Liberal education, civic education, and academic freedom

[Editor's note: The month of May has come and gone, and along with it the always—predictable commencement speeches, encouraging students to commit themselves to social action for progressive causes, or in a few tasteless cases, to rants about the President.  Below is something a bit different: an after—dinner talk to a few dozen alumni gathered for their 35th reunion at Kenyon College in Ohio. The talk was delivered by Professor Emeritus Harry Clor, a distinguished Professor of Political Science at Kenyon, who taught at the small liberal arts school for over three decades prior to his retirement. He described his purpose as "less a celebration of liberal education than an exploration of its problems."  

Professor Clor received his doctorate at the University of Chicago where he was a protégé of the political philosopher Leo Strauss. He spent his entire career teaching political philosophy at Kenyon College. To honor his commitment to liberal education, and truly open inquiry, his grateful former students established an endowed chair in his name a few years ago.]

The principle of academic freedom was first affirmed by the AAUP [American Association of University Professors] in 1915; they defined it as "a complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publicize the results."  This succinctly formulates the necessary condition of an authentic academy and of a liberal education.

But there is a school of political philosophy, going all the way back to Plato, which discerns a persistent tension between liberal education and civic education (concerning citizenship).  Civic education isn't primarily about inquiry; primarily it is about instilling in citizens certain common beliefs or "values" which serve to bind them together in a sense of communal purpose and loyalty to one another.

Civic education wants us to believe some things together; in our country for example, it wants us to be committed to the proposition that all human beings are created equal and endowed, by the Creator or by Nature, with certain fundamental rights. Liberal education begins with Socrates and his famous affirmation that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Hence liberal education (with the philosophical mind at its pinnacle) is devoted to profound critical questioning of received opinions — including those cherished by a people, even those serving as a society's foundational premises.  And we know, don't we, how much easier it is to undermine received opinions by relentless questioning than it is to replace them with solid truth and knowledge.

Perhaps one can most dramatically illustrate the tension between the Socratic ideal and the requisites of social consensus by juxtaposing two observations, both from undoubted friends of liberty.  In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill tells us that the only way one can really understand a subject in controversy is by looking at it from every plausible pint of view and by seriously considering the strongest case made for each of these diverse viewpoints.  In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville says:  "No society can exist without dogmatic beliefs; that is, opinions which men take on trust without explanation.  For any society to prosper it is essential that the minds for the citizens should be rallied and held together by some leading ideas ... and that could never happen if each one undertook to make up his mind about everything himself and to pursue truth only along roads that he himself had cleared."

Mill's proposition is a fine ideal definition of the process of liberal education.  But Mill thought, problematically, I believe, that this ideal could be the operative principle for an entire civil society. Tocqueville's proposition explains why there never has been such a society or body of citizens.  Every human community has need for some indoctrination of beliefs and sentiments — in the harsh language with which Tocqueville chooses to confront us — some dogmatically held convictions. 

In our case civic convictions have been instilled by reverential teaching about the Founders and the Constitution, by symbols — like the flag — and by music such as God Bless America, America the Beautiful and the like.  In other words, no community can do without non—rational or sub—rational means of making us feel that we are a We.  It follows that the deeply reflective mind will (often enough) find itself in opposition to or meet with resistance — sometimes even hostility — from the larger society, whose members are not, for the most part, intensely devoted to rational inquiry.  In my opinion it is an unhelpful utopianism to deny this less—than—pleasing reality.

Now Academic Freedom is important for both kinds of education but more so for liberal education.  It is, we can say, indispensably related to the liberal arts — the humanities and social sciences especially — while its relation to civic education is more ambiguous.  What I'm implying might now be apparent to you:  in elementary school and high school the inspiration of devotion to fundamental American precepts should have the predominant role; the critical questioning — the encouragement of doubt — about these fundamentals has a subordinate role. 

At the University or College these priorities are reversed.  How would one teach the Declaration of Independence in secondary school?  Probably there are various interesting answers to that question among you.  I'm suggesting that the principles of the Declaration not be presented as just one ideology among many, or simply as the self—serving ideology of a rising bourgeois class, and that the students not be confronted with the fiercely debunking arguments of a Marx or a Nietzsche, at least in full force.  Perhaps in an advanced honors seminar or the like, one could begin to do that.

In College, students may well be confronted with Marx's stinging attack on the Doctrine of the Rights of Man, with Charles Beard's debunking account of our Founders' motivation as economically self—serving and with the Nietzschean denunciation of Equality as the producer of shrunken little mediocrities.  For the function of the University is not to reinforce beliefs and identities, but to inquire about what's true or valid with as much intellectual integrity as we can muster.  That is Academic Freedom at work in the development of the disposition to reasoned inquiry.

