In 2016, Jonathan Haidt gave a talk at a number of American universities in which he made the provocative argument that universities must choose either truth or social justice as their primary motive for operating. He argued that universities used to be centered around truth, and that going forward some universities could continue to do that, whereas others could be frank about declaring social justice to be their primary motive. He did not argue that students couldn’t pursue social justice at a university but simply that the university itself had to choose one primary goal. Today I’m talking to Chad Wellmon, an expert on the history of universities, about whether universities truly were motivated by the pursuit of truth or whether history is in fact more complicated.

I’ve known Chad since 1995 when he and I were freshmen at Davidson College and in the same humanities class. Chad is now an associate professor of German Studies at the University of Virginia. His interests include European intellectual history, and media and social theory. His most recent book Organizing Enlightenment was about the foundation of the modern research university. He’s also the co-author of the upcoming book Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age. We begin today’s interview by talking about Chad’s recent essay How Professors Ceded Their Authority (Ungated Link). He’s on Twitter at cwellmon.

3:30 Early universities as guilds; research universities as mercantile institutes
11:45 The early 20th century
14:45 Have extracurricular activities really served moral purposes?
24:05 Are current university presidents like CEOs?
26:05 Students’ pursuit of social justice through administrative appeals
31:35 We can’t be a massive counseling center, so what can we do?

Here is a transcript of this episode.

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