“As a result, liberal arts education has been dragged down into the world that it previously resisted, subjugating honest intellectual inquiry to cheap ideological attachments and the profanities of political activity.”
In 1987, when the Reverend Jesse Jackson led hundreds of student protestors at Stanford University, chanting “Western civilization has got to go,” it was a perplexing spectacle for many outside observers. Why would students at Stanford—presumably an exemplary testament to the moral, philosophical and cultural accomplishments of the West—be so ardently opposed to our civilization’s very existence? In the context of the 1987 protests, Stanford’s requirement that all its students take certain classes in the study of the Western tradition (a common, eminently reasonable expectation at liberal arts universities throughout the West) was the source of student outrage. However, the larger antipathy towards the idea of Western civilization itself, which animated the Stanford protests, is a sentiment that now pervades contemporary academia, extending even to include reports last week of Yale discontinuing an introductory art history class over concerns about artists taught being, “overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male.”
In the modern liberal arts, the Western tradition is increasingly regarded as a symbol of oppression and suffering, and its major achievements are all thought to be emblematic of this inherently oppressive character. When the Stanford protestors petitioned their university to abolish any mandated engagement with the intellectual inheritance of the West, this was the underlying objection: the conviction that Western civilization, particularly for historically marginalized groups, is irredeemably marred by a history of racism, sexism, and any number of other mortal sins. In the context of the modern liberal arts, the consequences of this tectonic shift are difficult to overstate.
The Rise of Critical Theory
The West is experiencing a crisis of confidence; this is more apparent in our current moment than it was in 1987, though events like the Stanford protests were a foreboding warning to anyone who was paying close attention. One of the most significant causes of this pervasive cynicism is the transformation of the modern university, pursuant to a radical shift in the dominant conception of the purpose of a liberal arts education. In contrast to the classical understanding of a university education as an initiation into the intellectual inheritance of Western civilization, a new conception of the liberal arts began to emerge in tandem with the popularization of the “oppressive” understanding of the West; the liberal arts, argued the proponents of this new understanding, must be transformed into a tool for liberation from the Western inheritance. The result was various iterations of “critical theory,” from the neo-Marxism of Antonio Gramsci to the postmodernism of Michel Foucault, and it sought to replace the ancient Platonic formulation of education as a search for the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Simultaneously, a Socratic love of wisdom (the traditional guiding principle of liberal education) was superseded by a critical skepticism, which saw its preeminent task as deconstructing and attacking the philosophical convictions of the past, rather than engaging with them as potential sources of wisdom.
The new conception of liberal arts learning understands its fundamental goal to be, in the words of Robert P. George, “liberation from traditional social constraints and norms of morality—the beliefs, principles, and structures by which earlier generations had been taught to govern their conduct,” resulting from a belief, “that the traditional norms and structures are irrational – vestiges of superstition and phobia that impede the free development of personalities by restricting people’s capacities to act on their desires.” The liberal arts was no longer to be an engagement with one’s intellectual heritage but, rather, a training in its rejection. Simultaneously, a Socratic love of wisdom (the traditional guiding principle of liberal education) was superseded by a critical skepticism, which saw its preeminent task as deconstructing and attacking the philosophical convictions of the past, rather than engaging with them as potential sources of wisdom.
Newly emergent ideas of “critical theory,” which regard inherited traditions, habits, and forms of knowledge as objects of suspicion rather than as genuine achievements are the ascendant causes of this radical shift in the liberal arts. In particular, the postmodern theories of fashionable philosophers like Foucault transformed the way that academics viewed the world around them: every aspect of our social conditions, in Foucauldian thought, is the cumulative result of concealed systems of power and domination. Consequently, in contemporary intellectual life, the critical impulse that began in the ancient Socratic search for wisdom and truth has assumed its own rigidly ideological character; in short, the initial emphasis on resisting dogma—sapere aude!—has become a dogma in and of itself. In the pursuit of liberation from the antiquated assumptions of the past, the liberal arts has taken on a new set of assumptions and convictions, increasingly viewing every aspect of the history and thought produced by Western civilization as deserving perpetual critique.