But the subject is more complicated.  Promotion of reasoned inquiry is one great purpose of higher education.  Another, suggested by the word "higher," is encouragement of appreciation for excellence — or, if that term seems too highfalutin' — appreciation for the most serious, deeply probing ideas in works of philosophy, history, even political science, and the most elevated works of art.  This (apart from the important vocational purpose) was a generally accepted aspiration until challenged by a radical cultural and moral relativism in recent decades. 

Does the goal of promoting an appreciation of excellence come into some conflict with Academic Freedom?  It might — if Academic Freedom means teaching whatever you want to teach without any collective imperatives as to content.  It is still the case that in most English courses a Shakespeare or a Faulkner will be privileged over hard—core pornography or popular thrillers.  But suppose the Professor (or the Department) wants to teach only the latter?  It would raise Academic Freedom questions if the Provost or the Curricular Policy Committee were to intrude very much into the content of these courses.  Yet if excellence is not privileged or emphasized in higher education, where, in this free—for—all material society of ours, will students find the inspiration to respect and pursue what is "higher"?

Here is another problem.  In 1967 the AAUP added to its original statement on the Rights of Professors a statement on "the Rights of Students".  The Professor is urged to "encourage free discussion, inquiry and expression" in the classroom.  But what if the Professor wants to indoctrinate the students with a certain viewpoint or social agenda?  (Even the 1915 Report admonished the Professor not to do so.)  It is hardly a thing unheard—of for a teacher to treat the class as if it were an assembly of partisans getting hyped—up and tooled—up for a political campaign. 

The great sociologist Max Weber had an answer for this sort of thing:  it's the distinction between facts and values. "Values" or evaluation have no place in the classroom, which is the place only for analysis of facts or causes and effects.  The Professor can say:  "If you want 'X', research has shown that 'Y' is the most effective means to that end," but he or she cannot comment on the desirability or worth of that end. 

I doubt that such moral neutrality or abstraction is wholly possible, but insofar as it is possible, I don't think it constitutes a liberal education.  That education is, to paraphrase Hamlet, an opening of the students' minds to "things never dreamt of" within the relatively narrow outlooks they usually bring to College.  And this is an opening of the mind to questions about ends and values at least as much as about means and facts. To explore ends and values one must hear thought—provoking arguments and counter—arguments about them.  The alternative to indoctrination in the classroom is not the Weberian one — but a classroom atmosphere in which the debate of divergent perspectives (relevant to the subject) is encouraged and alternative viewpoints are represented in assigned readings.  The ultimate aim is not diversity for its own sake, but a spirit of reflection — as distinguished from one—sided partisanship — even about the most controversial, value—laden subjects.  It is an important lesson that one can really think — not just emote — about evaluations, moral and political.

Of course, as a teacher of things political and legal, I have my opinions and commitments. The point isn't that these must be kept altogether out of it, but that I must always subordinate them to the educational goal — helping students develop that vital and difficult capacity that I'm calling "the spirit of reflection."  If they don't get any of this in the Academy, where, amidst the pervasive partisanship of this world, will they get it?  To put it in terms of Academic Freedom, if the student has some right to "free discussion," this means that alternative viewpoints are to be welcomed — as long as the student is willing to offer some reasoned argument and listen to argument.

The AAUP documents never quite grapple with the discomforting fact that tensions can exist between Academic Freedom claims for the teacher and for the students.  Maybe we can.  We might consider what, if anything, the Institution as such may do about a propagandizing teacher.

Some people regard Academic Freedom as a king of absolute (for example, Professors Kors and Silverglate in their admirable book, The Shadow University).  I have offered, basically, two reasons why the absolutist position cannot be wholly valid.  Here is a third reason.  A University (as the word implies) or a College (as the word implies) is a kind of community, and, as such, it cannot live without some commonly binding sentiments, aspirations, and standards of conduct.  Nowadays these are often called "rules of civility," and they are frequently abused in the despotic ways that we call political correctness.  Jefferson said, with regard to his University of Virginia:  "The rock which I most dread is the discipline of the institution."  Yet Jefferson acknowledged the need for standards of civility, though moderately enforced and pursuant to the educational purpose.

Obviously I'm trying to stake out a middle ground.  On the one hand, this middle ground strongly opposes the kind of rigorous speech codes that we see on many campuses — rules penalizing "offensive verbal behavior," as defined by the persons or groups that dislike it.  I am also worried about heavy—handed, ideological "sensitivity training" programs imposed on entering students and even on Professors for ideas expressed in class.  As practiced in some institutions, these programs tend to establish what the Supreme Court calls a "pall of orthodoxy."  Together these highly subjective speech codes and these indoctrination sessions function to oppress the life of the mind by rendering some subjects and viewpoints off limits and virtually undiscussible.

