Feature 12.20.2019 13 minutes

The Disenchantment of Modern Moral Science


Academia’s crowning discipline is an empty shell.

Ian Marcus Corbin’s recent essay in The American Mind strikes a hopeful note. His hope is buttressed by anecdotal evidence from the front lines as well as historical data, but it is ultimately grounded in his experience of the desire for truth.

Corbin finds his anecdotal evidence in his own students. They mouth “correct” answers to controversial questions in class but earnestly seek true answers, via the poor-man’s samizdat of meme culture, the unrestrained anonymity of the internet, or, at best, in private conversation.

His historical datum that there is “something good and mercifully unkillable in the human spirit” is the failure of the Soviet Union, despite unparalleled effort, to eradicate this desire to “live in the truth.”

Corbin is hopeful that our current institutions of elite education, which supposedly train our best and brightest to become members of the “professional managerial class,” cannot “bracket the big questions” forever. He doesn’t say what good extrinsic effects his hoped-for change might have—but very well, the intrinsic good, students being moved to ask “the big questions,” is good enough!

According to Corbin’s report, there is a vacuum in the heart of the contemporary university which will, eventually, be filled. The ineluctable human desire for wisdom is not being awakened, much less fed, in the very institutions which should be dedicated primarily to such awakening and feasting.

Corbin’s essay is helpful in diagnosing the disease in our educational system. And so, too, is his prognosis that “a massive, demanding, expensive institution that has lost—for a whole generation—the hearts and minds of its constituents” can go on for some time, but not forever. It’s worth remembering that Sovietologists, the expert observers in their field, did not predict the collapse of the Soviet Union. But those on both sides of the Iron Curtain who saw the system for the lie that it was, nurtured the hope that because it was a lie it would have to collapse eventually. They did more than anyone to bring it to an end.

Corbin does not dedicate much space to prescriptions, but what he does say is good as far as it goes. He indicates throughout that he is sympathetic to a genuinely liberal education—not in the sense of an education in the humanities or liberal arts (certainly not in their present dominant form), but to a pedagogy “that exposes our ignorance and charts a walkable path away from it, activating the natural human desire for wisdom.” An education that has at its heart “a class session where the students are lunging at some bit of wisdom that answers to a deep, tender hope or confusion, the grasping of which might help them put some order and meaning to their lives.” An education that tries “to put a hook” in the souls of students, to lead them toward beautiful things, richer ways of existence; an education that brings students to “some careful, heartful case for one way of life rather than another”; an education that would win for an institution the true meaning of alma mater, the mother of their souls.

A liberal education so understood does the negative work of liberation and the positive work of preparation for freedom: it works to dissolve or correct the erroneous opinions, lies, and half-lies that we have lived with, and it leads (or at least points) us to the truths that we might live by.

The Death of Democratic Deliberation

Having studied and taught at genuinely countercultural colleges and universities, I am thankful to say that the desert of disenchantment, of disengagement, of lassitude, of lack of teaching and learning that Corbin describes may be endemic in the capital, but not so in the provinces.

To be sure, there are obstacles to education in all of us, and in each of our students. This is one of the lessons of Plato’s allegory of the cave: while our souls long for truth, our condition is also such that we have manifold attachments—physical, psychic, political—to half-truths and lies. It is not possible to be born outside of the cave. But it is possible to be liberated from it, and this is the task of liberal education. Here, the character of student bodies, of faculty bodies, and of institutions themselves matter.

Institutions can believe in the possibility and importance of liberal education as Corbin describes it, and structure themselves to foster the conditions in which students may be liberally educated—or not. The pressing question to ask about our institutions of higher education is: what is their primary commitment, and what if anything does this commitment lead them to overlook?

Let me offer an answer that I hope to justify soon. Our elite universities are, by design, primarily dedicated to the training of specialists who will aid us in our collective conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate. This mission has caused them to neglect the properly liberal education of their students. Moreover, such an educational arrangement for our elites has political consequences, not only on the level of policy but on the level of regime.

It is probably true, as the great teacher Eva T.H. Brann observed, that “the effort of a single teacher is the ultimate resort of excellence in education.” Nevertheless, broader conditions matter, both ideological and institutional. Corbin recognizes that it’s not enough to hire “braver thinkers and teachers.”

