When American universities taught common sense

When Lord Acton visited Harvard in 1853, he found that the philosophy of the college was common sense.  Acton wrote that by "the third year Reid becomes a text-book."  The Reid whose philosophy became the focus of the junior year of study at Harvard was Thomas Reid, the author of An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764) and the founder of the philosophy of common sense realism.  Harvard students who wanted to continue studying philosophy were offered the opportunity to study the works of Dugald Stewart and other thinkers in the tradition Reid had founded. 

Dugald Stewart (1753–1828) was the most influential philosopher of common sense realism after Reid.  He was admired by Thomas Jefferson, and he had a considerable influence in America.  Another common sense philosopher who exerted a significant intellectual influence on American thought in the nineteenth century was James McCosh.  McCosh was the president of Princeton from 1868 to 1888.  McCosh Hall is named in his honor.  He published prolifically and was admired for his clear and readable style. 

Harvard and Princeton were not alone in their dedication to Reid and his followers.  In fact, common sense realism was, in the words of Arthur Herman, "virtually the official creed of the American Republic."  Allen Guelzo, in his magnificent lecture series "The American Mind" makes the point in this way: "Before the Civil War, every major [American] collegiate intellectual was a disciple of Scottish common sense realism."

In the words of James Foster, it was the "philosophical orientation ... at Princeton, Harvard and Yale, as well as newly founded colleges stretching from Rhode Island to Texas."  By the time of Acton's visit to Harvard, though it was then and is still today referred to as "Scottish" because Reid and Stewart were Scottish, America had become common sense realism's real home and the center of its continued development. 

The core idea of common sense realism is that there are self-evident truths and that self-evident truths are known to be true by means of common sense; common sense enables us to know what is self-evidently true.  Read the Founders, and you will find them constantly referring to self-evident truths.  They got their understanding of self-evidence from Reid.  Because the Founders' thinking relied on Reid's conception of self-evident truth, what Harvard and Princeton and the others were aiming at in those days was teaching American college students how to think like an American.

We have heard the words "We hold these Truths to be self-evident ..." all our lives.  To approach the Founders' understanding of self-evident truth is to approach the heart of the American founding.  Jefferson and the other Founders held that "all men are created equal" is self-evidently true.  According to Lincoln, it is "an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times."  For more than a hundred years, American colleges dedicated themselves to teaching the philosophy the Founders and Lincoln were relying on in making that declaration.

Things have changed at Harvard, Princeton, and the other ones, too.  As in the early days of the Republic, these days, they share a philosophical orientation.  That orientation goes far beyond simply rejecting the Founders' idea of self-evident truth.  Each and every variety of postmodernism rejects truth and common sense, which means that the possibility of self-evident truth is utterly excluded.  You might say Hemingway spoke for the postmodernists when he wrote of the dying writer in his story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" that it "was not so much that he lied as that there was no truth to tell."  Since they are not interested in the truth and have no truth to tell, America's tenured radicals offer instead various grievance "studies" — feminist studies, black studies, latino studies, queer studies, and so on.  The focus of those grievances is America. 

American higher education was once dedicated to teaching young Americans to think like an American.  Today, students are taught anti-Americanism.  That is the explanation for all those fabulously privileged Americans, many of whom are graduates of America's most prestigious universities, demonstrating their violent rejection of the American way of life by rioting in the streets and attacking statues of Jefferson and Washington.  They could not possibly make their anti-Americanism any clearer — and, for the most part, they were taught their anti-Americanism in American schools and universities.   

Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute.  He is the author of Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World and Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea.  Both are published by Encounter Books.   

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