or a Bull from the Emperor. Corporations were self-governed in that their members participated in specifying the rules that regulated their activities; power was shared and leaders could be held accountable for their actions.

Gradually the word universitas came to be associated with the term studium generale, which referred to any institution (at the beginning of the thirteenth century) that “attracted students from all parts of Europe, not merely those of a particular country or district” (Rashdall, p. 6), and where at least one of the higher faculties of theology, law, or medicine was taught by a plurality of masters. In the course of the fourteenth century, the term “universitas became a mere synonym for studium generale” with numerous communities of students and teachers in charge of higher learning enjoying the privilege to conduct their own affairs, make their own rules for curriculum, and receive students from across Europe.

It is no accident that only Europe saw the rise of corporate bodies. In the rest of the world, outside Europe, kinship groups were in charge of governing the lives of extended family members, providing security, rules of inheritance and marriage, and choice of occupation. Kinship groups were governed by customary norms, by authoritarian chiefs, or by religious authorities. The situation in medieval Christian Europe was radically different. As Joseph Henrich has carefully documented in The Weirdest People of the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (2020), the medieval Catholic church sanctioned monogamous marriages against polygamy and concubinage, and it restricted marriages among individuals of the same blood (consanguineous marriages). It also encouraged marriages based on voluntary choice or consent. By the 11th century the nuclear family was predominant in Europe. These changes freed Europeans from kinship ties and norms, leading them to form new voluntary corporations to cooperate economically, solve conflicts, and secure a livelihood with individuals from wider circles of life.

The reconstitution of medieval Europe away from kinship institutions in favor of voluntarily created institutions, such as urban communes, guilds, diocese of bishops, monasteries, and universities, came along with the rise of new systems of law based on universal principles. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, as the Church went about imposing monogamous and nuclear families, Europe underwent a legal revolution that conceded corporate rights for self-government to the Christian church and a variety of associations and groups to make contracts, to enact their own ordinances and statutes, “to own property, to sue and be sued, and to have legal representation before the king’s court” (Huff, 1993). Manors, cities, and merchant associations, among others, enacted whole new systems of law, including manorial law, urban law, canon law, and merchant law.

Such legislative, executive, and juridical powers were not a possibility in Islamic societies where polygamy and cousin marriages remained a powerful means for consolidating the power of kinship groups and where there was no legal separation between the sacred and the secular, no texts and rules to define and limit the jurisdictional powers of the courts, and no legal conception freed from the customary normative world of kinship groups. China never evolved a conception of law that recognized the right of corporate bodies, including cities, capable of composing and promulgating new laws independently of the state or the bonds of kinship.

It is within the context of the Catholic breakdown of kinship groups, the consolidation of nuclear monogamous families, and the legal revolution of the 11th century, that we should apprehend the unique invention of universities in medieval Europe. In conferring legal recognition and liberties to the universities, the kings of France, England, and Spain, and later Portugal, Austria, Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary, as well as dukes and princes, expected their universities to provide them with effectively trained lawyers and Roman legal principles to consolidate their expanding powers against the centrifugal forces of the old feudal landed classes.

Similarly, the popes that endowed associations of teachers and students with the title and privileges of a university did so in awareness that the teaching of theology and Roman law, with its natural law principles, was an effective means of making Catholicism a rationally intelligible and unified doctrine to counter the diverse and mutually contradictory beliefs of heterodox religious orders. Both the papacy and the monarchies of Europe sought to recruit educated persons who could serve as staff for their offices. From the 13th century onward, the majority of popes had attended university and were increasingly surrounded by learned cardinals. Likewise the cities recognized the advantage of having a partnership with universities that brought them prestige, and provided them with trained lawyers who could handle difficult legal problems in the conduct of businesses and the articulation of the newly emerging fields of merchant law, contract law, and maritime law. Municipal authorities recognized the corporate right of students and teachers (many of whom were foreigners in need of rights they did not enjoy in the cities) to conduct their own affairs as members of autonomous universities, as well as certain privileges such as exemption from tolls and taxes and the fixing of maximal rents.

It would be a mistake, however, to view the recognition by monarchs and popes of the corporate status of universities as driven solely by their self-interests. The desire for knowledge, and the ethos of common Christian values transcending national boundaries, were very strong in medieval Europe. This was a time of Christian belief in a world rational order created by God that was accessible to human reason and education. This belief cultivated an interest in scholarly research, going back to the establishment of Christian cathedral schools and monastic schools in the early Middle Ages, in which monks dedicated themselves to the preservation and transmission of Greek-Roman high culture.

At the same time, the Christian understanding of man as a creature fallen into sin, and thus as an imperfect being, encouraged the norms of intellectual criticism and collegial cooperation and the norms of “modesty, reverence and self-criticism” as the image of the ideal scholar (Rüegg, p. 33). As Frederick I Barbarossa said in 1155 in his justification for the granting of academic liberties: “it is by learning that the world is illuminated and the lives of subjects are shaped towards obedience to God.”

The medieval ideal was that the university was a universal community of masters and students, open to everyone interested in the higher faculties of knowledge as well as being at the service of the public interest to the benefit of the whole Christian world, without being hampered by national or regional borders. In the thirteenth century, universitas came to mean the totality of the branches of knowledge, the whole community of learners, in classical Latin. University teachers came to acquire the status of a group which transcended local and disciplinary boundaries in possession of a universally accepted corpus of knowledge. The fact that this one institution spread over the entire world, with the bachelor’s degree, the master’s degree, and the doctorate adopted in the most culturally diverse nations of the world, points to its universality.

European civilization originated this universal institution. No other society conferred the privileges of a corporation to institutions of higher learning wherein reason could find a “neutral space” of free inquiry. Medieval Christian Europe was the first civilization to “institutionalize reason” within self-governing universities which offered a curriculum “overwhelmingly oriented toward analytical subjects” (Grant, 2001). The universities tended to have four faculties (arts, theology, law, and medicine), with the most important being the arts faculty, which had the largest numbers of students, and the theology faculty. The program of the arts consisted of the three verbal disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the trivium or threefold way to wisdom) and the four mathematical disciplines of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music (the quadrivium). While medieval teachers were prohibited from reaching ultimate truths that were contrary to revealed truth, natural philosophers were free to pursue knowledge about the universe “in a remarkably secular and rationalistic manner with little interference from the Church and its theologians” (Grant, 2001). Indeed, medieval theologians, by applying logical techniques to theological questions, cultivated a religion like none before: a systematized and rationalized Christian faith.

