Saturday, January 13, 2007

Interview with Me

An interview with conservative student newspaper on campus, "The Federalist" appeared just before the Christmas break. I don't think it's online, and, even if it were, the printed interview had to cut the whole interview more than a bit. The interview itself touches often on a campus initiative which I've begun, The Tocqueville Forum. I offer the interview here, in its entirety:

Q: There is talk of a “counter-culture” against the stale beliefs predominant on campuses developing, but few in the general college population know what the “counter-culture” is. Could you elaborate on how you see this phenomenon coming into fruition at Georgetown?

PJD: Of course it is ironic to suggest that there is the need for a “counter-culture” on today’s college campuses, since that the term gained prominence with the rise of the New Left during the 1960s. Given that college campuses are now largely dominated by faculty who came of age in the 60s, a contemporary “counter-culture” would necessarily seek to correct that now-dominant worldview. In practice, such a “counter counter-culture,” if you will, opposes several core assumptions that were rampant during the 1960s.

First, it rejects the view that patriotism, and by extension, loyalty to one’s nation, is unjustified and the “refuge of scoundrels.” Patriotism is a form of gratitude for what has made us who we are, and particularly toward those generations of patriots whose sacrifices secured the rights and privileges we enjoy today (including the privilege of attending this great University). Patriotism is the love of one’s own country, its history, its institutions and its future. It is not uncritical, but it begins with a core of sympathy toward one’s own that is born of familiarity and understanding of one’s own tradition. Contemporary critics of patriotism often enjoy the fruits of our nation more than most, and their near-automatic denunciation of America reflects not only ingratitude, but outright petulance.

Secondly, in this spirit of gratitude, such a “counter counter-culture” calls for a deeper understanding of the American constitutional order, including knowledge of American history sympathetically presented, an understanding of American politics, and an engagement with its animating political philosophy. For instance, all students should have familiarity with The Federalist Papers, in which the Framers articulated the theory behind the familiar structures of our government. Such a familiarity, in turn, demands working knowledge of Western political philosophy and, I would argue, Biblical theology, inasmuch as modern republicanism and classical liberal theory have their roots in both traditions.

Lastly, as these previous positions suggest, one of the legacies of the 1960s is the suspicion that “traditional” knowledge is necessarily the repository of sexism, colonialism, and racism. Core curricula at America’s universities were overthrown out of a belief that this action represented a liberation from the oppression of repressive authors. The result has been the complete loss of a common education in the core texts of our tradition, and the loss of our intellectual patrimony. Students have been deprived of the deepest forms of self-understanding that comes with understanding the ideas that made our culture what it is, and which made students who they are. Students today think they are self-created and that their culture arose ex nihilo. They are, in general, profoundly ignorant, and the fault lies not with them, but with their teachers. There is an irony here: the generation of the 1960s criticized the core texts of the Western tradition for various perceived failings, but at least that generation had been accorded the privilege of an education in those texts. Today’s students are deprived of that education, and thus of the ability to know whether the tradition that formed the very culture in which they live is deserving alternatively of praise or criticism. This deprivation represents a monumental betrayal of one generation toward the next.

Q: For most Georgetown students your name is synonymous to the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy. What is the Tocqueville Forum and how does it relate to the growing counter-culture?

PJD: The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy was conceived as a conscious corrective to this betrayal I have described. The intiative was named for Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who wrote the greatest book ever written about democracy and the greatest book about America, Democracy in America. Tocqueville understood that a healthy democracy rested ultimately upon the virtues of its citizenry, not institutional mechanisms nor elected representatives who did the work of government. He commended informed civic engagement and religious faith as the twin pillars of a healthy and flourishing democracy.

In this spirit that we launched the Tocqueville Forum. We believe that an institution like Georgetown should provide both a civic and liberal education. It was once assumed as a matter of course that college students received a significant education in American and Western thought, both in their primary and secondary schooling, and in the form of a deeper philosophic education once in college. That assumption no longer holds true: students by and large know very little about the American constitutional order and its roots in the Western philosophic and religious traditions. There are courses constantly taught around this University that would offer students elements of this education, but no one locus that consciously and insistently seeks to articulate the comprehensive grounds for taking such classes, and provides students a sustained picture into the many strands of thought that comprises our tradition. Students might, with luck, stumble into such a course, but lacking a comprehensive understanding of how such a course might comprise part of a liberal education, would fail to recognize the broader significance of such a course. The Tocqueville Forum is an effort to help outline such a course of study, to bring the grounds for such a course of study to the forefront, and to afford students, graduate students, faculty, alumni, and interested members of the Washington D.C. community with numerous opportunities to explore our tradition in a probing but sympathetic manner.

