In a recent essay at the Wall Street Journal, Professor Robert P. George, Herbert W. Vaughan Senior Fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, reminded university students of the remarkable opportunity campus life affords to cultivate and practice intellectual virtues such as “dispassion, intellectual humility, openness of mind and, above all, love of truth.” While not every point of view is true, he urges students to “be willing—eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of intellectual discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence and making arguments.” Even if the other person is wrong, “seriously and respectfully engaging these thinkers will deepen your understanding of the truth and strengthen your ability to defend it.”
Unfortunately, as he notes, it is “common these days for people to try to silence dissent from campus orthodoxies by questioning speakers’ motives, calling them names, disrupting their presentations, demanding that they be excluded from campus or disinvited,” and often “refus[ing] to listen.” As anyone knows who follows the situation at our universities, the refusal to listen is prevalent, and the responses following the election of Mr. Trump show that the “willingness to listen and respectfully engage” is in short supply.
It’s easy to parody the various excesses accompanying trigger warnings, safe spaces, no platform policies, identity politics, the “new segregation” in campus housing, speech codes, lack of intellectual diversity, and denial of academic freedom, but these intellectual pathologies are not at all humorous. Clearly, faculty and students caught in their distortions are harmed, but the damage doesn’t end there. As the university goes, so goes our polity, for the norms and expectations of our common life are being shaped in the classrooms and quads of our universities and colleges.
Argument, Civil Discourse, and the Purpose of Education
As John Courtney Murray once explained, a free society must be a civil one. This means something rather more than a polite society, and even a cursory examination of the political rhetoric and cartoons of the Founding Era reveals that the American political experience has included its fair share of rhetorical hatchet jobs. A civil society is not necessarily synonymous with a pleasant and reserved political tone, but civility, properly understood, requires a commitment to common deliberation and debate. As Murray put it, “civilization is formed by men locked together in argument.” In other words, a genuine political association includes differences of values, viewpoints, policies, and interests, with the disintegrating tendencies of factionalism countered by rational deliberation, the “cohesiveness on argument among men.”
We often think of argument as tantamount to quarreling, but the “distinctive bond of the civil multitude,” despite the many differences in society, “is reason, or more exactly, that exercise of reason which is argument.” Arguing is hard, no doubt, and it’s much easier to shout at someone, or to refuse to engage him, than it is to form civic friendship with an ideological opponent, which Murray says is a “special kind of moral virtue, a thing of reason and intelligence, laboriously cultivated by the discipline of passion, prejudice and narrow self-interest.”
Learning to discipline passion, prejudice, and narrow self-interest is something of a challenge, as we all know, but education is meant to instill such discipline. This is true in the home, where diligent parents help young children grow into mature, self-governed, and responsible adults capable of restraint, kindness, and decorum. Formal education, too, is not simply about skills and information but includes formation or cultivation. One goal of an authentically liberal education is to help us become free, to escape the bonds of our ignorance, self-deception, special-pleading, chronological snobbery, and ungoverned passions. Usually, this kind of liberation is discomfiting, with our certitudes and views called to give an account of themselves, to provide justification. We want to live in the truth, of course, and yet discovering that an opinion deeply held is false, or that we cannot give an adequate defense of it, is startling and strange.
Disciplining the Mind, Training the Will, and Learning to Listen
Socrates lived this sort of life, constantly asking for an account, an explanation for beliefs thought perfectly obvious by his interlocutors. Most of them could not give such an explanation, and so they found this gadfly a sometimes unwelcome friend. But friend he was, for he wanted their good, their true good, and wished them to attain wisdom rather than placid comfort. Socrates, like Professor George, knew that to be a lover of truth required a serious and respectful engagement with others, however difficult this could sometimes be.
