What Universities Owe

Jonathan Marks is Professor of Politics and Department Chair at Ursinus College in the Department of Politics and International Relations. He is the author of Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education.


After the January 6th Capitol breach, academics promptly got to work on things we do best: self-blame and self-promotion. The breach, it turned out, was sort of our fault. We weren’t antiracist enough, or sufficiently “intentional about leveraging diversity as an educational benefit.” Or we didn’t “encourage the public service ethic” our institutions pledge allegiance to on paper. As ever, our reactions ranged widely, from the middle left all the way to the further left. Those of the former persuasion worried about fealty to our democratic institutions. Those of the latter worried less that the rioters considered the government illegitimate than that they considered it illegitimate for the wrong reasons.

So, the argument goes, academics have been bad but will be good. With renewed dedication, vigor, and–the good Lord willing, money–we can “dispose [students] to, the creation of a more just and inclusive society through civic involvement.” Or we can “redesign universities to focus on the development of students who help create antiracist democracies around the world.” Certainly, we can do something to solve whatever.

That anxious, sometimes inadvertently funny, desire to do something—anything—grips, I suppose, most anyone who cares about the country. But professors have another reason to put themselves forward. In one of the best essays on liberal education I know, the political theorist Martin Diamond reminds us that “someone else always pays” for college. Prudence and principle counsel that even if we want mainly to be left alone, professors need to work off their debt to society, not only in crises but in ordinary times. What can we offer in return to parents, who send us children and cash, or to the governments that subsidize our work?

Some answers to that question put the life of the mind at risk. The historian James Axtell observes that the medieval university, though it took the “capital-t Truth” to be known, focused “powerfully on the life of the mind.” So much so that “the pursuit of knowledge, secular and sacred, became an end in itself.” Yet another use of universities, “as forges of opinion and molders of young elites,” wasn’t lost on its backers. Henry VIII, Axtell tells us, defended universities in part because he honored the pursuit of knowledge and the intellectual virtues that advance it. But he also exacted pay for protection in the form of support for his policies. When John Fisher, the chancellor of Cambridge University, refused to acknowledge Henry’s headship of the Church of England, Henry had him beheaded. Not long after, Queen Mary I enlisted the universities to ease the Church of England back into Rome’s fold. When three Protestant reformers, already arrested, were compelled to defend their views of the Eucharist, the opposing debate team was made up of Oxford dons. The losers were later burned at the stake. That’s how cancel culture rolled in the sixteenth century.

Today, one scoffs at Thomas Hobbes’s proposal that universities must teach “how great a fault it is to speak evil of the sovereign representative” and not only because one scoffs at kings. The American research university, whose influence pervades higher education, advances a certain conception of how universities serve the common good, and that’s not by sticking up for rulers. As the 1915 “Declaration of the American Association of University Professors” (AAUP) explains, universities are “impartial” and “untrammeled institutions of learning.” Their characteristic service is to “advance knowledge” by “unrestricted research and unfettered discussion.” Universities also serve by teaching and by providing “experts for the community.”  But those services, the authors of the “Declaration” suggest, depend on the nearly complete devotion of the professor to “scientific conscience,” on his willingness to pursue “investigations . . . no matter where they may lead him or to what extent they may come into conflict with accepted opinion.” The university serves society by being, as the political philosopher Allan Bloom put it, the “home of reason,” the foremost institutional defender of “the freedom of the mind.”

Arguably, the 1915 “Declaration” makes natural scientific progress a model for all intellectual progress and is consequently too narrow. But what it proposes is bold, a version of what I call, in my recent book, the Enlightenment gamble, the bet that sound political principles can survive, even thrive, under rational scrutiny. Thomas Jefferson’s last public letter cheers “the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason” and predicts that “the general spread of the light of science” will eventually open the whole world’s eyes to the “rights of man.” Similarly, John Locke argued that an education directed toward shaping reasonable people would shape people primed to accept the natural equality and rights of man.