The more fundamental problem is our habit of applying a kind of Rawlsian public reason to our educational institutions: relegating questions of inevitable controversy to the private sphere (where our ability to address such questions atrophies), while limiting our educational efforts to what is putatively uncontroversial. What is genuinely uncontroversial is the production of goods such as health, wealth, and peace. Our political order is (partially) dedicated to promoting such goods, and, as a result, our educational institutions must (partially) be dedicated to this task.

Our political order, however, aims not only at securing mere life, but also at promoting the good life. Our universities, similarly, conceive of themselves as promoting happiness and justice, not merely private and public advantage. Here we enter upon genuine controversies that are, in Corbin’s account, treated as uncontroversial by the contemporary university.

The “correct answers” that our prospective elites have learned to give in class are themselves controversial and concern topics—questions about the human condition, questions involving goods such as happiness and justice—that will always be controversial. Rather than eliminating controversy or resolving it by some miraculous feat of massive intersubjective agreement, our educational Rawlsianism only masks the fact that there is a ruling class whose beliefs are taken as determinative of what is public, of what is truly democratic—as the only opinions a rational and respectable person could hold.

Such beliefs serve as the substantive ethos for our universities, elevating the missions of institutions that otherwise would be strictly utilitarian or humanitarian. As we notice more and more with each passing year, the ethos of our universities informs not only the individual elites who pass through them but also the contours of our public debate and the condition of our public order.

If Corbin thinks our educational institutions will have to change and that their deficiency may be traced to our Rawlsian public philosophy, then he must suspect that our Rawlsian public philosophy is waning or will wane. Perhaps the proliferation of post-liberalisms, in speech if not in deed in today’s online public square, is a sign that he is right. In any case, his inquiry into the ideology of elite education would be complemented by an inquiry into the purpose of the institutions themselves.

Rather than focusing on one or another discrete aspect of the decadence of our elite schools, Corbin argues that they are failing to provide an education, and thus calls into question “the American university as a whole.” But the contemporary university is far from the only, or the best, possible institution for higher education in America.

If we consider the purposes for which the contemporary university was designed, we might better understand its present difficulties in providing a properly public-spirited or political education for our elites. While a liberal education as articulated by Corbin cannot be reduced to a civic or political education, the fate of liberal and civic education in a republic are inevitably intertwined.

Moralism Without Philosophy

The origins of the contemporary American university can be found in the transformation—modernization, if you like—of our elite schools in the mid-19th century.

In the colonial, revolutionary, and early republican periods, our elites had received a self-consciously moral and political education in the classical liberal arts. The classical liberal arts colleges that then dominated the American scene educated statesmen, lawyers, and ministers in a tradition that gave pride of place to ethics, politics, philosophy, and theology. (To get a sense of how far removed we are from this era, consider that it was common for 19th-century college presidents—yes, presidents—to teach their seniors a capstone course in moral philosophy.)

Political history in particular provided a civic education by, as Thomas Hobbes noted in a prefatory note to his translation of Thucydides’ great historical work, instructing and enabling men “by the knowledge of the actions past, to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently toward the future.” The relevance of such historical knowledge for establishing, deliberating about, and sustaining a political order is obvious to any reader of the Federalist. These ethical and political disciplines in turn depended on a foundational idea of nature, supported by the philosophical and theological traditions, as a set of certain unchanging facets of the world in general and the human condition in particular.

The elites who received such a liberal education would be prepared to serve their country—to rule and be ruled in turn by their fellow citizens—by virtue of their moral and intellectual formation in the Western tradition, including their understanding of the legal and political traditions upon which the American Republic was founded. Their liberal education was also an indisputably civic education.

The modernization of elite education can be conveniently, if roughly, dated to two great events of the 1860s. The 1862 Morrill Act provided government support for land-grant universities, “where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts” and to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” Land-grant universities represented the institutional marriage of science and society, proposed by the leading philosophers and scientists of the 17th century and accepted by industrial nations on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th century.

This marriage entailed the instrumentalization or application of scientific knowledge for the benefit of the common man on the one hand, and massive social support for the advancement of the sciences on the other. Its chief American celebrant was Charles William Eliot, who began his tenure as Harvard’s longest-serving president in 1869. Over the next forty years, Eliot would spearhead the national movement to transform America’s existing religious, classical, liberal arts colleges into secular, modern research universities.

