We live in an age when, thanks to the internet, more information, with more variations of type, quality, and point of view, is available to billions of people than ever before. But the sheer quantity available demands of each of us that we filter our consumption of “content” to make our intake manageable and meaningful to us. And so we get our news from these sources and not those, subscribe to these publications and not those, and “curate” (a much overused word, I know) our social media feeds to “follow” some people and not others. Each of us settles into a groove of checking the same sites each day, opening emails from the same subscriber lists, and tuning in to the same radio stations, TV networks, or podcasts. Sometimes we add and subtract from our usual sources, but a habitual status quo of information channels is our daily norm.
The danger, of course, is that we will “silo” ourselves, choosing to listen only to voices congenial to our own views, and walling off our access to other points of view. On social media this is a particular temptation, because there is often more heat than light in such places—the premium on brevity leading to snark and sneer rather than argument and evidence, with users naturally resorting to friend/unfriend, follow/unfollow, and mute-or-block with the click of a mouse when the clanging cymbals of insult grow too loud. It’s easy to wind up, though, in a cozily narrow information environment.
To combat this tendency in myself, I try to sample a decent range of opinions and points of view in my daily reading, avoiding only those sources that seem themselves to consist of the same five people agreeing with one another every day about how awful everyone else is. (There’s a sadly high number of such places on the internet, alas.)
The temptation to live in a cozy silo can afflict our book reading habits as well. Of course, people can’t be talked into liking mysteries or spy thrillers if they’re just bored by them, so if those are outside your silo, that’s fine. My focus here will be on our nonfiction reading. Although great literature is always fraught with moral ballast if it speaks meaningfully to the human condition, nevertheless fiction, poetry, and drama aren’t really about making arguments. Is any novel worth reading the sort of work we agree with or disagree with?
But that is just what writing in politics, law, moral philosophy, theology, criticism, history, or current affairs is intended to elicit: our agreement with an argument, or our rejection of it in favor of what we believe to be a better one. The partisan or political thinker advocates a view of justice, whether at the level of regime types or institutions or policies. The philosopher argues for a certain way of understanding, being, and acting in the world. The critics says “here is the most compelling reason to read this author, hear this music, see this work of art.” Even the historian cannot help but be more than a chronicler of what has happened, but must at least implicitly argue “these are the facts, the ones most relevant for understanding the past whose story I tell, and this is the way to understand their importance.”
Those who have made their lives in the academy, as I have, will have grown accustomed to sharply disagreeing with much of what they read. It’s practically our stock in trade to be explaining why others are wrong about this thing we claim to understand better! We “review the literature” in our own scholarly work—parceling out praise and blame to those who came before us in our field—and then try to mark a path to better understanding. We review books, and peer-review manuscripts for journals and publishers. We judge the quality of our students’ arguments, and their accounts of their own understanding. We are not “argumentative” by nature, if by that is meant “quarrelsome” (well, some of us are). But academics are certainly accustomed to reading a great many things that challenge their own view of the world, and it is a poor scholar who will not affirm that this experience is immensely beneficial.
College students, one hopes, get a good exposure to this experience in their studies. The Open Syllabus project, which has collected millions of syllabi from around the world, the majority from the United States, has compiled lists of the most frequently assigned titles and authors, and they are very encouraging. Aside from textbooks and works of literature, the top fifty titles and fifty authors show a wide range of political and philosophical perspectives: The Communist Manifesto and the Republic, the Nicomachean Ethics and Leviathan, the Prince and the Second Treatise, the Wealth of Nations and A Theory of Justice, as well as works by Michel Foucault, Paulo Freire, Samuel Huntington, and Edward Said; by Kant, Freud, Mill, and Nietzsche; by Rousseau, Descartes, Martin Luther King, and Augustine.
Do some professors assign Marx because they are Marxists, Freud because they are Freudians, and so forth? Surely it happens; the teacher recruiting fellow disciples to a One True Way is someone we’ve all met, unfortunately. But I find these diverse lists very encouraging, because they suggest teachers’ desires to expose their students to arguments from a variety of angles. How many devoted, uncritical Hobbesians or Machiavellians can there be on college faculties, after all?