On the other hand, the middle ground rejects demands, made in the name of Academic Freedom, for toleration of any and all forms of "expression."  The libertarian demand for a verbal "anything goes" seems to derive from one or both of these two assumptions:  that freedom of self—expression is what higher education is all about, and that restriction of any expression whatsoever puts us on an inevitable slippery slope.  But the University cannot simply be about self—expression; some kinds of utterances, for example, hateful invectives, undermine the enterprise of higher education.  And I believe that the slippery slope is not inevitable in an educational institution that is thoughtful about its mission and cognizant of appropriate distinctions.

The most important distinction is between the argument of a viewpoint and the hurling of epithets at individuals or groups.  While it is not always a simple matter to draw the line between the vigorous argument of a viewpoint and an outburst of hatred, is it really beyond the capability of educators to make that distinction with tolerable clarity?  If we can't, then what is higher education about?

The University should not engage in "viewpoint discrimination."  But you may still ask, what counts as the exposition of a viewpoint?  For some of us, any expression whatever should count.  That, however, is untenable.  Someone coming to class stark naked might be intending thereby to make a statement (against bourgeois conformity), but we don't allow it — because it is not an inquiry and because it disrupts inquiry.  Also disruptive of the educational enterprise are fighting words such as (my apologies) "faggot," "whore," "n****r" or "f———ing racist" — where these abusive expletives are used in public.  The rules should apply equally to all disruptive epithets.  But of course members of the academy must be equally free to discuss and make arguments for or against public policies concerning affirmative action, gay rights, foreign policy and other highly controversial subjects.  That's the freedom which really counts.

When civic education and liberal education are at their best, the ideal result is a type of person who has convictions or loyalties and is yet thoughtfully open to the large questions bearing on our convictions and loyalties.  This delicately balanced mind, neither dogmatically judgmental nor relativistically non—judgmental, is a precious virtue to which the academy, at its best, contributes.  It is the ultimate defense against fanaticism on the one hand and apathy on the other.  And it is a fragile virtue, constantly in need of our support.

[Editor's note: The month of May has come and gone, and along with it the always—predictable commencement speeches, encouraging students to commit themselves to social action for progressive causes, or in a few tasteless cases, to rants about the President.  Below is something a bit different: an after—dinner talk to a few dozen alumni gathered for their 35th reunion at Kenyon College in Ohio. The talk was delivered by Professor Emeritus Harry Clor, a distinguished Professor of Political Science at Kenyon, who taught at the small liberal arts school for over three decades prior to his retirement. He described his purpose as "less a celebration of liberal education than an exploration of its problems."  

Professor Clor received his doctorate at the University of Chicago where he was a protégé of the political philosopher Leo Strauss. He spent his entire career teaching political philosophy at Kenyon College. To honor his commitment to liberal education, and truly open inquiry, his grateful former students established an endowed chair in his name a few years ago.]

The principle of academic freedom was first affirmed by the AAUP [American Association of University Professors] in 1915; they defined it as "a complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publicize the results."  This succinctly formulates the necessary condition of an authentic academy and of a liberal education.

But there is a school of political philosophy, going all the way back to Plato, which discerns a persistent tension between liberal education and civic education (concerning citizenship).  Civic education isn't primarily about inquiry; primarily it is about instilling in citizens certain common beliefs or "values" which serve to bind them together in a sense of communal purpose and loyalty to one another.

Civic education wants us to believe some things together; in our country for example, it wants us to be committed to the proposition that all human beings are created equal and endowed, by the Creator or by Nature, with certain fundamental rights. Liberal education begins with Socrates and his famous affirmation that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Hence liberal education (with the philosophical mind at its pinnacle) is devoted to profound critical questioning of received opinions — including those cherished by a people, even those serving as a society's foundational premises.  And we know, don't we, how much easier it is to undermine received opinions by relentless questioning than it is to replace them with solid truth and knowledge.

Perhaps one can most dramatically illustrate the tension between the Socratic ideal and the requisites of social consensus by juxtaposing two observations, both from undoubted friends of liberty.  In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill tells us that the only way one can really understand a subject in controversy is by looking at it from every plausible pint of view and by seriously considering the strongest case made for each of these diverse viewpoints.  In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville says:  "No society can exist without dogmatic beliefs; that is, opinions which men take on trust without explanation.  For any society to prosper it is essential that the minds for the citizens should be rallied and held together by some leading ideas ... and that could never happen if each one undertook to make up his mind about everything himself and to pursue truth only along roads that he himself had cleared."