Q: A recent study suggested that college students do not receive enough education on the American system of government. What can be done to rectify the situation at Georgetown, a school which has increasing emphasized international education over American civic education, in order to develop graduates ready to participate in the American governmental process?

PJD: This study was conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and disclosed that entering freshmen at Georgetown know more about American politics and history, political philosophy, and free-market economics than graduating seniors! They called this, rather quaintly, “negative learning.” I, for one, do not think that colleges and Universities are appropriate places for rote learning about the facts of history and politics. Rather, it should be hoped and assumed that incoming freshmen come equipped with a good working knowledge of the basic facts of our system, and that we can provide a deeper understanding of the sources and nuances of those facts. Most critics of this study focus on perceived failings of methodology without addressing the question of whether the study is fundamentally accurate. Most faculty I know around the country are unanimous that the study “proved” what we all already know. What this study reveals to me, above all, is that there is pervasive inattentiveness to a firm grounding in American history, institutions, and political philosophy throughout the American educational system. It confirms that we work in an environment in which knowledge of “one’s own” can no longer be assumed, and indeed, that the American education system practices a kind of “benign neglect” toward our own tradition. I would submit, however, that this “benign neglect” is simply a mask covering a deeper hostility, one widely shared among America’s educational elites, toward the Western tradition generally. Above all, it throws into doubt the prevailing belief that we can simply urge our students to embrace a “cosmopolitan” or internationalist education with the assumption that they already know their own tradition. Concerned faculty have known for decades that students do not have any such intimate knowledge of their own intellectual tradition. The emphasis on cosmopolitan education to the exclusion of knowledge of one’s own tradition is based upon a false premise.


Q: In September, you were named The Eleni and Markos Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Chair in Hellenic Studies. Do you feel that a greater emphasis on instruction in Classical thought and theory will help Georgetown students better understand the origins of the American system?

PJD: I ended up studying the ancient Greek political thought because I was interested in understanding American democracy. In my view, this is what must happen as a matter of course. When James Madison was preparing a draft of the document that became our Constitution, he engaged in a lengthy study of ancient institutions and history. Readers of the Federalist Papers quickly come to realize how far back they need to study if they want to understand our own system. You might begin with the realization that, to understand our Constitution, you need to study Locke and Montesquieu. To understand them, you need to study Machiavelli and Hobbes. To understand them, you need to study Aristotle and the Bible. And, present at the creation, is Plato. You cannot avoid Plato – not if you wish to understand who you are and the culture that made you.

It should be noted that Madison thought that Greek democracy, in particular, had little to recommend it (in that, he shared many reservations about democracy with Plato and Aristotle). The American constitutional order was consciously erected in contrast to Greek institutions. That said, there is much continuity that links our system of government to the political thought of the Greeks, and none more so than the shared view that humans are imperfect and imperfectible. We are in need of a government of laws because men are frail vessels.

Q: In your book Democratic Faith, you propose that “democratic realism”, which denies the democratic idealism taught by the establishment, specifically the belief in the perfect man, should be adopted. How do incorporate the idea of democratic realism into your classes and do you think Georgetown’s Jesuit heritage better helps in its adoption?

PJD: As my previous answer suggests, one of the great continuities of our tradition, from the ancients and the Christians to early modern liberal republicanism, is the view that humans are imperfect and imperfectible. Universities once provided an education that instructed students about the permanence of human nature, a nature that included the capacity for improvement but also, inescapably, human imperfection. Schools like Georgetown required daily or weekly mass or chapel as a reminder of our propensity toward sin and a call to serve others (and not self or Mammon) and the great and difficult virtue of forgiveness. Georgetown has crucifixes in the classrooms in order to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice, and the distance that separates perfect divine love from our own self-love. (I am told that the crucifixes were placed in classrooms some years ago only after strenuous student efforts persuaded a reluctant administration). According to these assumptions, education can improve us, but such improvement only occurs in the context of our permanent frailty and ultimate imperfectability.

