Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Origin of Radicalism and the Descent of Man

Overwhelming evidence attests to the liberal tilt on our college campuses. Studies show that the faculty at most mainstream institutions are overwhelmingly registered with the Democratic party and give a disproportionate share of their political donations to left-leaning candidates. A recent study of donations by faculty at Princeton University during the current Presidential election season shows that every faculty donation went to a Democratic candidate. Were such unanimity to manifest itself for conservative candidates at an academic institution, one can be certain that our cultural elites would decry such lack of diversity.

Anecdotal evidence everywhere further attests not only to the liberalism of most “mainstream” faculty, but the disproportionate share of radical professors in our humanities and social sciences. Innumerable stories have been circulated of aggressive efforts to “destabilize” gender, to question “normativity,” to challenge backward institutions such as marriage and family, to encourage students to break out of pre-conceived social notions they may have inherited from parents and community. A recent column in my campus’s newspaper, The Hoya, reflects this sort of radicalism. In the column, philosophy professor Mark Lance introduces himself thusly:

"I’m an anarchist, a rationalist, a feminist, a man, a pragmatist, an evangelical agnostic, a friend, a philosopher, a parent, a teacher, a committed partner of one other person and a nonviolent revolutionary. These labels are all, to different degrees, important to me; they define my sense of self. You could call them my identities, but all are “works in progress,” which is to say that the label stays roughly the same, but my sense of what it means changes and grows. (For example, I still have no idea what I mean by identifying as a man, though over the years I’ve figured out many things I don’t mean. Some days, I wish that one would drop off the list.)"

The passage is a predictable and typical expression one finds in academia that the one objectionable part of our identities is that one actually given by nature. This is the one unbearable aspect of identity, because it is not chosen or willed.

Conservatives are often satisfied to register their righteous anger and indignation at this state of affairs, and have tactically adopted the language of victimhood and demands for diversity as a way of combating this left-wing hegemony. This may be politically effective and may in fact help raise awareness of the current campus culture to potential supporters outside the academy. However, these arguments are only tactical at best, and fundamentally obscure deeper investigation into why this state of affairs has come to pass and what would be required to begin a more fundamental reform of higher education.

The answer may in fact be discomfiting to many conservatives. Conservatives would like to attribute the radicalism to a foreign contagion, and in particular the incursion of French and German philosophy into a once pristine American curriculum. A thinker with no less authority and insight than Allan Bloom pointed toward the influence of Nietzsche, and subsequently Weber and Heidegger, as nefarious influences who subtly infiltrated nihilist philosophical beliefs into American campuses and created the American intellectual Left.

There is doubtless much to this argument, but it tends to neglect – perhaps willfully – a potent influence that is a more native vintage, and one of considerable power and status in the academy. The culprit underlying much contemporary radicalism, I submit, is modern science.

This would appear to be an absurd assertion on the face of it; after all, it was Alan Sokal, a physicist, who exposed the profound anti-scientism and anti-rationalism of much of our radical professoriate in his publication of a comically jargon-filled and wholly parodic “po-mo” essay that was published by the postmodern journal “Social Text.” Our postmodernists especially seem to be the epitome of anti-rationalism and a force for mysticism and obfuscation.

However, in at least two respects, we can perhaps better understand the tailwinds that the reign of our contemporary sciences have provided for the Left and radical ascension in our humanistic and social-science disciplines. In the first instance, the Humanities has been historically the heart of the liberal arts education, an education that confidently understood itself as providing the cultivation of young adults through exposure to the best that has been written and thought. Professors in the humanities were curators of ideas and transmitters of an extraordinary tradition: men and women who taught texts written by geniuses like Homer, Dante and Shakespeare genuinely honored and loved these texts and the authors who wrote them, and understood these books to contain profound teachings about the nature of being human and the way in which we might pursue the good life. They approached these texts with a sense of humility and gratitude, cognizant that they were not capable of producing works of such grandeur, insight and majesty, but content that they were essential conduits in assuring that future generations would come to a similar appreciation and love for these great books and the contributions they made to forming human character.