Mill's proposition is a fine ideal definition of the process of liberal education.  But Mill thought, problematically, I believe, that this ideal could be the operative principle for an entire civil society. Tocqueville's proposition explains why there never has been such a society or body of citizens.  Every human community has need for some indoctrination of beliefs and sentiments — in the harsh language with which Tocqueville chooses to confront us — some dogmatically held convictions. 

In our case civic convictions have been instilled by reverential teaching about the Founders and the Constitution, by symbols — like the flag — and by music such as God Bless America, America the Beautiful and the like.  In other words, no community can do without non—rational or sub—rational means of making us feel that we are a We.  It follows that the deeply reflective mind will (often enough) find itself in opposition to or meet with resistance — sometimes even hostility — from the larger society, whose members are not, for the most part, intensely devoted to rational inquiry.  In my opinion it is an unhelpful utopianism to deny this less—than—pleasing reality.

Now Academic Freedom is important for both kinds of education but more so for liberal education.  It is, we can say, indispensably related to the liberal arts — the humanities and social sciences especially — while its relation to civic education is more ambiguous.  What I'm implying might now be apparent to you:  in elementary school and high school the inspiration of devotion to fundamental American precepts should have the predominant role; the critical questioning — the encouragement of doubt — about these fundamentals has a subordinate role. 

At the University or College these priorities are reversed.  How would one teach the Declaration of Independence in secondary school?  Probably there are various interesting answers to that question among you.  I'm suggesting that the principles of the Declaration not be presented as just one ideology among many, or simply as the self—serving ideology of a rising bourgeois class, and that the students not be confronted with the fiercely debunking arguments of a Marx or a Nietzsche, at least in full force.  Perhaps in an advanced honors seminar or the like, one could begin to do that.

In College, students may well be confronted with Marx's stinging attack on the Doctrine of the Rights of Man, with Charles Beard's debunking account of our Founders' motivation as economically self—serving and with the Nietzschean denunciation of Equality as the producer of shrunken little mediocrities.  For the function of the University is not to reinforce beliefs and identities, but to inquire about what's true or valid with as much intellectual integrity as we can muster.  That is Academic Freedom at work in the development of the disposition to reasoned inquiry.

But the subject is more complicated.  Promotion of reasoned inquiry is one great purpose of higher education.  Another, suggested by the word "higher," is encouragement of appreciation for excellence — or, if that term seems too highfalutin' — appreciation for the most serious, deeply probing ideas in works of philosophy, history, even political science, and the most elevated works of art.  This (apart from the important vocational purpose) was a generally accepted aspiration until challenged by a radical cultural and moral relativism in recent decades. 

Does the goal of promoting an appreciation of excellence come into some conflict with Academic Freedom?  It might — if Academic Freedom means teaching whatever you want to teach without any collective imperatives as to content.  It is still the case that in most English courses a Shakespeare or a Faulkner will be privileged over hard—core pornography or popular thrillers.  But suppose the Professor (or the Department) wants to teach only the latter?  It would raise Academic Freedom questions if the Provost or the Curricular Policy Committee were to intrude very much into the content of these courses.  Yet if excellence is not privileged or emphasized in higher education, where, in this free—for—all material society of ours, will students find the inspiration to respect and pursue what is "higher"?

Here is another problem.  In 1967 the AAUP added to its original statement on the Rights of Professors a statement on "the Rights of Students".  The Professor is urged to "encourage free discussion, inquiry and expression" in the classroom.  But what if the Professor wants to indoctrinate the students with a certain viewpoint or social agenda?  (Even the 1915 Report admonished the Professor not to do so.)  It is hardly a thing unheard—of for a teacher to treat the class as if it were an assembly of partisans getting hyped—up and tooled—up for a political campaign. 

The great sociologist Max Weber had an answer for this sort of thing:  it's the distinction between facts and values. "Values" or evaluation have no place in the classroom, which is the place only for analysis of facts or causes and effects.  The Professor can say:  "If you want 'X', research has shown that 'Y' is the most effective means to that end," but he or she cannot comment on the desirability or worth of that end. 

