I’m not a fan of certain narrow interpretations of the claim that human beings are the rational animal. In at least one form that I find objectionable, the claim builds too closely upon a scholastic account of God’s perfection that takes it to lie primarily in his activity. Insofar as our own rationality is intended to be a reflection (albeit finite and imperfect) of this aspect of God’s infinite goodness, it seems to me to highlight too much the idea that our activity makes us who we are. This is at best an incomplete account. Furthermore, if taken in its intended sense, it leads too easily to the idea that our proper aim is actively to manage and control the world. Both Heidegger and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School like Horkheimer and Adorno, for all their differences, agree that this is a dangerous aspect of our Enlightenment heritage.
That said, it is one thing to criticize the rational animal account of human beings, and another thing entirely to criticize the practice of rational discourse itself.
A number of commentators, beginning most forcefully with William Deresiewicz a few years ago, have argued that the culture of elite American college campuses has turned to precisely this kind of attack on reasoned discourse. Deresiewicz describes this new campus culture as a kind of religion, and he means this in one strict sense of the term: it builds itself upon unquestioned and unquestionable dogmatic assumptions. In particular, the new religion of college campuses – which is said to orbit around themes of “political correctness,” “identity politics,” and sometimes even such apparently unobjectionable notions as “diversity” and “inclusion” – involves (in Deresiewicz’s words) “the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.”
A friend of mine sent me the latest entry in this literature just today. It is a pair of opinion pieces in Bloomberg by Williams College philosopher Stephen Gerrard. Gerrard argues that there is a new model for college campuses. In the 19th century we had the Christian college, in the early to mid-twentieth century we had the gentleman’s college, and in the mid to late 20th century we had the consumer college. The first took a college education to be devoted to the magnification and perfection of one’s faith, the second of one’s self-confidence, and the third aimed to form alumni devotion and achievement. By contrast with these, the “comfort college” model, according to Gerrard, is both different and troubling. Although it started out with the laudable goal of developing a language of inclusion, he claims, this language itself has devolved into a “harsh and confrontational tribal marker.”
Much of comfort-college language — “neurodiverse” versus “mentally ill,” “minoritized” versus “minority” — simply identifies one as a member of the woke tribe, and using the wrong term will bring about social death.
Moreover, according to Gerrard, this tribal language is a symptom of a deeper and much more troubling disease: “the devaluing of the pursuit of knowledge.”
Students are now absolutists. Students, administrators and some faculty know what is right (and who is wrong). Any challenge to their views cannot be in pursuit of knowledge or even clarification. It can only come from the desire to crush and oppress.
Gerrard’s discussion is interesting. He gives a range of troubling and evocative examples from his own experience at Williams, and he analyses the phenomenon in the context of the history of political philosophy from Plato’s Thrasymachus down to John Stuart Mill and beyond. You should definitely take a look. As I read the essays, though, I feel two sorts of uneasiness. I mention them here merely to spark discussion. I have in no way thought them through, and I would love your input.
The first concern is the background assumption, sometimes made explicit, that the goal of a college education is the “pursuit of knowledge.” The strongest form of this, which Gerrard may be hinting at, is that knowledge is the goal of human life itself. Now, knowledge is clearly a fine thing; I’m certainly not against it. Pursuing knowledge even seems to me to be a good. But let’s not get obsessed. When the pursuit of knowledge becomes the sole aim of an entire life, and when college becomes the preparation for life solely in virtue of having this aim, it feels to me too much like we have entered Plato’s idealistic world. One reason this world feels uncomfortable to me is that its obsessive vision seems to get something wrong about us: it is tied up too tightly with a worrisome version of the rational animal account of human being. So I feel myself begin to chafe against the position at least a bit. But don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean, of course, that we should go entirely in the other direction. I don’t think, for instance, that a human life should be entirely about the pursuit of faith or gentlemanly virtue either, never mind that it should be about achievement and devotion to one’s alma mater. Still, somehow the epistemological model of human life seems to miss the importance of ontology. Surely our lives, and the education that prepares us to live them well, should aim at our being someone, not just at our knowing something.
The second concern is more empirical. It’s not that I don’t recognize the culture that Gerrard and Deresiewicz describe – it is certainly one of the features of the college culture I am familiar with. But it doesn’t seem to me the major, or even the most interesting, one. Indeed, I almost never see this dynamic in my own classrooms, for instance, and only rarely in the House that Cheryl and I oversee. Rather, it seems to dominate the journalistic discussion about campus life. To the extent that it appears in the objectionable form that its critics deride, that seems to me mostly to be the result of political theater, provocation, and the journalistic impulse to give these outsized coverage. Now, I confess I don’t have much sympathy for the journalistic impulse to exaggerate spectacle for the sake of selling copy. Among other things, it seems to me to cover up more than it reveals. But I’m not entirely sure that we should be so dismissive of the theatrical provocation of political acts. They are certainly not forms of rational discourse; but perhaps, after all, they have their place? In any case, figures from Thoreau to Martin Luther King to Gandhi have thought so.
I don’t take these concerns to be definitive or even particularly articulate. I am jotting them down between walking the puppy and taking the 15-year-old to the dentist, so they’re not exactly the result of extended rumination. Furthermore, I don’t mention them here either to defend what Gerrard and Deresiewicz are attacking, nor to say that it does not exist at all. Still, I do wonder whether somehow the discussion in its current form is not completely capturing the phenomenon at hand.
Let me know what you think.