In An Education for our Time, Josiah Bunting suggests that the fictional Adams College ought to hire mentors especially based on "how the candidates have lived their own lives . . . " (210).
"Universities have no business teaching students how to be good people or good citizens."
I can still remember one of my colleagues adamantly stating this opinion almost a decade ago. Now I find myself in the interesting position of having to revisit this question in my current work of reviewing and revising my university's general education curriculum. Is there really a role for character and citizen education in a general education curriculum?
I realize that many readers of this blog are advanced graduate students and those who have just finished the Ph.D., but who do not yet have full-time academic positions. As chair of my department, I typically head up our tenure-track searches as well as hire adjuncts on a semester-by-semester basis. Therefore, I thought might be beneficial for those who anticipate hitting the TT search relatively soon (in the next year or so) to consider adjunct work to bolster both your CV and your chances of landing a position in a difficult job market.
As a new academic year begins, a number of junior professors will soon be asked to serve as faculty advisors to various student clubs and organizations. There are certainly “pros” and “cons” to performing this service and, for those of you just starting out, here are some things to keep in mind.
On the last Thursday morning in July, I stood on the Lexington green with my beautiful and sagacious wife, my five very active and somewhat mischievous children, the talented Ben Cohen (acting as Paul Revere; and who also turned out to be a supporter of Hillsdale College), the vivacious Malana Salyer of Gary Gregg’s McConnell Center, and roughly twenty-seven teachers from Kentucky.
As “Paul Revere” described the battle on the commons that morning—the Lexingtonians greatly outnumbered by the advancing British—I felt immensely humbled.
I confess that after much reading and reflection it is still hard to nail down the essence of a great leader or statesman. Justice Potter Stewart’s comment on obscenity and pornography is easily applicable to statesmanship: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it.” While it may difficult to pin down the core of statesmanship, one knows it when one sees it.
Beyond Secular Reason
There was a time when liberals would decry liberalism's transformation into a tradition as a betrayal of liberalism, a reversal of the Enlightenment, a corruption of pure reason by irrational belief. Well, as Mr. DeHart points out in his excellent post, "Doing Political Philosophy after the Enlightenment's End," things have changed. We have moved “beyond secular reason.” The era of Enlightenment, modern, foundationalist, universalist, idealist liberalism has been displaced by post-Enlightenment, postmodern, anti-foundationalist, particularist, pragmatic liberalism. The most sophisticated and honest of contemporary liberal theorists have not only admitted liberalism’s traditionalist identity, but have defended it precisely as such. Tom Bridges summarizes the raison d’etre of the traditionalist liberal project:
If liberalism is to survive the collapse of Enlightenment culture, liberals must now attempt to de-universalize or contextualize their political language, to learn to explain and advocate liberal democratic moral ideals in a vocabulary that can express the particularism of liberal political norms without thereby invalidating them.
And Jeffrey Stout, perhaps the most sophisticated spokesmen for postmodern liberalism, writes:
There is much to be gained by abandoning the image of democracy as essentially opposed to tradition, as a negative force that tends by its nature to undermine culture and the cultivation of virtue. Democracy is a culture, a tradition, in its own right. . . . To put the point aphoristically and paradoxically, pragmatism is democratic traditionalism.
Enlightenment secularism is dead. As Jurgen Habermas stated in the remarkable 2004 exchange between him and the former Cardinal Ratzinger, western culture is now “post-secular.” Liberalism, due, I would argue, in part to Alasdair MacIntyre’s powerful and influential critique, now accepts that it is culturally contingent and historically particularist, that is, a tradition. The post-modern, traditionalist liberal has sloughed off the impossible burden of identifying his philosophical system with reason itself, and thus can defend liberalism in the same manner as Christians defend Christianity: as both our tradition, and the best tradition, as both good for us and for others, as historically limited in origin, embodiment, and intelligibility, but timelessly universal in scope and significance.
This traditionalist turn in contemporary thought necessitates, I think, a radical change in strategy for the Christian political philosophers. While we generally endorse integrally Christian practices and discourse, we deem it prudent to doff our particular practices and discourse whenever we depart Christian precincts. For those outside our tradition, and for the secular public sphere in general, we offer a mere translation. We secularize, intellectualize, moralize, and politicize what in our tradition is supernatural, mystical, spiritual, and theological, both in doctrine and in practice, so as to render it intelligible to non-Christians and practically effective for secular society.
