March 2011

We'll Never Be Harvard
By Korey D. Maas on March 02, 2011

Buildings, bank accounts, and extra-curricular silliness do not a university make. The stock and trade of the university is ideas; and these are not expensive. Many of the best, in fact, are free; they’ve been bequeathed to us, no less than to Harvard, as an inheritance.

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The Wisconsin "Antis"
By Michael Schwarz on March 04, 2011

In late 1787, supporters of the recently drafted federal constitution, or “Federalists,” dominated the Pennsylvania ratifying convention.  Their opponents, however, the so-called “Anti-Federalists” (or “Antis,” as they were sometimes and derisively labeled) comprised a large minority of that convention.  Alarmed at the Federalists’ eagerness to approve the proposed constitution before Pennsylvanians had time to consider it, the Anti-Federalists simply refrained from attending the ratifying convention.  To ensure a quorum, and thus a legitimate vote, a Federalist mob rounded up the absentee Antis and forced them to return to their seats.  Pennsylvania approved the constitution by a vote of 46-23.

Today, Wisconsin Republicans, led by Governor Scott Walker, have acted on what they regard as an electoral mandate to fix, or at least attempt to fix, their state’s massive budget crisis.  Part of the Republicans’ plan includes a bill that would adversely affect public-sector unions by diminishing their members’ existing benefits and curbing their rights to collective bargaining.  The Republican-dominated state assembly has approved the bill, 51-17.  Assembly Bill 11, as it is called, now heads to the state senate, where fourteen Democrats, emboldened by massive protests, have channeled their inner Anti-Federalists and, some believe, fled the state altogether.  Wisconsin police, less fearsome perhaps than a Federalist mob, have conducted a search for the missing Democrats and come up empty.

Reasonable people can and do differ on the bill’s merits.  It is worth noting that this bill’s signature features, apart from those that affect collective bargaining--a dubious "right" in any case when one bargains against the public--include a requirement that state employees pay more of their own money into their health and pensions plans, along with freedom from compulsory union dues and even from union membership itself if the individual worker so chooses.  Given the history of labor strife in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when both trade and workingmen’s unions struggled against real injustices, the current protests, with their overheated rhetoric and thuggish tactics, seem disproportionate at best.

It is the tactics employed by the fourteen missing Democrats, however, that should alarm us more than anything.  Imagine the reaction if, during the 2009-10 health-care debates in Congress, the minority Republicans had walked out of the U.S. House of Representatives and refused to return.  They would have been universally and justifiably condemned.  Elections, in short, have consequences.  Democrats and Republicans had their say during the 2010 campaign season in Wisconsin, and the Republicans prevailed.  Now, fourteen Democrats in the state senate refuse to deliberate, and the electorate’s will is effectively thwarted.  In all of this, the merits of Assembly Bill 11 should be a secondary consideration.  Whether or not one agrees with the Republican initiatives, the sordid and inescapable truth here is that popular government cannot survive amidst such political vigilantism and extra-constitutional sabotage as these fourteen Democrats have perpetuated against the people of Wisconsin.

Pennsylvania’s Anti-Federalists of 1787 failed to defeat the Constitution.  We applaud their failure and decry their tactics.  In their loss, however, they did not cease making an argument, and in the end their contributions to the American constitutional settlement of 1787-88 would prove to be as profound as those of their Federalist opponents.   The Pennsylvania Antis printed and signed an “Address of Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention, of the State of Pennsylvania, to their Constituents,” wherein they pled their case in a reasoned and powerful way.  Radical changes to the national government, they said, required serious reflection, not haste.  The people, they said, needed a bill of rights, which the framers had neglected to include in the original document.  The Federalists’ initial momentum gave way to a groundswell of opposition in other states that nearly killed the proposed constitution.  Massachusetts ratified by a vote of 187-168.  In Virginia the margin was 89-79.  In New York it was 30-27.  All of these states, like the Pennsylvania Anti-Federalists, proposed multiple amendments, some of which, in 1791, found their way into the Bill of Rights.

The message for Wisconsin’s senate Democrats is this: if you wish to channel your inner Anti-Federalist, you should stand your ground, make your case, and hope to persuade.  In our deliberative process, you should be heard.  No matter what you perceive to be the strength of your argument, however, and no matter the result of debates, you do not have the right to subvert popular government.    

Perspectives of Presidents
By Lee Trepanier on March 07, 2011

An interesting article in Inside Higher Ed about the perspectives of university presidents is at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/survey/president2011. Most university presidents were preoccupied wtih budget problems, such as rising tuition and declining state support for public institutions. They also saw changes in tenure, the retirement of older faculty, and the outsourcing of services as challenges to be resolved. What is of interest is the fact that presidents fail to recruit faculty to help resolve some of these issues. The author of the article make it seems that faculty would be able to play a positive role in this process. However, I wonder whether this would be the case, as one only needs to recall sitting in committee meetings staffed by fellow academics.

Short Video: Gerson Moreno-Riano on Limited Government
By David Kidd on March 09, 2011

Gerson Moreno-RianoGerson Moreno-Riano, dean of the school of undergraduate studies at Regent University, answers the question, "What does the phrase, 'limited government,' mean?"

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Hadley Arkes on Justice Alito and Eight Dissenters
By Kelly Hanlon on March 09, 2011

The recent Supreme Court decision on Snyder vs. Phelps is notable for the broad approval it has enjoyed across ideological lines.  Republicans and Demoncrats, conservatives and liberals, with few exceptions, agree that the First Amendment was meant to protect the right of citizens to speak publicly and freely, no matter how odious, controversial, or hateful their speech.