This interpretation of the origins of universities was widely accepted in academia. But the pressures of multiculturalism are leading some academics to argue that Muslims should be given precedent for the origins of universities. They are demanding that the University of al-Qarawiyyin be identified as the “first university”, although this place was designated as a “university” only in 1963, and was originally founded as a mosque in 859 (Esposito, 2003). Other academics are claiming that Al-Azhar University, which was also founded as a mosque in 970-972, should be designated as “the second oldest university in the world”.

They maintain that Islamic centers of learning originated the practice of organizing foreign students into associations, and the idea of universal validity of the qualification for teaching based on the title of the baccalarius. But according to Rüegg, “the term baccalarius could not be an Islamic import of the twelfth century because it was already in use in the ninth century as the Latin designation of a preparatory or auxiliary status in a variety of social careers” (p. 8). Even the Islamicist George Makdisi, despite finding some general affinities between Islamic centers of learning and European universities, has concluded that “the university is a twelfth century product of the West both in its corporate structure and in the privileges it received from Pope and King” (cited in Rüegg, p. 8). Makdisi himself cautions that “in studying an institution which is foreign and remote in point of time, as is the case of the medieval madrasa, one runs the…risk of attributing to it characteristics borrowed from one’s own [Western] institutions…The most unwarranted of these [comparisons] is the one which makes the ‘madrasa’ a ‘university'” (1970). The madrasa was not a high degree-awarding institution, but a “college of Islamic law” lacking corporate status and a rationalistic curriculum, supported by an endowment or charitable trust, that is a waqf, which consisted of a building or plot of land, for Muslim religious or charitable purposes.

It is unfortunate that current university students are unaware of the Christian medieval roots of the institution they will spend a very important part of their lives attending. Offering a lecture on the historical origins of universities to new students would be a far better way to provide them with the spirit of “higher learning” universities were intended to be about, rather than separating students into categories of “privileged” and “oppressed” races.

Ricardo Duchesne has been interviewed in the Postil. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.

Featured image: a lecture, from Bartholomaeus Anglicus (translated by Jean Corbechon), De proprietatibus rerum (Livre des proprietez des choses), France (Paris?), 1st quarter of the 15th century.

A Case For Teaching The Humanities

“I am Roman because Rome, from the time of the consul Marius and the divine Julius to Theodosius, drafted the first form of my France. I am Roman, because Rome, the Rome of priests and popes, has given eternal solidarity of sentiment, of morals, of language, of worship, to the political work of Roman generals, administrators and judges. By this treasure, which it received from Athens and transmitted that deposit to our Paris, Rome means without question the civilization of humanity. I am Roman, I am human: two identical propositions.” These words from the pen of Charles Maurras in Barbares et Romains (Barbarians and Romans) form a vibrant praise not only of Rome, the sweet anaphora, but also of civilization, conveying tradition and transmission and not oblivion and renunciation; perpetuation and not the clean slate; community and not individuality; permanence and not rupture.

For a few days now, the Minister of National Education has seemed inclined to see the teaching of Latin and Greek return to middle and high schools. The Latinist that I am and who used to unveil to students the mysteries of rosa, rosae can only be pleased. However, I am not fooled by these dupes. This kind of announcement is certainly enough to make a whole section of the conservative university and academic intelligentsia of the center-right feel good about the woke and progressive drifts already well underway, with inclusive language, the satanic and non-gendered pronoun “iel” and the convoluted discussions about male domination in language.

We shouldn’t imagine that the Macronian renaissance is about to be launched, as other renaissances were in the course of our history. Minister Blanquer is a liberal-conservative, certainly, but does not have the courage to be conservative. Is he the most cynical of the bunch? That is quite possible—he has already sabotaged the BA degree, reduced to a pittance, and is in favor of the digital school and even of the digital kindergarten.

If I were naive, I would believe that this sudden impulse is inspired by the spirit of Lucien Jerphagnon, whose death, ten years ago, we are commemorating and whose birth we are celebrating a hundred years later. Father Jerph was one of those sparkling, light spirits that contrast with the dullness and pomposity of academics. He was inhabited by joy, the kind of joy that delights youth, lifts the heart, sharpens the soul, and makes it rise above all misfortunes, torments, and distresses. The true joy of knowledge. Lucien Jerphagnon was neither of the Left, nor of the Right, nor a Marxist, nor an intellectual at the forefront of research. He was freelance and classical; close to Paul Veyne by originality, Désiré Nisard by taste, Jean Bayet by academic outlook.

His was a strange life: he dressed like a monk and was ordained a priest; then, a passionate lover, turned into a happy husband and ended up as a patriarch. He was in turn a theologian, historian of ideas, translator and philosopher; of high class, of good style, careful to be versatile if he could not manage the modern complexity of reality. Plotinus was his tender companion, with whom one shares a cigarette and a glass of cognac. In love with Augustine, he knew how to render the full measure of this author. A gifted young scholar, who became a professor in Milan in his thirties when others were at the Collège de France in their twilight. Jerpha revived Madauros, a university town in northern Algeria, that supreme and delicate refinement of Romanization, where Augustine, the orator Maximus, Apuleius and Martianus Capella lived. His biography of Julian the Apostate seeks to understand how a philosopher-emperor thought he could return to paganism and make Christianity a footnote in history. An unresolved death by the side of Mosul clinched it—Christianity would triumph.

Jerphagnon was a philosopher of time and banality. Influenced by Vladimir Jankélévitch, he was concerned with understanding the everyday, the alltäglichkeit, as Heidegger politely said, pretext to all the astonishments, typical of the wise. He was a serious discoverer of forgotten authors such as Marcus Varro or Favorinus of Arles; a historian of ideas of high caliber who made us understand, in les Divins Césars (The Divine Caesars), why the emperors of the 2nd century thought they were the sun and who envisaged Rome as the center of a cosmos—all the while writing with amusement and enjoyment a formidable history of Rome.

The young Lucien at the high school in Bordeaux was bored during a mathematics class. On his knees, he flipped through a book containing a few photos of the ruins of Timgad, the Palmyra of Algeria: “That’s where I want to live and die,” the young lad said to himself. From heaven came down a voice: “Jerphagnon, you will make up two hours!” Then his teacher stuck a future specialist in the Greco-Roman world. “I could never get used to the fact that Rome was dead,” confessed the wise old man to José Saramago, “because I loved it since my 6th grade. I lived my life there, faithful to this love of Roman civilization.” What a beautiful profession of faith!

If Lucien Jerphagnon is to be made an exemplum, let’s not forget that in matters of education, the Left is chopping our legs and causing us many problems. And this is not the end of the story! I hold as proof Vincent Peillon who writes in la Révolution française n’est pas terminée (The French Revolution is not Finished) that it is necessary to reinvent the revolution of the spirit, with the aim of destroying at all costs the Catholic religion and to invent a republican religion. This requires the total conversion of the elites and the young to the sciences and the disappearance of Latin and Greek, languages of the old regime, of Catholicism, of bourgeois domination.