There can be no doubt that social forces, particularly arising from egalitarian demands of the 1960s, worked to undermine this self-confident understanding of the humanities. However, also at play was a change in the internal ordering of the University itself: increasingly the humanities were regarded as antiquated and a luxury that allowed students to add a touch of class to cocktail party conversations. Instead, Universities were beginning to retool themselves in the image of a nation enamored of science, technology, and progress. Universities increasingly turned to the Federal government for significant amounts of funding, almost all of it directed toward the natural sciences. The natural science model – the discovery of new knowledge – increasingly became the model for the university writ large. Faculty who sought tenure at research universities – that is, our elite public and private institutions – were required to produce “original research” published in refereed journals and academic presses. All graduate students – future professors – are trained at such institutions, so eventually this ethic trickled down to the liberal arts colleges as well. Strong pressures for innovation and a preference for “progress” supplanted the respect for tradition and the suspicion that there was “nothing new under the sun.” In the midst of this transformation of the modern university from repositories of the collected wisdom of the ages (in which the library was the center of the university) to the scientific model in which “creating knowledge” was the key to the kingdom (in which the laboratory supplanted the library) the humanities lost its very reason for existence. Of what value were disciplines such as Classics, History, and Philosophy in such a changed environment? A profound crisis of confidence ensued.

It was into this breach that modern radicalism found a fertile foothold. Philosophies that preached “the hermeneutics of mistrust,” that taught readers that authors under study were malevolent and their texts mere collections of prejudice, and that questioned even the idea that texts any longer contained a “teaching” at all, tragically offered the humanities the possibility of proving themselves relevant in the terms set by the modern scientific approach. Faculty could demonstrate their progressiveness by showing the recidivism of the texts; they could “create knowledge” by demonstrating their own superiority to the authors they studied; they could demonstrate their anti-traditionalism by attacking the very books that were the basis of their discipline. By adopting a jargon only comprehensible to few “experts” they could emulate the tiny priesthood of scientists – wholly betraying the original mandate of the humanities to demonstrate the universal accessibility and appeal of the great books. Professors in the humanities showed their academic relevance by destroying the thing they once taught out of admiration.

There is a second, and perhaps more worrisome resemblance between our radicals and the modern sciences, and it is reflected in the sentiments expressed by my colleague, Professor Lance, in his wish no longer to have his “identity” sullied by his manhood. The modern sciences and our radicals share a deep hostility to nature and have both worked to undermine or transform the existence of nature as a governing and fundamental truth. Dating back to the seminal works of Francis Bacon and other late-Renaissance thinkers, modern science was conceived as the effort to exert human mastery over nature, to alter its forms in order to provide for the “relief of man’s estate.” Our comfort and desires became the rationale for the alteration, manipulation, or destruction of nature.

While there can be no disputing the fact that modern science has given us countless bounties – above all the cure for diseases that once killed remorselessly – there can also be no gainsaying that science itself is incapable of discerning any limits to its ability to exert control of, mastery over, and manipulation of nature. Among the aims that Bacon stated as a desideratum for the modern scientific endeavor was the defeat of mortality itself – a feature of humankind that many of the greatest texts of our humanist tradition teach us is the very essence of our humanity, our agony and our glory alike. Bacon likened the potential accomplishments of the sciences to the powers of God, and argued that science might successfully reverse the very conditions of the Fall in Eden (a sin that was the result of the desire for forbidden knowledge). In our contemporary biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the mapping of human consciousness, we grow increasingly confident of our assumption of these godlike powers, and look to a future when humans will govern their own evolution toward ever more perfect forms of life. A book title by Princeton molecular biologist Lee Silver speaks volumes: Remaking Eden, the conclusion of which asserts that we are on the verge of discovering that it is humanity that creates itself.

In a similar manner, our radicals in the Humanities reject not only the books they once taught, but the very idea of humanity. They consider all natural features of human beings to be mere constructions, social constructs that effectively cease to exist when they have been “deconstructed.” Sex becomes gender, family becomes “living arrangement,” community becomes “the social.” They seek to do through deconstruction what our scientists attempt in the test tube: the transformation of humanity into something wholly different. What is rejected in both approaches is a conception of limits based in nature.