The Rationalist Challenge
In searching for an explanation of the predicament that contemporary academia finds itself in, we should direct our attention to two major intellectual trends that have emerged and taken hold in the liberal arts since the advent of the Enlightenment. The first of these influential factors is rationalism—specifically, the modern Enlightenment iteration of the rationalist impulse, which possesses a near-limitless optimism about the capability of human reason to remake the world in its image, viewing every imperfection in the human condition as a mathematical problem to be solved and eventually overcome by a particular method or formula. This rationalist mode of examination is skeptical of everything but its own skepticism, which it ironically accepts without question; subsequently, for the rationalist, the quest for wisdom is no longer a contemplative endeavor to locate the eternal and transcendent but, rather, the perpetual accumulation of data and methodologies in an attempt to apply the precepts of rationalist inquiry to every question of human existence. In the words of the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, the rationalist thinker, “has no sense of the cumulation of experience, only of the readiness of experience when it has been converted into a formula: the past is significant to him only as an encumbrance.” In attempting to understand the critical condition of the modern university, one immediately finds a culprit in the spread of this reductionist mode of inquiry.
The impulse to place all of one’s inheritance under the microscope of dispassionate scientific inquiry makes liberal learning a cold and joyless affair. It also foments a distinctly critical attitude towards the object of one’s study—specifically, in the context of the humanities, this disposition has resulted in a deep suspicion towards many of the political and philosophical achievements that characterize Western civilization. For this suspicion, too, rationalism is at least partially to blame; in the mind of the rationalist, Oakeshott writes, “nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny.”2 The Enlightenment rationalist project, which strives to study politics and philosophy in the same way that one might study mathematics has resulted in a strong dislike for inherited habits and traditions of ideas. In contrast to the classical liberal arts practice of engaging in conversation with these philosophical traditions, rationalism is irritably impatient of them. Consequently, as the rationalist disposition became predominant in intellectual life, the liberal arts became similarly displeased with its intellectual inheritance. In this way, the modern scholar’s rejection of his own civilization is a testament to rationalism’s influence on institutions of higher education in the post-Enlightenment West.
Downwards to Nihilism
Despite its undeniable influence on contemporary intellectual thought, rationalism is not the sole culprit in the predicament of the modern university. Although modern rationalism presents significant challenges to the integrity of the academy, many of the achievements of Western academia were made possible by the Enlightenment project’s emphasis on free inquiry and the use of individual reason. In many ways, the more insidious foe of the traditional liberal arts ideal is nihilism, a radical philosophical innovation borne out of the rationalist tradition but simultaneously at odds with it. Rationalism, though reducing intellectual inquiry to the pursuit of methodological perfection, still affirms the possibility of universal truth and a natural right accessible to human reason. Nihilism, on the other hand, possesses no such confidence.
“God is dead,” Nietzsche tells us, and with him dies the possibility of anything beyond the temporality of our mortal state of being.
The nihilist sees himself as daring to take philosophy to the place that the rationalist could not stomach, transforming the rationalist’s focus on the materially quantifiable into a radical disavowal of the possibility of anything existing at all beyond our material realm. The infamous introduction of this epoch of nihilistic disillusionment was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s proclamation that “Gott ist tot,” a prophetic warning of the Enlightenment project’s destruction of the possibility of religious belief.3 Whereas rationalism had cast doubt on the idea of a religious faith inaccessible to pure reason or formulaic measurement, nihilism took this skepticism and applied it to the possibility of any transcendent or universal truth of the cosmic order; “God is dead,” Nietzsche tells us, and with him dies the possibility of anything beyond the temporality of our mortal state of being.