This strategy appears quite reasonable, but it presupposes two fundamental ideas whose plausibility, in light of the traditionalist turn, needs to be reexamined. The first is that there is such a thing as the “secular public sphere” at all. The second is the separability of theoria and praxis, that one can effectively strain out from the concrete practices and particularist discourse of any tradition a secular, universally accessible remainder intelligible to all regardless of particular traditional allegiance.
Regarding the first: The Enlightenment claimed an ideologically neutral, universal, public world accessible to and based upon a universal public reason, abstracted from the practical and speculative particularities of any one tradition. But, as is now readily admitted by the Enlightenment’s own disciples, this claim is no longer credible. But if the Enlightenment is no longer tenable, isn’t the alternative even less so? If there is no objective, public reason, then do not all claims to truth become subject to the postmodernist “hermeneutics of suspicion,” whereby any affirmation of truth or goodness is unmasked as either mere idiosyncrasy or the will to dominate? There is a another alternative. According to MacIntyre,
Either reason is thus impersonal, universal, and disinterested or it is the unwitting representative of particular interests, masking their drive to power by its false pretensions to neutrality and disinterestedness. What this alternative conceals from view is a third possibility, the possibility that reason can only move towards being genuinely universal and impersonal insofar as it is neither neutral nor disinterested, that membership in a particular type of moral community, one from which fundamental dissent has to be excluded, is a condition for genuinely rational enquiry and more especially for moral and theological enquiry.
MacIntyre’s term for this third-way between Enlightenment rationalism and post-Enlightenment irrationalism is “tradition-constituted rationality.” It is only through active participation in particular authentic traditions that men are rendered capable of discovering and achieving their ultimate good; for it is only by going down, as it were, through a particular tradition that we rise up to universal truth. As body and soul composites, our encounters with reality are mediated by bodies, which are themselves mediated by history and culture. Even the words and concepts we use to interpret and make sense of the brute facts of reality originate and develop in what MacIntyre calls “traditions of rationality.” All men are necessarily habituated into a particular tradition, even if it is a rationally incoherent and morally defective one like the tradition of liberalism. Outside of one tradition or another coherent and accurate knowledge of man’s good is quite difficult, and perhaps impossible. We are, in MacIntyre’s improvement on Aristotle’s classic definition, “tradition-dependent rational animals,” or as Paul Griffiths puts it, we are, willy-nilly, “confessional”:
To be confessional is simply to be open about one’s historical and religious locatedness, one’s specificity, and openness that is essential for serious theological work and indeed for any serious intellectual work that is not in thrall to the myth of the disembodied and unlocated scholarly intellect.
Regarding the second problematic assumption, the separability of theoria and praxis, MacIntyre articulates a dilemma:
The theologian begins from orthodoxy, but the orthodoxy. . . becomes too easily a closed circle, in which believer speaks only to believer, in which all human content is concealed. Turning aside from this arid in-group theology, the most perceptive theologians wish to translate what they have to say to an atheistic world. But they are doomed to one of two failures. Either [a] they succeed in their translation: in which case what they find themselves saying has been turned into the atheism of their hearers. Or [b] they fail in their translation: in which case no one hears what they have to say but themselves.
Is there a solution to this dilemma? I think so, but the indispensable condition for its realization is the recognition of the inescapable intertwining of theoria and praxis in all human activity.
What this intertwining could teach us is that there is no such thing as “pluralism” in the public sphere, only the domination of one tradition over another, and no such thing as “liberalism,” if that means a sphere of reason or action that manages to escape the particularism and exclusivity of tradition. And since traditions of rationality are distinguished by the particular way they grapple with matters of ultimate concern, all traditions are ultimately religious. In short, the “religious pluralism” of American public life is an illusion. David Schindler expresses well the political upshot of this tradition-and-praxis-constituted understanding of rationality: "A nonconfessional state is not logically possible, in the one real order of history. The state cannot finally avoid affirming, in the matter of religion, a priority of either “freedom from” or “freedom for”—both of these priorities implying a theology."
As Cardinal Ruini, Cardinal Vicar of Benedict XVI, has recently argued , we, as individuals and in society, must live either as if God exists or as if God doesn’t exist—there can be no neutrality in action, including political action. This is something Christian political philosophers need to broadcast from the housetops—and in the classroom.
Or, More Reflections on Liberal Learning.
Some recent posts and comments offer useful insights about the nature of liberal learning and the obstacles to genuine liberality in the classroom. Responding to the post "Heresy on the liberal arts?", one commentor is correct to remind us that teachers should challenge all students, and not just the "promising" ones, to take up the difficult but preeminently fulfilling pursuit of truth, and hope that each one will answer the challenge.