By John von Heyking, December 8, 2008 in Uncategorized
I previously examined (and here) Anthony Kronman’s argument that the “research ideal” is antithetical to the liberal arts and humanities because its “regulative ideal” of increasing specialization makes asking the general question of life’s meaning “unprofessional.” Moreover, “life” is necessarily a nonsense term under the “research ideal” because the researcher does not experience his or her existence as a meaningful unit one might call a “life.” The researcher, like the faceless bureaucrat, is an anti-individual.
The anti-individual reappears in Kronman’s discussion of political correctness, but he also provides a useful way of moving beyond political correctness. Kronman clarifies the challenge the humanities and liberal arts face, and helps us see how to find the place in the modern university to ask the great questions that liberal education has always asked.
In the United States, “diversity” became simultaneously politically and academically legitimated when the Justice Lewis Powell of the Supreme Court ruled affirmative action programs are only constitutional if they are taken to promote diversity, which, in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case, meant racial diversity, but has now expanded to include numerous other forms. Powell judged that not only should universities promote diversity as a way of incorporating minorities as a matter of fairness, but diversity now became a goal of education. For the sake of politics and ideology, the Court explained to universities what their goal should be in providing an education. Kronman observes that Powell’s justification not only gave universities cover to maintain affirmative action, but it also gave humanities departments especially a key role in promoting it. After all, what might an African-American or Latino chemistry experiment look like? One might say that just as a Department of Theology at a Roman Catholic university promotes Roman Catholic doctrine, so too do humanities departments serve the state doctrine of diversity.
The problem with diversity has less to do with it suddenly tying the goal of liberal education to ideological and political liberalism, and more to do with the fact that diversity is utterly antithetical to the goal of liberal education, which is the liberation of the intellect from ignorance and, for Kronman, liberation from fate. Students “engage” with one another not in a conversation of shared enquiry, “facing the same eternal questions that every human being confronts and struggling together to meet them,” but as representatives of whatever groups with which they identify: “The individuals exchanging views cease to be individuals, and their exchange ceases to be a conversation” (Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale University Press, 2007), 151). Indeed, the types of identity acceptable to contemporary diversity advocates– race, gender, ethnicity (and sexual orientation, which Kronman does not discuss) – are fixed at birth or can be changed with only the greatest difficulty. What passes for debate and conversation ends up producing dispirited students who understandably feel like “the other” does not understand them, nor possibly can. The more aggressive take their despair and turn it into moralistic finger pointing as a way of guilting “the other” for treating them like “the other.”
This means identity politics produces a more monistic campus than found at a religious college or university. After all, one can always change one’s religion. Necessarily, then, diversity education becomes a form of finger pointing and instead of promoting genuine diversity, ends up dividing the world into the binaries of oppressor-oppressed or white male and everybody else. Instead of serving the liberal education goal of liberation, diversity is a form of moralism; it produces a dispirited, guilt-ridden anti-individual instead of a thoughtful individual capable of friendship and genuine liberation of the intellect.
Even so, diversity advocates do not appeal to racialism, gender determinism, and what not so much as appeal to the apparent spectacle that the aggregate of individual identities (which, in fact, are not individual) creates. The moralistic point of diversity is to assert “constructivism,” a way of thinking that views the whole of reality as “an artifact constructed by the human beings who inhabit it” (181). Claims of “right by nature” or “essence” are dismissed as cloaking interests of class, wealth, race, gender, and so on: “For a constructivist, all claims of this sort are projections onto the human world of a false necessity that belies the true generative freedom of the activity of meaning-making from which this world derives its very existence as a realm of meanings” (181).
Constructivism sits uneasily with the individual claimants of diversity who view the identities in roughly “essentialist” ways. For instance, few gay activists claim their sexual orientation is as arbitrary as constructivism would suggest it is. Even so, constructivism serves the collective interests of these claimants. Moreover, it serves as a faux-liberation of the will over one’s unchosen identity. One might be “stuck” with one’s identity, but one always has the will. This form of “liberation” apes the liberation of liberal education, which is one not of the will over identity (as rooted in the body), but one of intellect over ignorance. From this perspective, the polarity of unchosen identity and will perpetuates ignorance.
Kronman provides a helpful way of criticizing constructivism and why it fails to promote the humanities. In doing so, he maps a route out of political correctness that can help the cause of liberal education.
Before offering his two arguments against constructivism, he suggests the claim that constructivists are nihilists is ineffective because constructivists deflect those criticisms as interest-driven. However, Kronman overlooks the deeper point of these criticisms that they point out the hypocrisy of the constructivists who simultaneously affirm and deny truth. Even so, that criticism is also ineffective against a way of thinking that appears to ignore the principle of noncontradiction, and therefore implicitly takes hypocrisy as a virtue.
Kronman suggests two internal criticisms of constructivism are more effective. As we shall see, they are also more Socratic in so far as they begin with the premises of constructivism and demonstrate why the conclusions do not go where the advocates wish they would.