Center on the University and Intellectual Life

witherspoon_statueIntellectual Life and the Thriving Society
Any decent society rests upon three pillars: (1) respect for the human person, (2) the family, and (3) a fair and effective system of law and government. While a society will be decent if the three pillars are healthy and functioning in mutually supportive ways, dynamic societies tend also to include healthy institutions of research and education—such as universities—to expand and transmit knowledge and cultural capital, as well as business and economic institutions to generate, distribute, and preserve wealth. A thriving society is both decent and dynamic, manifesting all five pillars in mutually interacting and supportive ways. Each pillar depends on the health of every other, just as each healthy pillar buttresses the other four.[1]

It follows that an unhealthy pillar disrupts the functioning of the others.

Recently, tensions within the university have made national news, with student protest and denunciation of free speech and inquiry manifesting in public ways what those inside the university have known for some time—the university as a pillar is not living up to its highest ideals. Not only does this impair the university’s ability to attain its own proper ends, thus failing its students and faculty, but impairs and potentially damages our broader societal understanding and commitment to the human person, family, rule of law, and market economy.

In its current state, the university fails to adequately support a thriving society and genuine human flourishing. First, while it is the very nature of the university to follow questions wherever they lead, debates over fundamental questions have grown narrow, with that narrowness increasingly constraining and even coercive. Rather than serious debate and robust inquiry about the most important things, academic discourse has reduced to a bland, homogenous consumer liberalism. Second, rather than a coherent and integrated vision, the undergraduate curriculum is often a “grab bag” of courses from various disciplines, with no sense of the whole. Not only do students not receive the direction required for a coherent education, they often do not know enough about a genuine education to realize or diagnose that incoherence. Coupled with the high cost of university and acute anxieties about future employment, many students simply do not view university as an opportunity for an integrated education of the whole person about the most fundamental issues. At the same time, the specialization and research focus of the faculty means, increasingly, that many professors themselves are not fully capable of providing students such an education.

Despite the concern expressed by many about the current state of the university, systematic renewal seems unlikely due to a variety of structural and attitudinal limitations. Structurally, the current focus on specialized research determines the receipt of grants and the tenure and promotion of faculty. Additionally, while many universities, including but not limited to institutions with religious or missional identities, do provide integrated education, this tends not to be the case at many institutions, including some of the most prestigious. Further, the often lamented “crisis of the humanities” and social sciences is self-imposed, with heavily politicized departments imitating the research models of the hard sciences.

It is not at all obvious, then, that the current research university is well-equipped to provide a coherent education for whole persons, let alone to do so in a way fostering the sober and sustained debate needed for flourishing persons, a republican form of self-government, and a thriving society.

Increasingly, the task of a genuinely liberal education will fall to select faculty and programs within universities supported and supplemented by programs working independently but along-side the university—the university now requires outside help to live up to its highest ideals, not in competition but in a supporting and complementing role. To accomplish this, such independent programs must avoid the very temptations interfering with the university—over-specialization, over-commitment to research, politicization, and the skeptical hesitancy to engage in the most fundamental questions.

The hesitancy to raise fundamental questions is a matter of great import. Students have not abandoned the moral quest. If anything, the moral ambitions of our society and its universities are extensive, with wide-ranging concerns related to social justice, racial equity, income disparity, and so forth, all evidenced by the student unrest of the past year and the moral imperatives expressed and protested. However, as Bret Stephens commented, student passion, left uneducated by the moral resources of the tradition, is “left to its increasingly meager devices.” [2] Moral ambition, untutored by the insights of the best of the Western tradition, becomes, as Stephens judges, diseased. The fragmentation of the university, its apparent and growing hostility to the moral, cultural, and religious traditions of our society, its politicization, and the reductive naturalism governing whole sectors of the university cannot replace the desire for moral transcendence natural to every human person, but that desire can become unreasonable and diseased.

A recent New Yorker essay[3] describes campus unrest as a generational turnover, with the liberalism of the Boomers no longer relevant—and increasingly distasteful—to the young. “When that sort of thing happens,” the piece claims, “a window opens for people whom the legal theorist Cass R. Sunstein calls ‘norm entrepreneurs’: those promulgating new standards that others can adopt and defend, redefining bad behavior … rewriting social models, and shifting the default settings of political culture.” A window may be opening as the older liberalism gives way to the new radicals, but the new radicalism also lacks real foundations and is very much a will-to-power, an attempt to enforce the new norms.

Either we accept new norms without foundations (thus increasingly shrill and insistent in its claims), or we provide a better, more reasonable way, a way more in keeping with the nature of the human person as articulated by the best of our tradition. The response is as it has ever been, for human nature does not fundamentally change. It is natural for us to seek to truth, to desire to good, and to delight in the beautiful, and we can know these through reason. Genuine inquiry, following the questions and arguments where they lead, in a conversation among friends, and drawing upon the best that has been thought, said, and written, still educates, still leads to the truth of things, still allows for human flourishing.

Which is what the university is for, fundamentally, and which allows for the flourishing of students and supports a thriving society.    

[1] See The Thriving Society, eds. James R. Stoner and Harold James (Princeton: The Witherspoon Institute, 2015), esp. 1–8, 175–187.