Such is the pinnacle of the freemasons: radical leftists yesterday, social-democrats today; old-fashioned, stuck in the Third Republic, detached from reality and perfectly barbaric, since they claim, shamelessly, not to transmit any more, to cut themselves off from tradition and civilization. They swear only by individualities in the perspective of human rights. Now they promise inclusiveness, flattering the youth, corrupting it with vague ideas about freedom and equality.

In an interview given on TV in 1958, Pagnol felt the problem looming: specialization, the end of the humanities and the science of the technocrat. Specialization, by reducing the fields, reduces the possibilities of linking the fields. To have a rational mind is precisely to see relationships. But if the objects no longer exist, the relationships can no longer be made. It can only result in an impoverishment of thought. National education goes even further, since it has given up training literate people, to preparing only future employees for the labor market. The best will be slug-brain specialists, dumbed down like tabletops, the least good will be cashiers at Franprix, salesmen at Prisunic.

The professors stuff the heads of young people with new ideas, smelling of Pierre Bourdieu, ready-made and passed off as revealed truths, so they themselves can continue to dine at the faculty club during silly seminars on anti-racism in literature, and history colloquiums on North African minorities in the gay Paris of the 1920s. The education of yesteryear has degenerated into a total moron-factory based on the ideological teaching of soft sciences. We are far from the gentleman, far from the humanist, far from the cosmopolitan scholar.

Getting beyond her gavel, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem completed the work, explaining that Latin classes would be for the children of the rich and privileged, that elective classes had to be abolished, and that antiquity had to be made accessible to all by diluting Latin in French courses, thus putting ancient language courses to death in a gentle way; a bit like euthanasia.

Between this caricatured, barbaric Left, in the very sense in which Maurras took it, some have retained the opinion of Raymond Aron in this matter, like Paul Veyne, our dear friend, whose opinion that Latin and Greek should be abolished in secondary school and that a national establishment should be created to train solid scientists and researchers, I do not quite understand. This is a mistake. To dedicate Latin to research is to render it autistic; to leave it in the hands of the colloquium-makers who titillate the coffee-brewers and the editors of scientific articles in obscure journals is to render it mute, invisible, extinct.

It doesn’t matter if people are interested in Aristophanes’ scholia, or in the placement of an accent on a word in a twelfth-century manuscript in the Vatican library. One does not ask young people to read the Pharsalus in the original, even yours truly would not be able to do so. But to have a good head, made robust by the training in, and knowledge of, Greek tragedy, the functioning of the Athenian city, the Peloponnesian war told by Thucydides, the epic of Alexander the Great, Latin and Greek rhetoric, the work of Cicero, Caesar and Augustus, the personality of Seneca, elegiac poetry, Virgil, the bloody and mannered histories of Tacitus, the orientalism of the emperors, 312 and our world that has become Christian. It is grand to arrive, by love of the rei latinae, to the character of Des Esseintes in À Rebours by Huysmans who, in chapter III, gives us the menu of his likes and dislikes of all literature, criticizing the Chickpea (Cicero), judging the verses of a phony and vain poet, and preferring in the “fin de siècle” Roman authors the rot and the carrion, and at times the supreme refinement of precious stones and topazes.

I do not believe in progressivism and personal development, nor even in the scientific and academic elitism left to the Giscards of thought. I firmly believe in the tradition of inheriting and transmitting, of passing on the work of Hellenic-Christian civilization, from generation to generation. This is achieved through solid and serious learning of civilization, through language and grammar, literature, philosophy and history. It is necessary to go through the pain of declensions and conjugations; to make the effort, as in Pétanque, to have access to the texts, to their style; to reflect on the words and their concepts in order to understand the civilization. Nothing is more precious than to know the feeling of the language, to understand the spirit of an era.

This apparent need for Latin and Greek can take three forms: as a declaration in an electoral context; resistance and head-on opposition to progressivism; or a reconciliation with Wokism. The problem is not so much what Minister Blanquer says or thinks, but what the left-wing ideological machine, the Éducation Nationale, is capable of producing. The teacher conforms to the Houellebecquian image of the tired West. The teachers are mostly mediocre, cowardly and subscribe, under contract, to all the sickness of the modern world: deconstruction, diversity, immigration, inclusion, in the public as well as in the private. If this impulse for antiquity gets mixed up, dare I say it, with this kind of progressive thinking, it would do equally bad things for the mental health of our young people. I can already imagine the titles of the courses: “Migratory Crisis in Roman Gaul;” “the Roman Baths: A Space of Hybridization for Minorities;” “Conspiracy and Fake News: The Catiline Conspiracy;” “Being a Slave and Gay in Ephesus;” “Transidentity in Rome.” What a wonderful antiquity!

What we need are professors who are like Hussars in full cavalry at Jena—scholars like Bernard Lugan, like Marc Fumaroli; focused minds concerned with civilization—like Valéry, Thibaudet; intransigent polemicists—like Bloy or Julien Benda. The rest will follow. I began with Maurras, I end with Charles Péguy and Notre Jeunesse (Our Youth): ” What this entry was for me, in sixth grade, at Easter— the astonishment, the newness before rosa, rosae, the opening of an entire world, completely different, an altogether new world. That is what needs to be said, but that would get me tangled up in fondness. The grammarian who just the one time, the first, opens the Latin grammar on rosa, rosae will never know on which flowerbed he is opening the child’s soul.”

Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

Featured image: “Etruscan Vase Painters,” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, painted in 1871.

A Bloom Off The Old Strauss: Rereading The Closing of the American Mind When America Has Lost Its Mind

It is almost thirty-five years since I first read Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Soul’s of Today’s Students. Back in 1987 I had completed a Master’s degree on Plato and Nietzsche, and I was in the final stages of a PhD on Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Marx. I had been introduced to writings by Bloom’s teacher, Leo Strauss, in my undergraduate days in the mid 1970s, and during my Masters, although I had a little Greek, Bloom’s translation of Plato’s Republic was my preferred translation. His translation came with a large interpretative essay that took Leo Strauss’s reading of the Republic even further in the direction of the claim that Plato intended the Republic to be a warning against utopia, rather than as a foundational text for people wanting to create a perfect state.