I doubt that such moral neutrality or abstraction is wholly possible, but insofar as it is possible, I don't think it constitutes a liberal education.  That education is, to paraphrase Hamlet, an opening of the students' minds to "things never dreamt of" within the relatively narrow outlooks they usually bring to College.  And this is an opening of the mind to questions about ends and values at least as much as about means and facts. To explore ends and values one must hear thought—provoking arguments and counter—arguments about them.  The alternative to indoctrination in the classroom is not the Weberian one — but a classroom atmosphere in which the debate of divergent perspectives (relevant to the subject) is encouraged and alternative viewpoints are represented in assigned readings.  The ultimate aim is not diversity for its own sake, but a spirit of reflection — as distinguished from one—sided partisanship — even about the most controversial, value—laden subjects.  It is an important lesson that one can really think — not just emote — about evaluations, moral and political.

Of course, as a teacher of things political and legal, I have my opinions and commitments. The point isn't that these must be kept altogether out of it, but that I must always subordinate them to the educational goal — helping students develop that vital and difficult capacity that I'm calling "the spirit of reflection."  If they don't get any of this in the Academy, where, amidst the pervasive partisanship of this world, will they get it?  To put it in terms of Academic Freedom, if the student has some right to "free discussion," this means that alternative viewpoints are to be welcomed — as long as the student is willing to offer some reasoned argument and listen to argument.

The AAUP documents never quite grapple with the discomforting fact that tensions can exist between Academic Freedom claims for the teacher and for the students.  Maybe we can.  We might consider what, if anything, the Institution as such may do about a propagandizing teacher.

Some people regard Academic Freedom as a king of absolute (for example, Professors Kors and Silverglate in their admirable book, The Shadow University).  I have offered, basically, two reasons why the absolutist position cannot be wholly valid.  Here is a third reason.  A University (as the word implies) or a College (as the word implies) is a kind of community, and, as such, it cannot live without some commonly binding sentiments, aspirations, and standards of conduct.  Nowadays these are often called "rules of civility," and they are frequently abused in the despotic ways that we call political correctness.  Jefferson said, with regard to his University of Virginia:  "The rock which I most dread is the discipline of the institution."  Yet Jefferson acknowledged the need for standards of civility, though moderately enforced and pursuant to the educational purpose.

Obviously I'm trying to stake out a middle ground.  On the one hand, this middle ground strongly opposes the kind of rigorous speech codes that we see on many campuses — rules penalizing "offensive verbal behavior," as defined by the persons or groups that dislike it.  I am also worried about heavy—handed, ideological "sensitivity training" programs imposed on entering students and even on Professors for ideas expressed in class.  As practiced in some institutions, these programs tend to establish what the Supreme Court calls a "pall of orthodoxy."  Together these highly subjective speech codes and these indoctrination sessions function to oppress the life of the mind by rendering some subjects and viewpoints off limits and virtually undiscussible.

On the other hand, the middle ground rejects demands, made in the name of Academic Freedom, for toleration of any and all forms of "expression."  The libertarian demand for a verbal "anything goes" seems to derive from one or both of these two assumptions:  that freedom of self—expression is what higher education is all about, and that restriction of any expression whatsoever puts us on an inevitable slippery slope.  But the University cannot simply be about self—expression; some kinds of utterances, for example, hateful invectives, undermine the enterprise of higher education.  And I believe that the slippery slope is not inevitable in an educational institution that is thoughtful about its mission and cognizant of appropriate distinctions.

The most important distinction is between the argument of a viewpoint and the hurling of epithets at individuals or groups.  While it is not always a simple matter to draw the line between the vigorous argument of a viewpoint and an outburst of hatred, is it really beyond the capability of educators to make that distinction with tolerable clarity?  If we can't, then what is higher education about?

The University should not engage in "viewpoint discrimination."  But you may still ask, what counts as the exposition of a viewpoint?  For some of us, any expression whatever should count.  That, however, is untenable.  Someone coming to class stark naked might be intending thereby to make a statement (against bourgeois conformity), but we don't allow it — because it is not an inquiry and because it disrupts inquiry.  Also disruptive of the educational enterprise are fighting words such as (my apologies) "faggot," "whore," "n****r" or "f———ing racist" — where these abusive expletives are used in public.  The rules should apply equally to all disruptive epithets.  But of course members of the academy must be equally free to discuss and make arguments for or against public policies concerning affirmative action, gay rights, foreign policy and other highly controversial subjects.  That's the freedom which really counts.

When civic education and liberal education are at their best, the ideal result is a type of person who has convictions or loyalties and is yet thoughtfully open to the large questions bearing on our convictions and loyalties.  This delicately balanced mind, neither dogmatically judgmental nor relativistically non—judgmental, is a precious virtue to which the academy, at its best, contributes.  It is the ultimate defense against fanaticism on the one hand and apathy on the other.  And it is a fragile virtue, constantly in need of our support.