What Eliot called “liberty in education” would replace liberal education as the animating ethos: freedom in their studies (not to mention extracurricular activities) would spur students rightly bored by traditional disciplines to self-select into the cutting-edge specialties where they could make the greatest contribution. The system as a whole would advance research efficiently in every scientific, social-scientific, and humanistic field and subfield, enabling America to modernize and increase in power and prestige and culture, just as Prussia, the inspiration for Eliot’s modern university, was modernizing and increasing in power and prestige and culture until it established the Second Reich.

This 19th-century transformation of elite education prefigured, even midwifed, the 20th-century transformation of the American regime. The emergence and political victory of the Progressives, and the administrative state that they came to construct and staff, was aided decisively by the decline of classical liberal education and the republican political order it helped maintain.

As the most prestigious and prosperous universities enlisted themselves wholeheartedly in the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate—a project that would soon expand to the conquest of human nature and the endless, experimental transformation of culture—elite political education came to be informed by contemporary European historicism and social science.

As John Dewey argued in Liberalism and Social Action (1935) and elsewhere, the success of the Baconian method in transforming the natural sciences from the socially useless pastime of an aristocratic elite to the socially useful tools of a scientific elite warranted the application of the same Baconian method to society and to cultural institutions, resulting in the creation of an experimental social science that would speed up the progress of our modern, industrial nation.

Claremont Institute Senior Fellow John Marini has documented the Progressive conception of how the social sciences would serve to transform American into a “rational state” and how the rise of administrative rule would mark the end of political partisanship, i.e. the public manifestation of controversies about justice and advantage and happiness and the good and the proper ends and means of individual and political life.

The moral, political, and philosophical ambitions of liberal education, which the reformers of the mid-19th century thought would be taken care of by primary and secondary schools, fell into abeyance from the turn of the 20th century precisely because they came to be seen as superfluous in the universities that set the tone for education at all levels. Rather than colleges for the disciplining of the passions, the turning-about of the soul, and induction into a religious, political, and cultural tradition, universities were to become the credentialing institutions for public service in the newly-empowered administrative state, in which the title to rule the American people would be social-scientific expertise rather than constitutionally-defined consent.

A Hollow Ethos

The momentous changes in our elite universities during the remainder of the 20th and 21st centuries have ministered to the growing wealth and power and technical sophistication of America. And the modern research university has been terrifically successful in advancing the relief of man’s estate: in discovering the techniques and producing the devices that can cure (and kill) and aid (and distract) us to no end.

For the last century and a half, these changes—including greater inclusivity in race, sex, and class—follow the logic of the institution established by Eliot and his peers: the wider we cast the net for potential students, the greater our chance of finding the best new specialist for each field.

But in the same era, the entire modern project, our confidence in the simple superiority of contemporary civilization, has been subject to deeper and deeper doubts—from the political Left and Right, from the religious and the irreligious, and from philosophers and scientists themselves. As a result, the past century has seen a number of diverse and serious challenges to the perceived hollowness of the university’s ethos. Everything from the noisy student radicalism of the 1960s, 1990s, and 2010s to the quieter, ongoing revival of liberal education of the kind favored by Corbin may be understood as reactions to the narrowly technocratic and humanitarian focus of elite education.

It is little wonder that humanitarian activism and the quest for social justice have rushed to fill the void. Until elite universities offer more satisfying fare to their students, expect more of the same—and, we may hope with Corbin, a growing cognitive dissonance in those young men and women who are most awake to the possibility of a liberal education.

As others writing for The American Mind have noted, increasingly radical iterations of the political Left have been tremendously successful in marching through the cultural institutions of the West, with the universities serving as their best beachhead. Complaints about the Left’s academic power typically have begun and ended with the so-called politicization of the humanities and, in recent years, certain social sciences.

But the institution in which this corruption occurred—the contemporary research university, dedicated from its inception to the advancement of the natural and applied sciences to the exclusion of a liberal education that might serve the souls (not only the success) of its students and the liberty (not only the power) of the republic in which it exists—is seldom seen as part of the problem.

Those who wish to remake elite education would do well to look to the tradition of liberal education that once set the tone in our colonies and early republic and that still flourishes today, in the nooks and crannies of a few elite universities and in little colleges far from the centers of power.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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