In the main, classicists, including my Greek teacher, at the time, who was passionately enthusiastic about Plato, found the Strauss and Bloom line exasperating. Thus, the fairly highly esteemed classicist, Myles Burnyeat, wrote in his New York Review of Books essay of 1985, “Sphinx without a Secret,” a review of a collection of Strauss’s Studies in Platonic Philosophy by Leo Strauss with an introduction by Thomas Pangle (another reasonably prominent “Straussian”): “What Strauss can do, and does, is give reasons why we should believe that Plato taught what Strauss says he taught. He undertakes the difficult task of showing that the Republic means the opposite of what it says; that Aristotle read it as Strauss does, and agreed; and finally, that the Platonic view of “the political things” was maintained, in essentials, by the entire tradition of classical political philosophy (not excluding Aristophanes and Xenophon) through the Stoics and beyond).”

Those who have been inspired by Leo Strauss will generally find such a summation of what Strauss was doing to be shockingly simple-minded—though I think Burnyeat has accurately identified Strauss’s main flaw, and it is a flaw that is replicated in the writings of many of his students.

Burnyeat’s criticism, however, extended to what would eventually become one more contribution to a torrent of accusations against Strauss and his students—that they were conservative elitists. Burnyeat’s hostility to the elitist nature of the Straussian enterprise misses the point that the Straussians are absolutely correct in identifying the fact that university students do belong to the social elite, and to pretend otherwise is completely delusional.

Feigning as the radical left did and still do that the university is some kind of egalitarian democratic forum when it produces the social elite who will largely run things is as ridiculous as Harvard and Yale setting themselves up as mouthpieces for social justice. The real issue concerning universities is which kind of thinking holds sway there—and, like Strauss and Bloom and all manner of others I think the ideas that do hold sway over the educated elite in the Western world are dumb, self-destructive, and completely infantile. So, when Closing came out, I enjoyed the fact that someone whose books I had read was sticking it to the ideologues who were politicizing everything and in the process pulling the Humanities into a cultural war.

This did not change the fact that I find Strauss and his followers somewhat irksome—and that has nothing to with their elitism (I generally prefer reading the best of them to any of the followers of Walter Benjamin or Theodor Adorno et. al.). Still, I get irritated by how they generally read and argue about political philosophy, how they bang on about greatness, how they foist onto the text all manner of things they think any wise person knows, and how lacking in attentiveness to the historical pressures and currents that informed the specific responses of the books they read they tend to be.

No matter what the topic, Straussians usually find some answer to any political problem in their Straussian version of Plato – an interpretation that is very big on imaging the real meaning of a “dramatic” word or gesture in a Platonic dialogue and very hermeneutically licentious in dealing with the plainer words and arguments. They remind me in none more than those disciples of Marx who always identify the answer to any socio-economic and political circumstance as already accounted for in Marx’s analysis of capital. Many of the critical treatments, such as those by William Altman and Shadia Drury, are just insane, but for anyone wanting to read a well-developed critical treatment of Strauss and the “Straussian school” (if school it be) more generally, I recommend Paul Gottfried’s Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America.

Even in the 1980s, when Strauss was far less well known than he would become after a slew of essays and some books connected Strauss’s students and the strategy of “regime change” with George W. Bush, there was as little agreement about what Strauss was really teaching as there is now. Partly this is because Strauss taught that serious philosophical writers provide a surface text (which is what most scholars beside Strauss read), and an esoteric message, which those, like Strauss, who have read the history of political philosophy with great attention see. Another way of saying this is that Leo Strauss taught that there are great books that have identified the essential things to be known and presented them in a guise that only the true lover of philosophy might grasp—with great thinkers, things are not what they seem. Likewise, Strauss is a great thinker, and hence must conceal his true teachings—ergo…

Unlike Strauss, Allan Bloom was not the founder of a school of thought, although Bloom is invariably identified as a Straussian. This would not have been obvious to anyone who had read Closing without knowing about Strauss or Bloom’s background—Bloom mentions Strauss just once in the book.

Although, of the many critical reviews that Closing attracted when it first appeared, two reviews by two students of Leo Strauss which appeared in the (largely) Straussian inspired journal Interpretation, were among the most damning and inciteful to appear. They were by Claremont’s two Harrys—Neumann and Jaffa, whose contrary philosophical positions (the former a self-described nihilist, the other an Aristotelian) made them unlikely pedagogical allies (they taught a joint seminar for ten years).

Neumann kicks his review off by saying: “Professor Bloom shares the error informing this book with most liberals. That error is their unwillingness to realize the nihilism or atheism responsible for their subordination of politics to individual freedom or self-interest. By liberal I mean anyone who believes that the individual is more important than the state; individual liberation takes precedence over political obligation however that liberation is interpreted. Bloom’s brand of liberalism gives rise to his unqualified preference for philosophers over nonphilosophers, for philosophy over politics, for Socrates over Achilles, for peace over war.”

Amongst other things, Neumann sees in Bloom a man preening over his own loves and interests, who is irritated by the lack of reverence in the temple of higher learning, and is completely oblivious to the clear and present geopolitical dangers to America. It is in a word a damning review. And the harshness of the review finds its apogee in Neumann’s suggestion that Bloom is a phony who lacks the courage, and wherewithal to see who and what he really is: “Without the courage to see it, Bloom has written a more Nietzschean than Platonic Book. The book on education for Bloom is not the Republic, as he insists (p. 381), but Beyond Good and Evil or Death in Venice.”

The suspicion that Bloom and even Strauss are really more Nietzschean than Platonic has been aired by others, but Neumann’s criticism lumps Bloom in with the enemies of the civilization that Bloom believes he is undertaking to bury. As for the comparison between Bloom and Mann’s Aschenbach (in Closing Bloom speaks somewhat disdainfully of Death in Venice as heavy-handed Freudianism), Bloom had publicly declared on several occasions that the title he had envisaged, but which was overruled by the publishers, was Souls without Longing.

Indeed, while the surface argument of Closing was the failure of higher education in America and the cultural demise that the various ideological occasions of the relativist malaise Bloom had seen as gripping the American university, the more “esoteric” argument—which Bloom spelled out every time he discussed the book—was that the bad German philosophical ideas of Nietzsche, Weber, Heidegger had conspired with American popular culture to destroy the erotic longing for wisdom that the tradition of the great books had nourished. On popular culture, Bloom’s criticism of rock music sounds like none more than the Frankfurt School’s doyen and aesthete in chief, Theodor Adorno when writing about the cultural oppression inflicted on the masses by jazz.