This view was challenged by a new, more optimistic intellectual elite during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thinkers like John Stuart Mill in England and John Dewey in America believed that education could lead to the establishment of “the Kingdom of God on Earth.” Today’s universities are built upon such progressive assumptions – we can make better humans, and that there are no inherent limits to improvement. This belief requires the rejection of a belief in an unchanging human nature, and hence the rejection of Greek, Christian, and early modern liberal assumptions. It further means that modern Universities are actually hostile to “traditional” authors, except as quaint legacies that were once read by credulous and uneducated ancestors. Universities are today largely devoted to the creation of “new knowledge,” not to the transmission of classical liberal learning. For this reason, most contemporary Universities have abandoned an education in a core curriculum.

The prevailing worldview in modern Universities is one of toleration – except toward those who argue on behalf of human nature, for limits and the role of law and forms as constraints upon our desires and whims. Toleration and “non-judgmentalism” are the sledgehammers that demolish those who hold now antiquated views about human nature. John Stuart Mill, for instance, called for complete freedom of speech to explore any issue, and in the same essay “On Liberty” decried “Calvinism” and its view that humans are inescapably born with original sin. Toleration does not extend to those who maintain the existence of human nature, and this fact helps to explain why, on college campuses today, you are far more likely to see various “conservatives” shouted down by “tolerant” liberals, and not vice-versa. At base, Mill’s views predominate on college campuses, though most students don’t know it because they probably haven’t read Mill and know next to nothing about Calvinism.

Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning to the readers of this publication that it’s this same progressive promise of human perfection that has led to an impatience with Constitutional forms and constraints that were designed under the assumption of human imperfectability. Our contemporary jurisprudence is the result of these progressive assumptions. On the one hand there are those who maintain the need for “forms,” for the rule of law that governs the human propensity toward depravity in all of its forms. On the other hand, there are those who view such “forms” as obstacles to our ever greater autonomy and individual perfection. Law, viewed flexibly, is seen as a tool for social engineering and perfectibility, not as a source of constraint and forms.


Q: Many student members of the counter-culture have had professors at one time or another who impress the views of the establishment on the class without leaving room for debate. What, in your opinion, would be the best way for a student to approach such a professor?

PJD: I’m sure that among students there are fairly good informal sources of information about not only the ideological perspectives of most faculty, but whether certain faculty actively discourage contrary views. Conservative students may finally wish to avoid the latter, though I would encourage conservative students to take many courses from liberal professors who are more (truly) tolerant. Frankly, conservatives get a far better education on college campuses today than do liberals. It is only through being confronted with opposing viewpoints that one can better articulate, develop, and ultimately defend one’s own position. Because of the dominance of liberals on college campuses, conservative students get more for their money because they are constantly being challenged, while liberal students bask blithely in a sea of unexamined assumptions. Whenever you become frustrated at the absence of like-minded faculty and students, I would only suggest recalling that you are simply getting smarter.

Q: What can members of the Georgetown community do in order to facilitate the growth of the counter-culture?

PJD: There are significant obstacles to a true change in atmosphere on today’s college campuses. Faculty and administrators pursue objectives developed in the 1960s largely without interference. Alumni are pleased by high rankings in U.S. News and World Reports, and parents want their children to graduate with a prestigious degree. Very few people ask what is being taught and what students are learning. A college education is increasingly a commodity, one whose price rises incommensurate to its actual quality. It would be helpful if students talked about these issues with their parents and with alumni – these are the people who can urge, and support, changes on college campuses. Nevertheless, one has to understand that any significant change will be generational, and one must take the long view.

Students can do little in terms of changing the University wholesale, but they can ask for courses that would provide them an education in the American and Western traditions (with this caveat: the instructors of those courses may prove to be hostile to those traditions!). Talk to trusted professors about what courses you should take. There are many guides about how to become liberally educated, even lists of books one should read. Students can, and should, read great books for the love of it and, most importantly, talk about them with their classmates. If these books are not being offered in your classes, start a reading group. Invite good faculty for informal conversations in dormitories and dining halls. Be active. Students should attend events that would deepen their self-understanding – for starters, check the Tocqueville Forum website. It’s YOUR education – take control of it in a conscious and thoughtful way, with the full realization that four years will evaporate sooner than you think and it’s doubtful you’ll again have the opportunity to pursue a liberal education such as you now have. Don’t let the innumerable assignments and minutiae of daily life allow you to lose sight of the ultimate aim of an education: to flourish as a citizen, as a human, and as a child of God.

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