As a voice crying out in the wilderness, Nietzsche completed the descent from Enlightenment rationalism into the nihilism of what has often been called, “the historical point of view.” Specifically, Nietzsche radicalized the rationalist emphasis on historical situatedness and proclaimed all aspects of the human experience relative to the context of historical time and place, devoid of intrinsic meaning or eternal significance. In the words of Leo Strauss, this “historical insight” claims that “all ideals are the outcome of human creative acts, of free human projects that form that horizon within which specific cultures were possible; they do not order themselves into a system; and there is no possibility of a genuine synthesis of them. Yet all known ideals claimed to have an objective support: in nature or in god or in reason. The historical insight [therefore] destroys that claim and therewith all known ideals.”4
Though antithetical to the utopian optimism of Enlightenment rationalism, nihilism is in some ways the final stage of a trend in post-Enlightenment thought within which rationalism was a way-station; particularly in the context of political philosophy, rationalism is at least partially to blame for its own demise. The rationalist reduction of political and moral questions to a series of technical problems removed the contemplation of the transcendent from political thought; with the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, a focus on the here-and-now—the material realm accessible to human reason—became the preeminent concern of intellectual life. This shift in emphasis was concomitant with the emergence of a heightened historical awareness; that is, the success of rationalism was the simultaneous downfall of a concern for anything that might rise above the historical context of the current conditions of material existence. Increasingly, the study of politics, philosophy, and history was conducted with an emphasis on the historical context of a particular moment, rather than the contemplation of eternity. This was an inevitable development: The eternal is of little use to the rationalist, who instead prefers that which conforms to formula and logical discernment. Tragically, however, rationalism’s assumptions regarding the significance of this historical context were to eventually spell its own demise.
As the Enlightenment rationalist had proclaimed the historicist insight to be the precursor to the perfection of human nature, seeing nature as infinitely malleable to the political and social conditions of the time, Nietzsche turned this insight on its head: The terrible truth of historicism, he argued, was its destruction of any objective notion of “perfection” itself, along with an overturning of the ancient belief in good and evil, right and wrong, and eternal truth. The rationalist project was done in by the very insights it had produced.
The Death of Metaphysics
With the rise of Nietzschean nihilism (wherein the idea of truth itself was postulated to be merely relative to historical context), the idea of metaphysics itself was also destroyed; if everything is merely relative to the context of our historical situation, then nothing can exist beyond or above the material realm. Contemporary life has been corrupted by the nihilistic destruction of the metaphysical, which lurks beneath much of our modern intellectual inquiry—often unacknowledged but nonetheless exercising enormous influence over the state of political and philosophical thought. Herein lies the core challenge of our time: We moderns possess a distinct, pervasive mistrust of any lingering attachments to the eternal. In the Sisyphean quest to subjugate nature to the tribunal of individual reason, we have instead found ourselves lost in the barren wilderness of a cosmos that appears altogether more incomprehensible to us than it once did; the human race has been forsaken by its own ambition.
Under this new nihilistic regime of disbelief in the very possibility of belief, liberal education is no longer a quest for wisdom or truth but a prolonged apprenticeship in the trade of metaphysical despair, rejecting the very idea that any transcendent wisdom or universal truth exists at all. Rationalism (though still predominant in the liberal arts) is no longer fortified by its previous confidence in the truth of what it claims to pursue; as Strauss writes, “modern western man no longer knows what he wants—he no longer believes that he can know what is good and bad, [or] what is right and wrong.”5 The scientific skepticism of the rationalist remains omnipresent in the university, but its bold proclamations of being one data set away from Utopia are less pronounced than they once were.
Nihilism destroyed the possibility of completing the utopian Enlightenment project, but the present-day scholar has found no satisfactory replacement to the rationalist mode of inquiry. Quixotically, rationalism continues to predominate the university experience despite a newfound uncertainty in its own claims. Instead, rationalism in the post-modern world becomes a sort of distraction—a manic search for existential meaning in the endless pursuit of formulaic solutions to the material problems of the moment, haunted by the ever-present spectre of nihilistic dread. The desperate state of the liberal arts is a testament to this condition.
Modernity and the Liberal Arts
The predicament of contemporary academia, then, might be understood as the odd marriage of rationalist optimism and nihilistic despair. In the experience of today’s liberal arts education, one notices a distinct loss of faith in the metaphysical assumptions of the Enlightenment paired with a recommitment to its material ambitions. Man naturally seeks meaning beyond his mortal temporality; constantly in search of reprieve from the inescapable nature of time-bound existence, the human condition is thus oriented towards the transcendent. The death of God has left contemporary man with little hope of meaning beyond the material experience of the moment. Therefore, despite a newfound lack of confidence in the rationalist project to remake the world, the modern intellectual has no choice but to recommit himself to this dream, hoping to find some kernel of meaning therein but simultaneously despairing of the possibility of ever doing so.