Moreover, in spite of Bloom’s diagnosis of the American mind being closed and the souls of its future elite being stunted also regularly appealing to the moral sentiments and habits of previous generations as if he were a conservative, Bloom could write of that most conservative of institutions: “The dreariness of the family’s spiritual landscape passes belief. It is as monochrome and unrelated to those who pass through it as are the barren steppes frequented by nomads who take their mere subsistence and move on.” So much for the millions of American families who may not read bedtime stories by Rousseau or Plato to their children, but who sacrifice themselves to raise them to pray, tell the truth and do their best to others.

In spite of the scorn Bloom pours onto the wreckers of the university, and the social damage they are doing, the voice and diagnosis of Closing belonged to an aesthete, rather than a moralist—hence “It is not the immorality of relativism that I find appalling. What is astounding and degrading is the dogmatism with which we accept such relativism, and our easy-going lack of concern about what that means for our lives.” And it is not at all clear that in spite of Bloom’s advocacy of rational inquiry, and his (Straussian) Platonism, whether he really thought there were any absolutes by which he should live other than the erotic pursuit of wisdom and the value of the philosophical life (which, to his credit, had nothing whatsoever in common with having a day job solving philosophical puzzles as was, and largely still is, the case with most of those employed in Philosophy Departments in North American).

Given the disdain with which Bloom treated the “life-style” view of values that had infected America, there is no small irony in how Bloom makes a case for a life of personal intellectual exhilaration as if that were of the same value as a life of righteousness (and it is far from obvious that Bloom has any idea or interest in what the righteous life might be—apart from reading great books and talking about them).

To be sure Socratic aesthetes are rare plants, but Bloom was nothing if not rare—and being a best-selling celebrity political philosopher is about as rare as one can be. Saying that does not change the fact that Closing does expose the moral confusion and idiocy that seized the collective imagination of the generation of students that Bloom observed. The book is laced with aphorisms and bon mots, and full of wit, venom, and learning—even if the details of his learning were often outrageous and, at the very least contestable, leading to some predictable academic carping that Bloom was a terrible scholar, but Bloom did more than almost anyone to make the educated public want to go off and read Plato, Rousseau, Locke et. al.

That is terrific, but it could never had been enough to save the United States. And while Closing was a book that not only had sounded the alarm about the dreadful state of higher learning in the United States and the social poisoning it was doing, its author was an embodiment of what higher learning looked like in the incarnation of a very well read, highly articulate, balding professor in a sharp suit. Bloom may not have liked rock stars, but he was as close to one as any middle-aged professor, not gone completely to seed, could be.

While Bloom and the book had style, it was not simply that that rocketed the book to the top of the New York Time’s best seller list, in 1987 his exposé of the ideological state of university campuses did touch a social nerve, because plenty of people, including educated ones, could see that these new social movements were pouring out of the university, and taxes were being poured into an institution that had a great deal of influence that was doing much to turn the youth of America against the traditions and (dare I use the word?) values at its founding.

Any reader today who opens Closing for the first time will recognize that identity politics was already wreaking social and cultural havoc some thirty-five years ago, and Bloom had done a good job of yelling, “Fire!” This is irrespective of whether one is swayed by the depth, accuracy or even pitch of his diagnosis—relativism is the cause and Weber—yes, Bloom did write this—“was the chosen apostle for the American promised land.”

Now that we live in a time of rabid censorship, denunciations, sackings and non-hiring of those who do not kneel before the (to be sure ever changing) absolutes of contemporary liberalism, the claim that relativism is the cause and the end of all this seems wildly wrong (though it amazes me how many conservatives still repeat this). Woke absolutes are imbecilic, but they remain absolutes, and reading Bloom is like being transported back to a time when the American mind might have been closing but it was not completely lost to the imbecilic absolutes of its own servitude.

I cannot imagine that a book that is so caustic (and funny) in its criticism of feminism and the shibboleths of identity race politics would garner such reviews as it received in the New York Times, New York Review of Books, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, and the Chicago Tribune when it first appeared. Indeed, the books that now receive glowing reviews from these bastions of cultural taste come out of the very ideological swamp that Bloom hoped might be dredged. Though, it is possible that Bloom’s critique, even then, found enthusiastic support for its weaknesses rather than its strengths. That seems to have been Harry Jaffa’s, as well as Neumann’s, take on the book.

If Bloom had thought Jaffa a fellow traveller along the Straussian path he was certainly in for a rude awakening when Jaffa’s review essay appeared. The review is most brilliant when it comes to schooling Bloom in American politics, though it is perhaps most remembered for slyly and unceremoniously blowing the lid off Bloom’s homosexuality – an open secret in Chicago at the time. Years later Bloom’s friend Saul Bellow would make public Bloom’s sexual ‘life-style’ in the thinly veiled portrait of Bloom in Ravelstein, a book which in turn triggered another wave of anti-Bloom hysteria—this time for his hypocrisy.

Before Ravelstein, Jaffa wrote that Bloom’s “remarks about feminism, and the changing roles of men and women, for example, are dated not because they are mistaken, or irrelevant, but because in the intervening years the so-called “gay movement,” which Bloom hardly mentions, has emerged as the most radical and sinister challenge, not merely to sexual morality, but to all morality.” Given that Bloom had referred to “perverse sexuality,” and “gay rights” being “the most consequential social movement of the last three decades,” Jaffa may have been hitting below the belt, but when he observed that by “Looking only to books, politics for Bloom is a closed book. And no one can comment instructively on the relationship between political life and the philosophic life who does not know what political life is,” he had landed a KO.

The problem with the Closing is not that Bloom is wrong to think that students are being served up mindless ideological stew as if it could nourish their souls and minds, it is not that he is wrong in thinking that Humanities students should know the philosophical tradition, but while the crisis he is confronting and diagnosing is a cultural, social, and political crisis he is extremely naïve in thinking that a library is the place to save a civilization. Jaffa holds nothing back when he attacks Bloom for essentially holding a view of the world as if the world were a library writ large.

There is something of an irony (and reading Bloom I am struck by how ironic almost everything about him is) in a man who wrote a fine book on Shakespeare and politics remaining untouched by the warning in Shakespeare’s most philosophical of plays—The Tempest: a library can cloud the mind and thus lead a ruler (the Duke of Milan, Prospero) to neglect his obligation to safeguard the territory from the ruthless ambition, cunning and rule of unscrupulously evil men.

While Neumann and Jaffa were opposed in their philosophical appeals of last resort what they shared was a commitment to the United States as a political entity, and what they saw in Bloom was a fundamental failure to fathom what that entity was founded upon—and hence what would be required to preserve it into perpetuity. Thus, while Bloom was celebrating his celebrity status, and in various talk shows oozing charm and the smarts given in the midst of the cultural and social destruction his book was describing, men like Jaffa and Neumann held Bloom to be guilty of what no Straussian ever wishes to be—he was guilty of a lack of seriousness.

