heterodox: the blog
Let’s Be Reasonable, Except About Ourselves
An old prejudice against lawyers puts them at the scene of disasters, hawking their wares. But in crises, we academics hand out our business cards, too. Within 48 hours of the breach of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, one could drink deeply from a firehose of professorial commentary.
Had you listened to us, say the humanists, you probably wouldn’t have this fire. Let us count the ways in which we are un-Trumpy. We enable students to “grasp the experience of others.” We promote “an understanding that the world is a collection of interdependent yet inequitable systems.” We shape the young “to be a part of identifying and enacting change to dismantle structural inequities.” We produce the best citizens for your citizen needs.
Those aren’t all the same thing. And the idea that there is a reliable road from the humanities to our preferred political outcomes merits the skepticism it sometimes attracts. It’s not much better to broaden the case beyond the humanities and assert that universities, by exposing students to conflicting ideas but rejecting the “pretense that all ideas are equal,” will shape “critical-thinking activists for democracy.” Even if we think that the success of our work can be measured in activism units, we have to admit that many of those we consider very bad people were handed the same free set of critical-thinking tools we received with our diplomas.
That is not to say that universities shouldn’t try to contribute to our political well-being. In my new book, I turn to the political and educational philosopher John Locke and his idea of the reasonable person, educated to think that “there cannot be anything so disingenuous, so misbecoming . . . anyone who pretends to be a rational creature, as not to yield to plain reason and the conviction of clear arguments.” Locke supposes that even deceivers may be well-schooled in logic. The “logical chicaner” may excel at exposing error in others. But, considering reason to be a tool rather than an authority, the chicaner sees no use in being “brought fairly to examine his own principles.” Our world, similarly, is populated by intelligent people shouting “Get woke!” or “Wake up sheeple!” in their sleep.
The “man of reason,” unlike the chicaner, thinks it dishonorable to evade arguments when they touch on dear things. One shouldn’t overstate the university’s capacity to shape reasonable people in Locke’s mold or the extent to which reasonable people will endorse what we endorse. More modestly, the university that makes “let’s be reasonable” its motto, and takes that motto seriously, can claim to work steadily against foolishness and fanaticism.
Perhaps we’re not doing that. Consider the “coup debate,” arising from the events of January 6th. The political scientist Naunihal Singh, a scholar of coups, argued that the attempt to overturn the election was not a coup, mainly because the president wasn’t using state power to impose his will. Singh stated what seems undeniable, that to get through our crisis, we need to understand it. But some of Singh’s fellow scholars disagreed. One, a public affairs dean no less, opined “Shush … shush … no one cares if this meets the canonical definitions … shush!” A sociologist at a major university suggests that experts on coups who propose to discuss coups must be doing so because they have “very comfortable” jobs. I find it hard to make sense of these objections, but they seem to say that trying to understand is a luxury we cannot afford when something real is at stake. Because there is always something at stake, the university motto that follows is, “Let’s be reasonable, but not yet.”
Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, picks up another thread in arguing that her fellow presidents were, throughout Trump’s rise and term, not bold enough in denouncing him and recognizing the importance of “the embrace of white supremacy” that, on this account, is the “real cause” of our predicament. As an anti-Trump conservative who has witnessed a steady stream of “social justice” pronouncements and reading lists flowing from college administrations, I doubt that anyone has missed where most colleges and universities sit politically. Nor are we likely to find many takers for the view that “higher education should be the great counterweight to government” as long as we respond to complaints about left-liberal bias by denying or justifying it, or by focusing solely on the distortions of what is, yes, a propaganda campaign against universities.
Higher education should, in any case, be the great counterweight not to government but to unexamined prejudices. But we in higher education are no exception to the rule, enunciated by Locke, that “everyone is forward to complain of the prejudices that mislead other men or parties, as if he were free and had none of his own.”
Our motto is too often, but mustn’t be, “Let’s be reasonable, except about ourselves.”
To be reasonable about oneself, for faculty members, staff, or students, entails ongoing attention, reinforced by one’s colleagues, to one’s narrowness. As Locke puts it, “We see but in part, and we know but in part, and therefore it is no wonder we conclude not right from our partial views.” The “comprehensive enlargement of mind” that is one way of thinking of education’s aim entails listening closely to the “opposite arguings of men of parts, showing the different sides of things,” and even listening closely to those who “come short of [us] in capacity, quickness, and penetration.” Their experience may correct ours. It entails recognizing the limits of the “the science that [we] study,” “the books that [we] read,” the ways of knowing and modes of analysis in which we are trained and with which we are therefore most at ease. And although Locke himself seeks to correct what he regards as excessive reverence for old books, it entails the study of such books, since part of our narrowness is the narrowness of our time, and travel, since part of our narrowness is the narrowness of place. Here, many of the elements of what we think of as liberal arts education emerge from reflection on how to overcome some of the many obstacles to becoming reasonable.
A motto like “let’s be reasonable” seeks to capture what’s central to college and university life. And, as the frequent invocation of critical thinking by educators suggests, reasonableness remains among the most formidable contenders for our allegiance on campus. Perhaps more in the sciences than elsewhere, but in scholarship more broadly, too, there is still dishonor attached to clinging to an argument in the face of overwhelming evidence against it, to being dogmatic, to propagandizing. When we say, “let’s be reasonable,” we’re not inventing a new aim for higher education but insisting on the centrality of an aim now pursued intermittently.
Yet the core values statements faddishly adopted in recent years by our colleges and universities suggest that nothing is central. Not always distinguishable from similar statements trotted out by restaurants, big box stores, and NGOs, they typically consist in an unranked list of terms—excellence, integrity, innovation, respect, justice, diversity, inclusion, sustainability. Sometimes open inquiry and free expression find a place as well. Absent from these commitment lists is the recognition that academic communities are distinguished less by commitments than by a willingness to subject commitments to close, destabilizing scrutiny.
The first university to make “let’s be reasonable” its motto will be making a symbolic gesture. But such gestures matter when it comes to what we tell students at orientation, what we tell one another at faculty retreats, what kinds of public statements presidents make and refrain from making, and how administration-sponsored trainings are approached. It’s a start.
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