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Short Video: Gordon Wood on "Empire of Liberty"
By David Kidd on March 11, 2011

Gordon S. WoodGordon Wood took some time to give a short introduction to his book, Empire of Liberty, and a lecture by the same name that he delivered at our 2010 Summer Institute at Princeton University. 

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Teaching Political Philosophy to the Millennial Generation: Is it Possible?
By Gregory S. Butler on March 13, 2011

The possibility of teaching political theory to the current generation of undergraduates certainly has its challenges.  Our students are often poorly prepared in high school for serious literary work, and are highly preoccupied with technological gadgetry, social networking, and other amusements that deliver high levels of stimulation designed to ward off the cardinal sin: boredom.  Nonetheless, I do believe that they are not only capable of learning political theory, but of doing so with relish. 

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Professor as Pimp, Education as Voyeurism?
By John von Heyking on March 15, 2011

Joseph Epstein has some sensible comments on the case of psychology professor, J. Michael Bailey, who had a woman demonstrate the use of a sex toy before his undergraduate class.  Epstein uses this “teachable moment” to reflect upon how little academic freedom means these days on account of the confusion in higher education as to the nature of education.  Instead of being intellectual authorities, universities, and their professors, have now become pimps, and university presidents their enablers.

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Academics: It's Not All About You!
By John von Heyking on March 17, 2011

“The desire for applause tends to inspire servility in anyone subject to it—and it is a short step from flattering one's public to flattering monsters who wield influence and power.”  So concludes Hillsdale College historian Paul Rahe, in his reflection on the obsequiousness of Benjamin Barber, well-known author of Jihad v. McWorld, toward Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.  Barber once described Qaddafi as a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat"; Qaddafi’s recent bombing campaigns against those rebelling against his complex autocracy seem to have led Barber to back-pedal on his previous views.

 

Rahe hints that all academics, or nearly all, seem to be implicated in some form of flattery or another to those who wield power.  Barber and other intellectuals who have been attracted to powerful tyrants represent the extreme of the intellectuals’ love of honor.  Rahe might be an exception, as Hillsdale College is one of the few institutions of higher learning in the United States that does not accept funds from state or federal governments.

 

His observation, though, is not meant to score points against his colleagues at other institutions.  Rather, he reminds academics that at some level, their activities are mortgaged by some effort to flatter power.  This flattery takes many forms:  in bending one’s research agenda to fit the imperatives of funding agencies, to appeal to donors, ideological and academic fads, in flattering students in order to seem “relevant,” or simply in their incessant and wearying demands on their friends and colleagues to hear about their professional successes. 

 

I know of one scholar who is such an “academic diva” in the way he inundates those around him in the office with his professional achievements and the public and media recognition he receives, that one day he was oblivious to the fact that one of his office neighbors was grieving on account of his wife having passed away.  When he learned of his colleague’s grief, he apologized for the noise the media made in the office, no doubt celebrating his celebrity status, and how it made his neighbor’s grief difficult.  Even when faced by the grief of another, the world still revolves around him.

 

Contemporary academics are particularly desirous of flattery.  On the one hand, they are attracted to the academic life by the ideal of research and thinking on its own sake.  There is something liberating about following the logos wherever it goes, as Socrates might say.

 

On the other hand, few understand how rigorous this life actually is.  Compounding the challenge of that Socratic idealism is the fact that contemporary research demands such a high degree of specialization that even the individual academic has to strain to understand the political, social, and cultural significance of his own research agenda.  Specialization demands what Max Weber referred to as the “ethic of supercession.”  The counsel that nineteenth-century German chemist Just von Liebig offered to a friend is illustrative:  “If you wish to become a chemist, you must be prepared to sacrifice your health.  Whoever does not ruin his health by studying will not amount to much in chemistry these days.”  Specialization requires one to destroy one’s sense of self for the sake of one’s research.

 

The intellectual’s love of honor is thus analogous of a puritan who, never having learned to practice the virtue of moderation, goes on a bender in reaction to his failed attempt at asceticism.  Put another way, the way the modern university establishes incentives for research, which reflects modernity’s drive for specialization according to Weber, demands a level of asceticism few human beings are capable of maintaining.

 

It is possible, however, to avoid the pitfalls of the academic’s ethic of supercession.  This is generally achieved by a genuine liberal education and a life dedicated to thinking about the great questions therein.  Yes, an academic may specialize, but specializing in the great questions opens the world up to one. 

 

Finally, academics need constantly to remind themselves that if they pursue the academic life because of hoped-for prestige, then they are in the wrong business.  Prestige comes as a byproduct of excellence, and can only be meaningful when bestowed by those who themselves are excellent.  And even then, you only appreciate the praise received from another because it happens to agree with your own high (and well-deserved) regard for yourself.  Until an academic can genuinely love excellence more than honor, he is well-advised to die unto the world so that he can gain life.

Ciceronian Society Conference: Day One
By Michael Schwarz on March 18, 2011

The inaugural Ciceronian Society Conference is taking place this weekend at the University of Virginia. Today's sessions included some outstanding papers on topics ranging from Jonathan Edwards to the dubious constitutionality of health care's individual mandate.  Participants from across multiple disciplines brought many different perspectives to each panel, resulting in lively discussions.  The day concluded with a sparkling roundtable on economics and human nature--by far the best such roundtable I've seen at a conference in many years.

Congratulations and special thanks to Peter Haworth for organizing this conference and inviting us to Charlottesville.  For those of us who understand and appreciate Thomas Jefferson's contributions to liberty and limited government, there's something about this picturesque place that comforts the soul.

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