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P.C. on the Right

By Eugene Goodheart

Our educational system has been a site of contention between the left and the right, between conservatives and liberals. It is fair to say that major institutions of higher learning have been the intellectual property of the left in recent decades. Their besetting sin is political correctness, a disposition to view a range of issues such as race and gender from a moralizing left political perspective. Disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences, in particular the humanities, now tend to be oriented toward present and future, the intellectual and artistic traditions of the past given short shrift. There is much more to say on the subject, and I have said it in previous writing. What interests me here is the conservative critical response to left political correctness. On the negative side, conservatives have a case, particularly when they experience intimidation in expressing their views or when their political orientation is a mark against their chances of being hired for a position in the academy or when the curriculum and its syllabi are skewed to represent one side of the political spectrum. There are, of course, institutions, generally small colleges, that are conservative in orientation. What do they have on offer? I have been a recipient of publications from Hillsdale College, a conservatively oriented college, in which lectures delivered at the institution are printed in abbreviated versions. The president of the college, Larry P. Arnn, delivered a lecture titled, “A Rebirth of Liberty and Learning,” in which he contrasts the traditional core curriculum of the college with “the turn taken by modern education” as exemplified by the Teacher’s Guide for Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition, published in 1961 by the College Board—the influential organization that, among other things, administers the SAT exam.” What he finds deplorable is the following. “[O]bjectivity” and “factuality” have lost their preeminence. Instruction has become ‘less a matter of transmittal of an objective and culturally sanctioned body of knowledge,’ and more a matter of helping individuals learn to construct their own realities…Contemporary educators no doubt hope students will shape values and ethical systems as they engage in…interactions [within a cultural community] acquiring principles that will help them live in a mad, mad world” (emphasis added by Arnn)).

Arnn is right to challenge the dismissal of “objectivity” and “factuality” as well as the facile and silly formulation about students constructing their own realities and shaping values and ethical systems in a mad, mad world. He is also right to challenge the view that the main purpose of higher education is career preparation. But what he has to offer as an alternative is a narrow and rigid ideological version of a core education. His answer to radical skepticism about “objectivity” and “factuality” is not a counter affirmation of the terms, but rather an affirmation of “absolute truths” via a take down of the following passage from President Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope: “Implicit in [the Constitution’s] structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism,’ any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations in a single unalterable course…” (emphasis added by Arnn). It is embarrassing to have to point out to the president of an institution of higher learning that absolute truth and objectivity are not synonyms. Science, which exalts objectivity, resists all claims to absolute truth precisely for the reason that Obama provides. No idea or theory or philosophy is infallible. To make the claim for the infallibility and absoluteness of a truth is to petrify thought and lead to intellectual tyranny. No one has the right in a democracy to lock the future into his or her version of what the future should be. Here are the compatible views of Jefferson and Hamilton, who disagreed about many things, of the Constitution. Jefferson: “Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not…A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.” According to the distinguished historian Clinton Rossiter, “From time to time Hamilton could not resist the temptation, so natural to the insider, to buttress constitutional argument with a knowing reference to ‘intent’ of the Framers. For the most part, however, he felt that each generation of Americans should shape the clauses of the Constitution to its own needs, rather than try to read the thoughts of men who had passed from the scene—and whose thoughts, in any case, had been tentative or ill-formed about many crucial words in that charter.”

Conservatives embrace the Constitution as a prized possession and accuse liberals of infidelity to its principles. So one would expect of academic conservatives scrupulosity in their interpretation and understanding of the document. “How,” Arnn asks in rhetorical astonishment,” did Obama come to believe something so foreign to America’s heritage as the idea that in the name of liberty we must reject absolute truths?” Let us put aside the insidious aspersion that Obama is a foreigner (with a forged birth certificate?). The answer is simple. Nowhere in the Constitution, which affirms freedom of speech and, one assumes, of thought as well, is there any affirmation of absolute truth. The charter was a strenuous exercise in compromise, for instance, between those who wanted a strong central executive and those who advocated states rights. Where they agreed was precisely in allowing for an open, alterable future when they allowed for amendments to the Constitution. I am surprised that Arnn would assert that “the Constitution receives its authority from the Declaration of Independence,” (and its embrace of the principle of equality) in the light of Justice Antonin Scalia”s rebuke, delivered in a lecture, “A Matter of Interpretation,” at Princeton University, to those who hold the view. “If you want aspirations, you can read the Declaration of Independence, with its pronouncements that ‘all men are created equal’ with ‘inalienable rights’ that include ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’…There is no such philosophizing in our Constitution, which unlike the Declaration of Independence…is a practical and pragmatic charter of government.” Though my sympathies are with Arnn on this issue, I believe that Scalia is closer to an understanding of the relationship between the two documents. (Frankly, I doubt that Arnn grasps the egalitarian implications of what he is saying about the authority of the Declaration of Independence.) What I find most distressing is Arnn’s presumption that he has knowledge of the Constitution superior to that of Obama when it is clearly not the case. It is doubly distressing in the realization that the source of the presumption is a person who believes in absolute truth and his possession of it. A core education that necessarily includes a study of the Western tradition from let’s say Plato and Homer to the present will include contending ideas, theories and imaginative conceptions each of which can hardly claim to be an absolute truth. Where is the absolute truth between Voltaire and Rousseau, between Hume and Kant, between Hegel and Kierkegaard or between Jefferson and Hamilton?

A significant portion of Arnn’s lecture is devoted to an attack on Obamacare for the inordinate length of the Act, which is invidiously contrasted with the elegant brevity of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance and the Homestead Act. Brevity may be a virtue in prose, but it may also be a source of confusion and puzzlement in a legal document—as in the Second Amendment of the Constitution in which it is by no means clear to whom the right to bear arms refers. More detail would have been salutary. In any event, not a word in Arnn’s diatribe about what the Affordable Health Act hopes to accomplish: the insurance of the uninsured. Not a word about an alternative from his side, economically and elegantly phrased. Not a word, because a concern with the uninsured is not on the conservative agenda. In other publications that I have received from Hillsdale College, a reprinted lecture disingenuously complains about the taxes imposed by the federal government as a “burden upon the workingman.” Nothing said about the low tax burden on the super rich. Another lecture has as its target the regulations of the financial system by Dodd-Frank, placing almost exclusive blame for the housing crisis and the financial meltdown in 2007 on the government supported agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for their lending practices. Nothing said about the practices of the large private banks.

The lectures are supposed to give us a glimpse of the kind of core, i.e. dogmatically conservative, education students will receive at the college, an education remote from the disinterested pursuit of the best that has been thought and said, which used to be the ideal of a liberal education. The students submitted to the Hillsdale curriculum will emerge as politically correct as those who emerge from the other side of the political spectrum—only with a different content.

From January, 2014

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