A better understanding of the deeper sources of modern radicalism suggests that a re-ordering of our Universities will not occur as a result of the introduction of a few conservative faculty for the sake of “diversity.” What is needed is a deeper understanding, and ultimately debate, about whether humanity and humanism is defensible. If so, the humanities will by necessity require strengthening and a serious discussion will be needed about the role and status of science in our society. In the end, I do not argue on behalf of a neo-Luddite rejection of science on behalf of primitivism; rather, the place of the sciences should rightly be conceived within the context of the liberal arts, rather than vice-versa. Thus ordered, our humanities could instruct and guide our scientists, helping them and ourselves to understand and accept limits of what is in accord with our fundamental humanity. At the moment the situation is wholly opposite: our professors of Humanities reject the idea of humanity, and as a result, are able to offer no defense against contemporary efforts to alter, transform, and “progress” beyond our humanness. It will be an exceedingly difficult debate to win, but one that is necessary to have before we cease to retain enough of our humanity to understand what is choiceworthy and noble about being human.

The paramount reason that this debate cannot even occur is because our professors of humanities have ceased to believe in humanity – rather, they currently embrace our “identity” as “the subject.” They must be taught anew what it is to be a human and from those lessons regain the confidence to defend tradition and nature which constitute what it is to be human. They must again become willing to learn from the books that they now reject can be the source of any wisdom. Humility and the avoidance of hubris is among the first, and most permanent, of those lessons.

10 comments:

FLG said...

I actually have a way bigger problem with Lance than you can ever imagine. I can't even bring myself to type a coherent response to some of his pieces, and I am glad you could. I am still pondering the idea that science is the root of the problem. That is Arendt, no? I mistakenly attributed one of your points to Arendt, when it was Strauss.

Don't worry, if I have an issue with what you write, I will still let you know.

rjp said...

"While there can be no disputing the fact that modern science has given us countless bounties – above all the cure for diseases that once killed remorselessly"

On the contrary, this can be disputed and a good case made against this position (the accounting has not been done). Hasn't Berry done some of this? I conjecture that it is not "modern medical science" that has made great inroads against disease but...plumbing. Another point: who has defined these "bounties" as beneficial? Why, the capitalist ideologues. And this ideology is not morally neutral but deliberately anti-Christian.

Patrick Deneen said...

FLG -
I know you'll attentively and assiduously point out my shortcomings. I'll only warn you that it's a full time job. Arendt is one place you could look for something of this argument, but there are better places, among them the work of Wendell Berry (you think I set you off, just dip into Berry a bit). You might look, more recently, at a book by Anthony Kronman called "Education's End" that explores some of these themes in greater length. As for Prof. Lance - I know what you mean, but this essay wasn't really about Prof. Lance so much as citing him as illustrative of my broader argument.

RJP -
You're quite right to caution against the unreflective celebration of longevity-inducing medicines, particularly inasmuch as these developments undergird the belief that longevity is the greatest and most coveted human good. While I am grateful and glad that my children are likely not to be stricken with polio or have much better than even odds of surviving measles (and I count these as goods not in the name of capitalist ideology, but as a father and a Christian), I think we must also defend the dignity of a good death and the proper understanding that one generation must dutifully and even joyfully make way for the next.

By the way, Berry's not particularly a big fan of plumbing (he finds the recycling of waste water into drinking water to be disturbing, as we all should), so maybe "hygeine" is what you're after here.

Eric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JacksonvillePat said...

What particularly catches my attention is:

"In the midst of this transformation of the modern university from repositories of the collected wisdom of the ages (in which the library was the center of the university) to the scientific model in which “creating knowledge” was the key to the kingdom (in which the laboratory supplanted the library) the humanities lost its very reason for existence."

