The protest and subsequent riot at Middlebury College during Charles Murray’s recent visit has prompted a great deal of commentary, facing left and right, about ever-increasing intolerance on college campuses. Much of this commentary is reassuring insofar as people from different sides of the political spectrum seem to agree that many colleges and universities are now reaching the point where they are betraying a core element of their mission: to foster atmospheres of rigorous and reasoned debate and discussion. Further, it is finally dawning on many interested observers that the lack of political and ideological diversity on too many campuses (both among faculty and students) might have something to do with this intolerance. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt founded the Heterodox Academy precisely to increase awareness of this problem and to advocate for viewpoint diversity.
This general agreement, however, masks a general inability to come to terms with the full nature of the problem as it exists on many college campuses today. Let us start with two principles enunciated in the document “Free Inquiry on Campus: A Statement of Principles by over One Hundred of Middlebury College’s Professors”:
- “The primary purpose of higher education is the cultivation of the mind, thus allowing for intelligence to do the hard work of assimilating and sorting information and drawing rational conclusions.”
- “A good education produces modesty with respect to our own intellectual powers and opinions as well as openness to considering contrary views.”
Though the authors and signatories of the statement do not say so explicitly, attending to the purpose mentioned in the first principle will go a long way toward securing the intellectual modesty emphasized in the second principle. That is to say, a “good education” is one whose primary purpose is the cultivation of the mind. This might seem like a truism—universally acknowledged and undisputed. Yet the authors of the document know otherwise, and they are correct to emphasize it. They understand that, however uncontroversial the sentiment, the people who matter most in this context (college administrators especially) tend not to allow that sentiment to inform their behavior. There are too many other competing interests vying for their support.
The cultivation of the mind has an increasing number of competitors for the purpose of higher education. Frank Bruni of the New York Times and Jonathan Haidt of New York University produced a very illuminating discussion of the Middlebury incident on Charlie Rose. Haidt explained that students today do not really learn to argue; rather, they are “trained” to discredit their interlocutors. What happened to Charles Murray, Haidt suggested, was a “modern auto-da-fé: the celebration of a religious rite by burning the blasphemer.” The word “training” is particularly apt. Campuses now serve as training centers for the production of “correct opinions” on subjects like race and gender. The “long march through the institutions” having long since been completed and reified, the benighted and unenlightened must have their consciousness raised, and then must adopt the ideology that will set aright the wrongs of the world. And a heretic like Charles Murray, someone whom one cannot hope to “train,” must be publicly shamed and cast out.
Then came this revealing exchange:
- Bruni: “It’s so hard though because you really want to salute the passion of the students. I like that they are engaged, but…”
- Haidt: “If only they’d learned that any virtue carried to excess becomes a vice.”
Here Bruni speaks the language of the credentialed class and all right-thinking people: We must applaud both “passion” and “engagement.” Bruni’s inclinations on this score are wholly in keeping with the culture of the contemporary liberal arts college. The cult of engagement must not only be understood in relation to political correctness, but in relation to what William Deresiewicz recently called the “religion of success.” Liberal arts educators are now driven by “competencies” and a concern for relevancy. An education at a liberal arts college is no longer emphasized as a good in and of itself, but something that will prepare you for the “real world.”
Many colleges will, for example, give students academic credit for internships. Rather than instruction in a particular discipline and with the expectation of mastery of subject matter, students are offered “experiences,” some of which might even be designated as “high impact.” This is not to suggest that traditional instruction does not happen or that internships are worthless. But the cultivation of the mind through the reading of difficult texts, through the assimilation of strikingly contrary opinions, and through the discussion of those texts and opinions with one’s professors and peers is no longer given pride of place at many colleges. We send the message that while that traditional approach is well and good and maybe even somewhat necessary, it isn’t nearly enough and is divorced from what the “real world” demands.
It is wrong, however, to think that liberal arts colleges can “train” students and strive for relevancy while also remaining dedicated to the cultivation of the mind. “Passion” and “engagement” are not only poor substitutes for virtues like moderation, courage, and prudence, they create an environment hostile to their cultivation. Further, the demands of the “real world” are ever-changing, and adapting the cultivation of the mind to the instrumental goals of society results in a limitation and adulteration of that delicate process. By trying to imitate the real world that has already changed before our imitation can be constructed, as Václav Havel once wrote, we end up falsifying the real world. The humanities and social sciences have retreated from the cultivation of the mind and their devotion to the discovery of truth and the human good. With the question of purpose left unasked and the possibility of truth not considered, space is left open to politically correct dogma and those willing to demonstrate their passionate commitment to the cause.
This is the other side of Bruni’s admiration for the passion of the students. Haidt, for his part, seems to imply in the oral heat of the moment in retort that passion itself is a virtue. Perhaps he meant that the commitment activists display in serving their cause is laudable.
But applauding the passion or commitment displayed by student-activists is problematic for a host of reasons. First, one might be a passionate activist in the service of an invidious cause. Ought we celebrate the passion of a 9/11 hijacker or a suicide bomber? Second, passionate commitment can also embody a cheap moral exhibitionism that is both pointless and self-indulgent. Indeed, precisely that happens a lot these days on campus. Take the Middlebury incident as a case in point: So it was that, after offending vast swaths of the French intellectual establishment with his book The Opium of the Intellectuals, Raymond Aron was charged with being both dry and overly negative. “I must confess to an extreme repugnance to reply to this type of argument,” he responded. “Those who let it be known that their own sentiments are noble and those of their adversaries base strike me as exhibitionists.”
Shortly thereafter Aron pointed to a third problem with passion: It is often at odds with the clarity of mind needed to confront difficult political and social problems. “Political analysis gains by divesting itself of all sentimentality. Lucidity demands effort: passion automatically goes at a gallop.” Training in politically correct opinions is designed self-consciously to churn out activists or silence dissenters. One must display one’s passionate commitment to these correct opinions; subjects like race and inequality are not really up for discussion, notwithstanding the omnipresent talk of “dialogue” and ceaseless self-congratulatory paeans to diversity.
But the praise of passion and engagement has another less noticeable but pernicious consequence. The loud, confident voices are applauded, but the quiet students are presumed not to be “engaged.” At best they are called apathetic, at worst they are “part of the problem.” Thus what institutions of higher learning have done with this fetishization of passion is to destroy the space for intellectual modesty. Some students might think, very naturally, “I really don’t know enough about that topic to have a strong opinion.” But the general atmosphere tells them to get committed, get passionate; there is no time to waste! For those who, perhaps instinctually, turn away from the politically correct opinions to which they are supposed to give their passionate embrace, what is left is most often a cynical distance from anything that smells of politics. So the destruction of the space of intellectual modesty leaves a desiccated field strewn with impassioned fanatics, knowing cynics, and careerists willing so say whatever provides the path of least resistance.
While viewpoint diversity is important, attending to the cultivation of the mind must be our lodestar. Enough of passion and engagement. Aron once more: “Let us not feel ourselves obliged to talk nonsense to bear witness to our noble sentiments.”