Yet I sometimes get the impression that for many people, school or college is the last time they ever read something that challenged their settled conclusions or their presuppositions. If they read American history, it’s either triumphal and celebratory, or radically critical of the American experience. If they read books on politics and current affairs, they are either congenially conservative or profoundly progressive in outlook. If they’re interested in matters of faith, their attitude toward tradition and orthodoxy will steer them toward some books and away from others.
That’s too bad. As we teachers never tire of saying, you won’t know how to shore up the weaknesses in your own arguments unless you encounter critics of them, and you won’t know even what is mistaken in others’ perspectives until you grant their strongest form a patient hearing. You may even change your mind after examining fairly a view you at first instinctively recoiled from. If your senior year in college was the last time you took pains to understand a point of view you were initially inclined to reject—even one that after taking such pains you still rejected—then you have some neglected mental muscles to exercise. And quite frankly, all of us may have some flab to work off in this respect.
I want to illustrate my point by discussing a book that I’ve mentioned in this space before, that has been reviewed here at Public Discourse, and whose author has written for us several times. The book is Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. The author is a very good friend of mine, and I am thrilled that this big, intellectually challenging book has done so well and received so much attention. (For readers who find the book too big and challenging, Trueman has written a briefer, more accessible version of the argument in Strange New World, which was previewed here in an essay by Trueman in February.)
As I said, the book has done very well. But there’s bad news and good news about that. Reversing the usual order of the standup comic, I’ll give the bad news first. For the most part, Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, from the Christian publishing house Crossway, has sold extremely well among Christians of the more conservative or traditional sort—Protestant, Catholic, and perhaps even Orthodox. I imagine it has attracted some Jewish readers as well, perhaps believers from other traditions too, and a handful of more secular readers. But it’s one of the most important books of the last decade, arguably the best thing of its kind since Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was a hit thirty-five years ago, and it has received no high-profile reviews, or interviews with the author, in the nation’s leading newspapers. Perhaps because of the author’s profile as a Christian writer, or because of his Christian publisher, it has been resolutely ignored at the heights of our secular culture.
And that’s unfortunate, because Trueman’s book doesn’t really make any distinctively Christian or religious claims at all. It does not ask or expect the reader to share any of the author’s Christian commitments, and places no reliance on the authority of scripture, faith, or theology. The good news about Trueman’s book, and the reason I think it has done so well with the readers it has found, is that it offers profound philosophical, sociological, and historical explanations, accessible to anyone, for the phenomena limned in its subtitle: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.
These explanations of the “modern self”—our obsessions with “identity,” particularly with “sexual” or “gender identity”—are the gems Trueman has returned to the surface with after delving in mines of philosophical, literary, and political works spanning the last two and a half centuries. He enters sympathetically into, and patiently hears out the arguments of, works by Rousseau, the romantic poets Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake, the nineteenth-century world-shakers Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche, and twentieth-century builders of our contemporary worldview such as Freud, de Beauvoir, Marcuse, and others. None of these thinkers is caricatured or dismissed; all are treated as true interlocutors in an exploration of the predicament of modern men and women.
In short, Trueman has done what we all should do—he has read authors who challenge his thinking, with a mind open to instruction, and challenged them in turn—and his reward has been to be gratefully read by large numbers of readers who already inclined to his conclusions, and were seeking only a better understanding and defense of them. I mean no disparagement of those readers, among whom I count myself! But he has not, I think, been repaid in kind by very many readers who would come to his book inclined to disagree with him, who might either change or modify their views as a result, or at least sharpen their own arguments and show him the weaker points in his own.
This, in a nutshell, is the plight of trenchant cultural criticism today, from whatever quarter it originates. Even a writer such as Carl Trueman, who does not merely “preach to the choir” of those who agree with him, but who really argues in a way that invites a response from any thoughtful person, is apt to find that his work is welcomed—indeed, only really noticed—in the silos of the simpatico. We all—and again I emphatically include myself—really need to get out more.