Such intellectual discipline is not only a discipline of mind but also a training of the will and of love. In seeking the truth, Socrates did not simply hone his analytical ability; he learned also to control himself and to seek the good for and with others. He cultivated a certain kind of friendship. In fact, the Platonic dialogues are less logical treatises than they are dramas of persons accepting or rejecting (sometimes violently) Socrates’ overtures of friendship. They are political dramas, for when citizens refuse to listen they are, in some disturbing sense, no longer fellow citizens, no longer locked together in argument and rational deliberation.
We rarely use the term idiot, or when we do we use it improperly, as if it were a denigration of a person’s intelligence. But that’s not what it really means. For the Greeks, says Murray, the idiot is the person who lacks the ability to engage in public philosophy, to engage in the public square and the business of citizenship. It is the person without civility, the person incapable of becoming locked together in argument with other citizens about the common and public matters. Locked in his own private and idiosyncratic concerns, the idiotes refuses to listen to others.
Consequently, a university in which the refusal to listen becomes accepted or normalized is a university that detracts from the polity and our common life. So, too, the university that robs students of their due inheritance of books, arguments, and values is one that contributes to the fragmentation and factionalization of our society. Of course, as Socrates ably demonstrates, a healthy cultural inheritance is one that challenges itself, questions itself, listens to those who think differently and those whose arguments have been overlooked or unjustly rejected. A healthy university, one that is really itself, much like the society served by those universities, is one that continues the argument, encourages the ongoing conversation, and remains locked together in the collegiality of those who wish to know the true, the good, and the beautiful as they really are.
Summer Seminars: Witherspoon’s Role
Just now, in our cultural moment, schools and universities need our support if they are to continue their proper function. It’s not a good sign, for instance, when the University of Chicago makes news by stating what should be obvious: that universities exist for the sake of free inquiry, and that “without it they cease to be universities.” The Witherspoon Institute helps the university accomplish its purpose, and we’re committed to public discourse and argument accessible to reason as a service to the polity.
One way we do this is through our summer programming, with courses available for high school students, undergraduates, and graduate and professional school students. Drawing on accomplished faculty, and held in Princeton, our seminars invite students to read, argue, learn, and willingly listen and engage each other and the texts. We form Socratic friendships and foster civility.
For the summer of 2017, we are pleased to offer the following seminars (please follow the links for dates and application information):
- Moral Life and the Classical Tradition, for rising high school juniors and seniors interested in the ancient philosophical tradition and its influence in Christian moral life.
- First Principles Seminar, for advanced undergraduate and pre-dissertation graduate students with interests in natural law and moral or political philosophy.
- Natural Law and Public Affairs Seminar, for advanced undergraduate and graduate students interested in normative ethics and contemporary applications, as well as recent graduates and young professionals in policy or law.
- The Thomistic Seminar: Themes in Aquinas and Charles Taylor, for graduate students in philosophy and related disciplines.
- Medical Ethics: A Natural Law Perspective, for medical students who seek insight on the most important ethical questions that arise in the everyday practice of medicine.
- Moral Foundations of Law, for students of the law interested in investigating the relationship between sound norms of critical morality and civil law.
It’s easy to be discouraged at the troubles of our time, but the task of education remains as it ever was, as Professor George describes, to cultivate and practice the virtues of “dispassion, intellectual humility, openness of mind and above all, love of truth.” In doing so, we become free even as we contribute to the freedom of others and the rebuilding of the cultural and intellectual life of our polity.
I find in gardening a helpful image. In January, we see few signs of life. The grass has withered, the flowers have faded, and the soil is bare. But wise gardeners have turned the soil, tilled in compost, and with patience and humility know the humus is recovering, building, and will with spring’s warmth burst forth in new life. Our own culture is similar, it seems to me. In many ways the cultural and intellectual soil is fallow, but those who are patient know that deep down the seeds of renewal and life await the spring.
Or perhaps the summer, when we hold our seminars. We hope you’ll read more about them, consider attending one, and pass the word on to your own students, children, and friends.
R.J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is senior fellow of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. His books include The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode, and Acedia and Its Discontents.