According to Jaffa, “As far as I can see, everything Bloom says on the subject of the American Founding is derived from his readings of Hobbes, Locke, or Tocqueville. I have found not a word of serious interpretation apart from his birdseed scatterings coming from an American source: not Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, or Lincoln. No one has maintained more persistently than I have, during the past thirty-five years, the importance in the American Founding of Locke’s teachings as they were understood and incorporated into their handiwork by the Founding Fathers. But to say that a radical atheism discovered in Locke’s esoteric teaching was part of what they understood, believed, and incorporated into their regime when every single document bearing on the question contradicts it, and there is not a shred of evidence to support it is just plain crazy.”

Along similar lines, “Bloom has completely misread not only the American Founding, but all political life, since he does not read political speeches to discover the form of the consciousness of political men. He assumes that political men are mere epigones of philosophers whether they know it or not. The political nature of man is however understood by the Founders if one reads what they say, and not only what Hobbes or Locke or Kant say in the light of the inequality of man and beast, as well as in the light of the inequality of man and God.” And finally: “Someone who can write of the American and French Revolutions as scenarios thought out beforehand by Locke and Rousseau, and who can say that “the English and American regimes [had been] founded according to [Locke’s] instructions, is hardly in a position to reproach others for the lack of ‘the study of… history.’”

This last citation is a failing that I see as fairly common among followers of Strauss, and I (unlike Jaffa) cannot help but tracing it back to Strauss himself who wrote of the importance of political philosophy as if it were a conversation across the ages addressed to those seekers of wisdom who more or less saw the same things as they each contribute to insights that make the whole more accessible to the rational man, i.e., the man who sees the problems and solutions much like Strauss. The different historical circumstances within which men find themselves is treated as essentially irrelevant, and those who think those circumstances to be all too relevant are dismissed as historicists, who are but one more variant of relativism.
Strauss himself had sought for a cure of the ailments of his time by turning to Plato as a teacher of an ahistorical nature, a nature which seems impossible to locate outside of the tradition of great books of political philosophy.

But whereas all scholars of Plato agree that the forms or ideas are timeless, and in this sense, ahistorical, in The City and Man, Strauss says that “the doctrine of ideas” in the Republic is “very hard to understand; to begin with it is utterly incredible, not to say that it appears to be fantastic…No one has ever succeeded in giving a satisfactory or clear account of this doctrine of ideas.” Whether that is true or notand it takes a lot of hermeneutical ingenuity to deny that Aristotle thought he had done a pretty good job of showing the problems with the doctrine – the fact that the American higher educated mind is not just closed but lost is indicative of the fact that the problem of saving the Western world from the mad and bad ideas largely, albeit not exclusively, churned out in American universities today extends far beyond reading great books, and pursuing a life of greater longing.

Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.

The featured image shows, “The Orator,” by Magnus Zeller, painted in 1920.

How To Reverse The Widespread, Nonsensical Principles Of Utopianism. Part 3.

To combat the mis-educational and anti-cultural, anarchic influence of Marxism, crucial for its opponents to understand is the nature of common sense (especially real common sense) and where, as utopian socialists, Marxist principles must incline Marxists to begin to:

  1. drive out real common sense from the souls of children and replace it with a fictional narrative devoid of real common sense;
  2. promote humanistic atheism, the notion that humanity is God, and, especially, anti-Semitism;
  3. mistake ethnic races for real genera and species;
  4. and deny the evident existence of real natures with internal principles of organization, powers/faculties/capabilities within things in general and human beings especially.

All these effects are pernicious and are driving the contemporary West and the world toward total madness. Once again, the Enlightenment West is turning the Jew into a cultural scapegoat onto which it inclines chiefly to fix all its cultural and individual problems and blame for all its cultural and individual failings. In addition, by denying the reality of real natures, including human nature, no human faculties can exist in which human habits exist, in which unequal virtues and talents can and do exist. As a result, apart from temperance and courage, the cardinal moral virtues of justice (especially distributive justice based upon individual talent can be recognized to exist) and prudence (upon which, together with the other cardinal virtues sound leadership essentially depend), cannot exist at all, much less flourish.

Beyond this, denying the existence of really-existing organizational wholes (real substances), the principles of conceptual and behavioral contradictions and non-contradictions become incomprehensible. Conceptually, contradictory opposites involve the impossibility of some one substance or parts/properties of a substance having essentially opposite differences. If real substances do not, cannot, exist, neither can the principle of conceptual non-contradiction. Worse, neither can behavioral non-contradictions. The concept of really, or naturally, doable or undoable deed becomes intellectually incomprehensible. And if neither conceptual nor behavioral contradictions are comprehensible, neither are common sense, truth, or language.

In addition, because they lack any common sense ability to recognize the reality of unequal talent and justly reward it as a contribution to a community or society, utopian socialists tend to do several things:

  1. reduce the whole of justice to commutative justice, exchanges of equal value of benefit or damage, such as monetary exchanges of equal or unequal goods and services;
  2. explain inequality of distribution of goods, wealth, not to reward for talent, virtue, but to exploitation, taking advantage, of the weaker (victims) by the stronger (victimizers);
  3. reduce what remains of justice to being tolerant/sincere (good-willed), and injustice to being intolerant/insincere (bad-willed);
  4. claim that all human inequality is based upon social victimization of innocent, sincere (good-willed), tolerant, sinless, just victims, by insincere (bad-willed) unjust, sinful victimizers;
  5. always attempt to remedy the disastrous, impoverishing effects that application of this flawed understanding of justice/injustice has on a community/society by periodically reversing within a community/society the roles of victims and victimizers (at one period making the victims one social group or another [such as, black males, females, religion, this or that religion, black males, white males, and so on] and the victimizers the same groups]) and at another time reversing these victims/victimizers roles.

Setting aside the evident absurdities and cultural evils with which Enlightenment utopian socialism and, especially, Marxism has infected the West, evident to readers by now should be that a Western and global return to sanity related to understanding the nature of truth and language essentially depend upon the ability of Western and world leaders to restore real common sense to national cultures. To do so, these leaders must, as precisely and quickly as possible, understand the nature of common sense considered in general, and especially real common sense.

Happily, through the examples and descriptions of it I have given in this essay, and especially through examples of its contrary opposite, a more or less precise definition of common sense appears easy to give. When we first consider the idea of common sense in relationship to examples of people who are more or less psychologically-healthy adults, it appears to be simply what most of us would call common knowledge, or common understanding.

