Jaffa was wrong about the root of today's academic problems.

Relativism and non-judgmentalism lie at the root of today’s academic rot, according to the conservative consensus about the post-1960s university. Harry Jaffa was a prime architect of that consensus. In “The Reichstag Is Still Burning,” he argues that the rejection of a belief in a single truth about our place in the God-created universe gave rise to the student rebellions against the Western canon. Once all cultures were deemed “objectively equal in dignity” and all moral preferences and lifestyles were seen as grounded only in subjective “value judgements,” the erosion of the traditional disciplines and the incursion of identity politics into the university were sure to follow. The solution to the destruction of serious learning, counsels Jaffa, is to recognize once again the “truth about man, God, and the universe” and to make that truth the lodestar of academic activity.

This analysis is unpersuasive.

Watching students attack statues of Confederate soldiers or vandalize buildings they associate with America’s racist past, it is hard to see relativism and non-judgmentalism at work. In fact, today’s students and the left-wing professors responsible for their victim ideology are shrilly judgmental. They ruthlessly enforce a moral hierarchy of victimhood based on what they know to be the truth: that America is endemically racist and sexist. They are violently intolerant of views that challenge that truth. By contrast, it is the traditionalists who, in defending the past against the student Savonarolas, argue that moral judgements are historically contingent. Sure, the founders may have tolerated slavery, but we should not judge the past with the moral standards of today, the traditionalists say.

Jaffa insists that truth is “trans-cultural” and “trans-historical.” If anyone should have understood the truth of the Declaration of Independence, it is its signatories. Were they wrong in assuming that the exclusion of females, the property-less, and freed slaves from the vote did not violate the Declaration’s precepts? Or are we wrong in thinking that the Declaration entails the inclusion of those previously excluded groups? How are we to decide what its meaning is, without contradicting either the original understanding or our own?

Jaffa also believes in “trans-cultural” and “trans-historical” natural rights, visible to anyone who uses his reason. I would be more persuaded by the existence of such natural rights (and of their cousin, natural law) if anyone ever said: “This is a natural right (or a natural law), but I don’t agree with it.” In fact, natural rights and natural law always conform precisely to the viewer’s outlook, wherever he may find himself on the historical continuum of value change. The same goes for “trans-cultural” and “trans-historical” truth. If someone were ever to say: that is the truth, but I don’t believe it, we might have stronger evidence for its existence outside of the speaker’s own world view.

The history of interpretation is one long record of change and conflict. If there has been a single work of literature, philosophy, or visual art the meaning of which has ever been a unanimous and fixed agreement, it is out of sight. The Bible, writes Jaffa, is a source of “trans-historical truth.” Why, then, have there been so many sects that have differed, sometimes violently, about its application to human life? Which of those sects were right, and which were wrong? The answer will inevitably correspond to the answerer’s own understanding of the Bible’s meaning.

The core sickness of the academy is not relativism but hatred. Students are taught to hate the greatest works of Western civilization, and to hate each other, based on the tribal trivialities of gonads and melanin. The university’s purpose should be to pass on those great works with love and gratitude and to teach students to understand what makes them great. Their “truth” may or may not come into the equation. I am not sure what the “truth” of the Oresteia is, but I can speak about its sublimity.

To be sure, I live and think as if there were a single truth of which I am in possession. I am prepared to assert that the Black Lives Matter narrative about crime, race, and policing is not just dangerous, but wrong. I also believe that what Steven Pinker calls the blank slate doctrine about human nature, especially about the interchangeable nature of males and females, is wrong. Yet I cannot help noticing at the same time that history contains one long succession of firmly held truths that have been displaced by later understandings. It would be reckless to assume that my own perception of the truth will not be one of them.

The language I would use, then, to restore the academy to its proper mission is not truth, but beauty, wisdom, insight, eloquence, wit, pathos, tragedy, irony—and knowledge. If a university gives students knowledge about their cultural inheritance, it will have succeeded.

is a Thomas W. Smith Fellow of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal. She is author of The Burden of Bad Ideas and The War on Cops. Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, The New Republic, and Partisan Review. She is the recipient of the 2005 Bradley Prize for Outstanding Intellectual Achievement.

Origin of this feature


The Reichstag is Still Burning

This week's feature is based on the following essay (downloadable as a PDF) written by Professor Harry V. Jaffa in 1989, which served as his farewell address to full-time faculty status at Claremont McKenna College. It remains an illuminating and prophetic statement in response to political correctness and the decay of higher education in contemporary America. The newly published book of his writings from which it is taken can be purchased at the link below.