Without exaggerating the kinship between Socrates and the university, let’s be impressed. Socrates, who said he deserved free meals from Athens for his work as a gadfly, was executed. The university’s defenders, in contrast have won wide acceptance of the view that professors merit not only salaries but also an uncommon degree of protection, in the form of academic freedom. They merit these things not in spite but because of their distance from accepted opinion, a distance that, like the distance of a judiciary bound by the rule of law, means they will sometimes seem unresponsive to the urgent moral and political demands of their fellow citizens. That this distance is permitted in part because the university promises to provide useful technologies along with its fly bites diminishes the accomplishment only somewhat. Yes, grants agencies sometimes want problems solved pronto. Yes, students and parents want jobs. Yes, I have read a thing or two about cancellations. Nonetheless, even today, universities, elite ones anyway, are remarkably free from the press of social necessity.

Our universities, as eager admissions officers and fundraisers will tell you, perform many important functions. But what is most remarkable about them is their polity-approved irresponsibility or, to be more precise, their responsibility to reason above all. The university pays its debt not by backing the will of a king or of a democratic majority but by fulfilling its responsibility to reason. While a sense of that responsibility isn’t simply missing in our reactions to our political ills—think of our worries about disinformation—that sense hasn’t had pride of place.

Indeed, the university as a tool for mobilization has long competed with the university as a place set aside, at some distance from affairs, for reflection. Just three years after the AAUP issued the “Declaration,” its Committee on Academic Freedom in Wartime boasted of the role of the professoriate in “bringing the people of the United States to a realization of the larger meaning” of World War I and “the obligations which this world crisis impose[d] on the American Republic.” In so influencing public opinion, “no body of men has played a greater part.” Though they pay some attention to wartime threats to freedom of thought and discussion, the authors affirm that any public utterance that even tends to encourage resistance to war measures—the assertion that “all participation in war is immoral,” for example—can be grounds for dismissal from an academic position. Even speech that tends to discourage voluntary, not legally required, support for the war effort may be a firing offense. As for professors of German extraction or otherwise of “alien enemy nationality,” they must avoid “offensive expressions” regarding the “American government,” even in private. They’re on “parole.”

Harvard University’s 1945 General Education in a Free Society, conceived during the next world war, directly touches on that war only occasionally. Moreover, in deference to what I’ve called the primary responsibility of universities, the authors of General Education in a Free Society maintain “that the whole man is integrated only in so far as his life is presided over by his reason.” But they also look forward to “how education can be made . . . in William James’ phrase, the moral equivalent of war.” James meant by the moral equivalent of war a peacetime sense of “civic honor” that possesses us, so that “what the whole community comes to believe in grasps the individual as in a vise.”

General Education in a Free Society sees education as an engine of peacetime mobilization, meant to conquer unhealthy individualism. The authors assert that “the final secular good is the dedication of the self to an ideal higher than the self—the devotion to truth and to one’s neighbor.” In fact, “ideally . . . the success of an individual is meaningless or harmful except as it is the mark of his superior service to the common good.” They’re alive to the objection that the university shouldn’t be a “moral reformatory or a Church” and insist that its aim is mainly intellectual. Presumably propagandizing is to be left to the earlier grades, of which General Education in a Free Society also speaks. Nonetheless, the authors propose to transmit at every level “the belief in the dignity and mutual obligation of man.” That belief is consistent with, though not exclusive to, “religious education” and “[partakes] of the nature not of fact but of faith.”

 General Education in a Free Society, particularly in its treatment of “intellectual integrity, the suppression of all wishful thinking and the strictest regard for the claims of evidence,” is a powerful plea for universities as homes of reason. Yet it smells strongly of Sunday School. The “reader may object,” the authors say, that “we are proposing a confusion.” They are proposing a confusion, as is evident from the start. Of the two epigraphs of the opening chapter of a report genuinely concerned with the freedom of the mind, one is from a section of Plato’s Republic that justifies censorship, and the other is part of a war speech.