In English, we have an expression we often give to people who say something evidently true, something everyone knows—“That goes without saying.” By this we mean that what a person just said was so evidently true that no need existed to say it. The term common sense expresses this concept. In it, the word sense is synonymous with the word knowledge, or, more precisely, understanding.

In general, a person with common sense is someone possessed of what Aristotle and St. Thomas had identified as the natural and acquired intellectual habit (habitus) and virtue (virtus: virtual, or intensive quantity [quality]), of understanding. Such a person is someone who, in relation to observational (what Aristotle and St. Thomas had called speculative or theoretical) knowledge immediately understands (induces, intuits) some thing or action to be what it is, or be true; or, in relation to practical and productive knowing, through practical or productive experience at living, immediately induces (intuits), understands, what something is or is not, or that it is right or wrong to choose.

Aristotle and Aquinas had maintained that all human beings are born with natural habitus (qualities they imperfectly have). These include all the natural moral and intellectual qualities, virtues of temperance, courage, justice, prudence, art, philosophy/science, understanding, and even wisdom, and their contrary opposites. While not perfectly so, even young children are somewhat (at least naturally inclined to be) courageous or cowardly, hopeful or fearful, sensitive to pleasure/pain, more-or-less artistic, even prudent, wise, possessed of understanding and common sense. The truth of this claim is evident from the fact that, at times children, are more prudent, wiser, than some adults. In addition, some are precocious: masterful musicians, painters, mathematicians, and so on.

To become perfected in such psychological qualities, however, Aristotle and Aquinas were convinced human beings need repeatedly to apply prudence and wisdom (common sense/understanding in its more perfect form) to their increasingly-perfected understanding to add perfecting qualities (virtues) to their naturally-possessed habits. In its most perfect form, common sense is simply the perfected, naturally-possessed habit of understanding (the virtue of understanding) applied to this or that subject in this or that situation that makes the nature of some subject immediately intelligible!

Following St. Augustine, some contemporary Christians, including Pope Francis, have recently started to refer to this quality of common sense in the form of wisdom/prudence in immediate understanding by use of the term discernment. No need exists for a discerning person, someone with common sense in this form, to reason to the conclusion that this something exists, or about: what it is, whether it is true, false, or fake; or whether it is good or bad, right or wrong, to pursue or avoid. The answers to such questions are immediately evident to this person. And so, too, is the adequate self-knowledge of personal nature and abilities immediately to draw this conclusion.

Consequently, especially in relation to productive and practical matters, healthy, adult human beings commonly identify a person with common sense as being someone possessed of the habit of good decision making, a good judge, either in general, or related to some particular subject. A person with common sense is a person possessed of common knowledge, common understanding: what everyone else who knows a subject understands about this subject in general or particular. The example I gave toward the start of this article related to an engineer who claims to be an engineer mistaking the principles of grammar for those of engineering is a fitting, suitable, one to use to help make intelligible, understandable, to an audience what I am chiefly talking about, the chief intellectual point I want to make, related to the nature of common sense.

As opposed to the person possessed of common sense, the person lacking it, the fool, is devoid of knowledge of what everyone else knows, or should know about some subject. In a way, this person lacks knowledge of some principle of measuring, known truth, that comes to people possessed of the virtue of common sense immediately from observation or from common sense-experience at living.

As a result, the person who lacks common sense is often publicly ridiculed, is the butt of jokes. University professors, people who tend “to live in ivory towers,” especially some logicians (those with little practical experience at living), incline to be such individuals. In college, I had a friend like this to whom I used to refer as an “encyclopedia open to the wrong page.” While he was terrific in some forms of academic work, he tended to have no practical skills, or if he did, not know when and/or how to apply them.
Aristotle actually had a word he used to describe such individuals that came close to, but did not completely capture, the nature of a person lacking common sense: “asinine.” In ancient Greek, this was the person lacking synēsis, someone who had the personal quality of a-synēsis, a species of foolishness (non- synēsis/sense) that caused a person to be a bad imaginer, conceptualizer, judge, estimator, evaluator, especially of what a person should know in this or that situation.

To make intelligible to others more precisely the understanding (which he apparently acquired from Socrates) that wisdom is more or less identical with common sense, in his masterful work in moral psychology, the Nicomachean Ethics, when talking about the nature of prudence and working as a physician of the soul (behavioral psychologist), Aristotle went out of his way to explain that the person possessed of wisdom (of which prudence is a species) combines in his or her nature all the essential elements needed to be an excellent judge.

Recall that in Plato’s dialogues the stone-mason/philosopher Socrates had repeatedly maintained that what, more than anything else, got him into trouble was an ordinary kind of wisdom he possessed, one unlike that of the professional orators and poets of his day. Unlike their wisdom, Socrates claimed that his was the ordinary kind of human wisdom, examples of which, to the chagrin of professional sophists like Thrasymachos, Gorgias, and Callicles, he constantly gave examples in reference to people like cooks, medical doctors, sailors, home builders, shoemakers, and tailors.

Psychologically, Aristotle claimed that this sort of wisdom, which someone like the prudent man Socrates possessed, combines in its nature four different qualities of excellent judging that, when rightly combined with the psychological quality of understanding, give to its possessor a generic, psychological quality of virtuous shrewdness, of which prudence, and apparently wisdom in general (whether practical, productive, or contemplative/speculative/theoretical/metaphysical) are species:

  1. eubulia (excellence in deliberating);
  2. eustochia (being a lucky guesser, somewhat excellent at being able to determine precisely the right thing to do at the saw that moment: a good evaluator/estimator);
  3. synēsis (right judgment about what happens in the majority of cases, what is really doable and not doable); and
  4. gnome (right judgment about what is equitable in this or that situation).

Special difficulty understanding the nature of common sense arises at times from two facts about it:

  1. To some extent, all human being possess some of it, are familiar with it; and
  2. when we talk about it, we generally do so the way we talk about anything real: concretely, in terms of qualitatively unequal relationships to that of which it is said—that is, analogously.

Regarding this first fact, understanding common sense presents a difficulty similar to that which in Book 11 of his Confessions, St. Augustine admitted he had related to the concept of time: When someone does not ask him what it is, he is so familiar with it that he has no trouble knowing what it is; but when someone asks him what it is, he appears not to know. Common sense has a similar nature. When someone does not ask us what it is, we have an implicit knowledge of it as the virtue of understanding applied to this or that subject in this or that situation that makes the nature of some subject immediately intelligible. On the contrary, when someone asks us what is common sense (common synēsis), initially we tend to become tongue-tied, do not know how to reply.