I was recently thinking how medicine was once an apprenticeship with careful choosing and nurturing of the next generation of physicians. Suddenly the nature of medicine changed and the teaching of modern medicine shifted to the modern university. We have more to offer regarding treatment of physiological condition then at any time in history, yet our patients have never been more unhappy with physicians.

Through centuries physicians were cherished and valued members of the community; despite the fact that physicians had few resources and had little to offer regarding the management of serious physical ailments. What did people find so appealing in a physician who had almost no resources, and interventions that were usually futile or capable of only accelerated the patient's demise?

Today modern medicine seems to have almost unlimited resources. Rapid diagnostics is possible with sophisticated laboratory tests and imaging studies. Complex interventions are possible with microscopic surgery and machines to temporarily assume the function of complex organs. New medications eradicate many deadly diseases and often significantly delay the progression of others. Yet our patients have never been less pleased with physicians.

Perhaps something was lost and the modern academic admission process that reviews standardized test scores, grade point averages, and the references of professors that rarely see the candidate an anything other then as a face in a sea of other students in a lecture hall. Perhaps the modernization of medicine has transformed a warm noble art to a cold analytical science. Or perhaps the industrial revolution has made the argument " Is Medicine an Art or a Science" irrelevant because now it a business.

I believe my patients want time to talk with their physician about the less analytical aspects of medicine, what we once considered this the Art of Medicine, perhaps this is the humanity of Medicine which is being lost.
Unfortunately, our business managers consider this a non-productive use of time and money is made from volume, we don't want anything to slow down the assembly line.

Unfortunately the art of medicine "the physician's library of knowledge" was retained in a guild (which is dying). The technology will soon be irrelevant as new technology replaces the old, and perhaps more then a 2/3 of my basic medical school science is now obsolete or irrelevant. Is an important aspect of medicine becoming a lost art?

rjp said...

Okay, hygiene:showers and sewer systems. Where did you find that about Berry's aversion to recycled water?

1) Does science have a purpose? If so, what is it?
2) Does man have a purpose? If so, what is it?
3) What did Christ say about the importance of science in attaining the Kingdom of Heaven? (Blessed are those with a PhD in astrophysics. They shall inherit Venus, Mars and the other planets, because they have left the Earth a nuclear and biological waste).

Caryl said...

You bring up an important point here. More than science it is neo-Protestantism in which anti-nature is made equivalent to "grace." The rejection of Aquinas ("Grace supports Nature and brings it to perfection") is the real source of these follies.

Anonymous said...

I guess I still don’t understand why the fact that Lance's subject happens to be “the self” makes his words less important or less relevant to a common understanding of "our world and ideas." I fear the opposite of what you mention in this posting—that people act certain ways just because: “I’m a man, and so I have to act like X, Y, Z.” It seems decidedly “un- human” to me to not consider these things. The classics become stale if we refuse to revisit them with a new eye; and, if a classic is a classic, it will emerge through any rounds of deconstruction with its central message intact.

Kevin Jones said...

"The classics become stale if we refuse to revisit them with a new eye; and, if a classic is a classic, it will emerge through any rounds of deconstruction with its central message intact."

I wonder how many students have even visited the classics with an "old eye."

Too often criticism and analysis is made the first step, often preceding familiarity and imaginative sympathy with the material.

While the classics will survive plenty of bored college professors, it is not clear that the university will.

prophet said...

I wonder if you are familiar with C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man?

He makes a remarkably similar point (arising out of the issues of his own time, of course).

To quote:

"We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may 'conquer' them. We are always conquering Nature, because 'Nature' is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them; the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same."

By "nature", of course, we may today understand "science", our so-called scientific understanding, quest to ever greater scientific 'conquests', and the illusion of control over the physical world (nature) we inhabit. . . .

And yet, we don't get over our Dasein - the fact that we exist, in our unique singularity, with certain "givens" we have no control over and can not divest ourselves of, simply by wishing it so - or not so. Like the manhood poor Mark Lance wishes would "drop off the list."

By the way, I would note that the Edenic prohibited knowledge was knowledge of good and evil - not just "knowledge", generally - which I think is a big distinction and a strong defense against anti-rationalism.