We find something of the same mix of Socrates and solidarity in contemporary discussions of higher education. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum considers “Socratic pedagogy” to be a leading desideratum of humanities education. But that idea sits alongside, in her Not for Profit, an urgent attack on our excessive focus on economic growth. So far, there is no great tension. Socrates, too, chides his interlocutors for being obsessed with the wrong things. However, Nussbaum finally treats humanities education less as a revealer of our ignorance and a spur to knowing than as a critical resource in a desperate worldwide struggle, fought out in countless souls, between “greed and narcissism” and “respect and love.” The social critic Andrew Delbanco praises the college for bringing students into contact with “ultimate questions of the sort that have always had special urgency for young people,” questions “we face under the shadow of death” that are “not new” and about which reasonable people disagree. But he also hearkens back to the college’s old character shaping mission, deriving from its religious origin. We cannot tap into that origin, or even agree on “Enlightenment precepts” to offer us character-shaping guidance, but our students can still be “deterred from sheer self-interest toward a life of enlarged sympathy and civic responsibility.”

Finally, to return to the Capitol breach, the historian Jeremi Suri writes in these pages that universities should, in response, get back to emphasizing “discovery, experimentation, and a critical analysis of conventional beliefs.” But like Nussbaum and Delbanco, Suri also thinks that universities should make war on selfishness. They’ve trained too many “self-promoting narcissists,” the kinds of governing class members who set the stage for January 6th. They “emphasize individual achievement over the collective good.” Their failure is more moral than intellectual, and success requires a moral reorientation. Thedaily ethos of campus, imbued in all activities around college” must have students “continuously asking if what we are doing is benefiting society, and how those benefits can be expanded in scale and scope.”

But one can’t have it both ways. One can’t introduce Socratic pedagogy, which reveals our ignorance about fundamental things, then add, “Come join the forever war between greed and goodness!” One can’t introduce “ultimate questions” about which reasonable people disagree, then add “But of course we know that the life of the engaged citizen is best!” Perhaps, after all, Omar Khayyam is right when he, confronting the questions we face “under the shadow of death,” urges us to drink wine, not to get out and vote. Or perhaps the mathematician G.H. Hardy is right when he concludes that the pursuit of mathematics, the more useless the better, unmotivated by a “desire to benefit humanity,” makes for a life more admirable than most. Perhaps, where some 80% of our students come in declaring “helping others who are in difficulty” to be an essential or very important objective, a continuous offensive against selfishness is less a “critical analysis of conventional beliefs” than an endorsement of a very old, now secularized, still popular convention. Universities have good reasons for supporting civic engagement programs, which can, among other things, bring theory into fruitful connection with practice. But the university cannot be both the home of reason and a boot camp training soldiers for the moral equivalent of war.

That doesn’t mean that universities are wrong to practice civic education when they do so. Martin Diamond, with whom I began, thinks those who pay our salaries are entitled at least to a “decent respect to” the “fundamental opinions” of the regime. That entails giving “to the regime and its opinions a central and respected place in the liberal study of politics.” That emphasis is consistent with the kind of civic education and reflection the political scientist Jeffrey Tulis has defended in these pages as “constitutional thinking,” a “critical thinking that seeks to ponder the constitution of American politics . . . as a whole.” Constitutional thinking does not create a peacetime army for our constitutional order or encourage reverence, though, per Diamond, it is “respectful” and even “sympathetic.” It looks, per Tulis, to that order’s “aspirations and possibilities, the needs for possible reform, the sources and consequences of its infirmities, the requisites for constitutional maintenance, and the merits of revolution and alternatives to the existing constitutional order.” It is aware that “there is no one American political tradition.” The intellectual virtues and habits that are useful in this kind of thinking are also useful for citizens in a polity that relies on their judgment: resistance to oversimplification; patience; the capacity to take a step back from a cherished, partisan opinion, or the opinion of a temporary majority; the practice, in the words of the 1915 Declaration, “of taking long views into the future”; “a reasonable regard for the teachings of experience.” Here, responsibility toward the polity is consistent with—or demands–a certain distance from it. Through that engagement from a distance the demands of liberal and civic education are both accommodated.

The distance will appear, in moments of crisis, as dithering or complicity. Even those of us who love the comforts of our offices may want badly to march, and there is nothing wrong with casting off our academic caps and joining our marchers of choice. Indeed, as Tulis suggests, careful reflection may lead a student or teacher to notice infirmities and dangers that require urgent, direct, unscholarly action. But as scholars and teachers, caps on, we are responsible for defending a narrow space for stepping back against demands, often issuing from inside the house, to march forth.

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