As far as fact 2 is concerned, when we talk about a subject, apply objects of sentences to their subjects to identify them in relation to a subject, we always to so indirectly, according to relational meanings. We never do so directly; and the way logicians and ordinary people, as well as real scientists/philosophers, do this essentially differs. In their everyday, common sense way of talking, philosophers/scientists and ordinary human beings do so by noting qualitative, nuanced (chiefly causal) distinctions, differences in relation that they immediately recognize exist between and among these relational meanings as they say, refer, them to a subject.

For example, in the ordinary course of conversation, two people might note that Mother Theresa was more of a human being (in the sense of being qualitatively more perfect metaphysically and morally [psychologically, in her soul!] than was Joseph Stalin. Such a statement would strike a logician thinking as a logician as nonsensical, likely as an ad hominem attack violating the well-known, common sense logical canon that words, terms, definitions said of subjects must always have one, absolutely-fixed meaning, definition— when put in the technical jargon of a logician, must always be predicated univocally, never predicated equivocally.

For example, if I call Socrates and Plato men, a logician working as a logician naturally inclines to assume I mean that Socrates and Plato are equally men, that whatever the definition of man signifies is equally, not unequally, in one and the other—that Socrates is not more man than is Plato. Both are equally men.

If, on the other hand, a medical doctor says that John is not as healthy as Mary, in some way he is saying that, while John is healthy, the quality, or nature, health is causally related to John as one that exists less in John than it does in Mary, that some cause called health exists more in Mary than it does in John. In addition, if I call bread or exercise healthy, in the first case, generally I mean that, when eaten, bread tends nutritionally to cause, promote retention and increase of bodily health; and in the second case, generally I mean that exercise tends to cause, promote retention and increase of muscular coordination and stamina/strength.

While, to some extent, all human beings tend to have a difficult time understanding the nature of analogy, my experience is that logicians generally have an especially difficult time doing so. Since analogy dominates the language of everyday life, especially productive and practical matters, logicians often have a difficult time understanding the psychological disposition of business people and ordinary people with real, not syllogistic, common sense.

Since logicians tend to think in one fixed way, they also often have a hard time understanding comedy, not understanding jokes. This is especially true of Enlightenment logicians, Marxists in general, and the contemporary Woke crowd of anarchists, who deny the reality of real natures. Since real common sense is chiefly said, referred to subjects analogously, Enlightenment intellectuals in general have a hard time grasping its nature.

Be this as it may, common sense mainly refers to common, evident intellectual understanding or knowledge that some person possesses in general, or related to a specific or individual subject as a natural or supernatural faculty or habit of the human soul. Analogously, people often extend, transfer use of, apply, this term to other human faculties (like will, memory, imagination, hearing, and so on); and even to subjects and circumstances, situations such as time and place in which they do not directly exist, but to which, somehow, they are relationally connected.

For example, adult human beings throughout the world often say that performing this or that action generally, particularly, or individually makes sense or is commonsensical, or is nonsensical, makes no common sense. For instance, someone in the third century B.C. making plans to create a ship to fly to Mars would be planning something that most people today would say makes no common sense for that person; but they might likely agree that it could make common sense for Elon Musk seriously to consider.

St. Thomas Aquinas went so far as to locate moral prudence, and with it all practical and productive prudence partially on the sense level in an internal sense faculty that he analogously identified with the estimative intelligence, instinct, and brute animals. He called his faculty cogitative, or particular, reason. Together with the virtue of intellectual understanding, all the other cardinal and intellectual virtues and moral virtues, the integrated activity of all these faculties and their habits and virtues, plus whatever supernatural grace can add to these, appear to comprise the whole of common sense in its most perfect form: perfect human wisdom.

Crucial to understand today about Marxism, Enlightenment utopian socialism in general, and all the mis-named cultural institutions they have created over the tenure of their existence is that all of these are intentionally (or at least in principle) designed to drive common sense, especially real common sense, out of the human soul, the psychological constitution of individual persons; and to do so at the earliest age and throughout an entire lifetime in every aspect of human life.

A good example of this is mis-educational influence are faculty members and administrators who are miserable human beings living miserable lives. Hating themselves, they tend to hate anyone who is not as miserable as they are. As a result, by intentionally influencing them to adopt the same nonsensical principles they use to direct their choices in life, they intentionally seek to make students as miserable as they are.

Other good examples considered in general of it are contemporary middle-management executives, corporate human resources executives/managers, and college/university administrators, ministers of education, all of whom, having been mis-educated in common sense at Enlightenment mis-educational institutions, tend to think univocally, not analogously; and tend to be sorely lacking in real common sense as I have described it.

While, considered as human beings they might be wonderful, kind people, as administrators, Western colleges and universities and educational institutions that have been influenced by their Enlightenment mindset have pretty much driven out of their administrative psychology any comprehension of prudence, and common sense in general, and justice, especially distributive justice, which (instead of race, sex, political influence, diversity, and so on) is the chief just measure of equitable distribution of rewards for quality of work contribution to an organization).

The net result of the disordered educational psychology inhabiting cultural institutions throughout the contemporary West and world is that pretty much all of these institutions, and especially those of higher education (colleges and universities), have become ships of fools mistakenly thinking of themselves as creating local, national, and global world leaders, while they often tend to do precisely the opposite. Consequently, expecting most contemporary college and university faculty members and administrators to come up with a plan to reverse the current dire cultural situation in the West and globally, including their own, makes no real common sense. Doing so defies their natural and acquired abilities, which, related to such a feat, are largely disabilities, job-application disqualifiers.

For this reason, as colleges and universities increasingly begin to go out of business, collapse, on a global scale, colleagues of mine and I have decided that two institution of higher education)—an introductory Common sense Wisdom Liberal Arts Academy (CWLAA) and an advanced executive leadership Common sense Wisdom Executive Coaching Academy (CWECA) )—which immerse their students from all parts of the Earth in common sense wisdom, must immediately, on a global scale, be created to replace the disordered, mis-educational, intellectual institutions (colleges and universities) that Enlightenment hatred for commons ense has caused to come into being culturally and civilizationally increasingly to wreck the West and the world. Anyone seriously interested in discovering more about this project and perhaps joining, supporting, us in this effort is more than welcome to do so by checking out the nature of CWECA.

Peter Redpath was Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University. He is the author/editor of 17 philosophical books and dozens of articles and book reviews. He has given over 200 invited guest lectures nationally and internationally, and headed many prestigious organizations. He is the only non-Polish scholar to hold the Laudatio Achievement Award for attainment of intellectual and organizational wisdom, from the Department of Philosophy, Culture, and Art at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, in Poland. More information is found at his website.

The featured image shows a detail of a wise virgin, from Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow’s “Die klugen und torichten Jungfrauen” (The Wise and Foolish Virgins); painted in 1842.