This is, perhaps, an explanation for a resurgence of emphasis on political activism in the university in recent years. Activism, once understood as having little place in any reputable institution of liberal learning, has become ubiquitous on university campuses throughout the West. Man’s search for meaning, no longer satisfied in religious belief or the philosophic quest for wisdom, has been relocated to the pursuit of a political program. As a result, liberal arts education has been dragged down into the world that it previously resisted, subjugating honest intellectual inquiry to cheap ideological attachments and the profanities of political activity. In this new formulation, the academic no longer merely attempts to understand the world he inhabits, instead actively seeking to change it. This particular phenomenon is a testament to the continued influence of rationalism in the liberal arts: Political activism in the university is the result of the rationalist’s displeasure with the state of existing social arrangements, and it exhibits rationalism’s utopian confidence in the ability of the well-trained mind to discard the asymmetrical imperfections of a given provinciality in favor of uniformly imposed revisions. However, due to the failures of the utopian projects in the twentieth century, the bright-eyed activist with the infallible political program is less certain of himself than he once was; he continues to see the world as a series of mathematical problems, but now doubts his own authority in prescribing valid solutions.
…the flower children of the 1960’s have been replaced by the youthful anger of a generation that already feels betrayed by the world it inhabits.
Following upon the heels of this new doubt, a cloud of apocalyptic sentiment has overtaken the liberal arts experience. Hopelessness, paired with a bitter anger at a world that refuses to conform to utopian aspiration, pervades the academy. Activism is angrier and more petulant than it once was; the flower children of the 1960’s have been replaced by the youthful anger of a generation that already feels betrayed by the world it inhabits. Greta Thunberg thunders that her generation “will never forgive” their elders for the sins of inaction on climate change, Black Lives Matter protestors chant “what do we want? Dead cops!”, and presidential candidates tell newly arrived refugees that America is a nation infected to its core by white supremacy; everywhere, one encounters a hysterical anger at the state of existence.
The classroom, too, is not immune to this: The project of “deconstructing” Western civilization, revealing the hidden organs of political power concealed beneath every aspect of the Western tradition, still dominates the social sciences—but the revolutionary aspirations of the rationalist no longer have a future utopia to look towards. Rather, the university has found itself in a state of endless revolution, perpetually attacking the world it inhabits without a semblance of an idea of the world it desires. The old rationalist desire to tear down existing social arrangements in order to start anew has been abridged, and the post-modern program only seeks to deconstruct and dismantle, with little hope for the subsequent reconstruction of a perfected future.
What is colloquially referred to as “safe space culture” is undoubtedly a reaction to this new despair engulfing the university; having torn down all objects of social affection, rejected any notions of gratitude as mere parochialisms, and deconstructed the mystic chords of memory that bind a civilization together, the post-modern intellectual finds himself adrift. He has little confidence in the scientific “reason” that his Enlightenment predecessors championed as the tool with which men would become gods, and yet he continues to regard the cosmic order with the skeptical eye of the Baconian method. Having encountered the terrible truth of nihilism (yet still hopelessly engaged in the endless revolution of the rationalist), the contemporary scholar turns to comfort as a last resort. As the doctor administers morphine to the chronically ill patient on the verge of death, the child-proofing of the university is an attempt to make the futility of the post-nihilist state of intellectual inquiry more bearable.
Trigger warnings, safe spaces, the rise in emphasis on “holistic” pedagogies and increased concern for mental health, demands for the censorship of sentiments that make students feel “unsafe” and the intolerance of any cause for offense or discomfort: all are the result of an unspoken disillusionment that now pervades the liberal arts. This coddling of the university has been written about at length, but critics of such trends often blame the emotional immaturity of younger generations or particular radical ideologies for these developments. While such indictments might contain some truth, they are surface-level indicators of a significantly deeper issue: an attempt to contend with the nihilistic predicament.
Liberation, that vaguely defined but perpetually overemployed neologism, continues to be the dominant goal in contemporary understandings of liberal arts education. No longer attached to a specific political program, modern liberative efforts instead pursue the rejection of all social mores, traditions and habits, viewing the abolition of all constraints on individual behavior as a necessary precursor to true freedom. The contemporary academic, suspicious of any political program that claims to possess the final truth of human association, now rejects truth itself as an unbearable imposition on his desire, “to live each day as if it were his first.”6 The critical impulse that predominates today’s liberal arts experience is a result of this development: Liberation, once understood as the rationalist project of remaking the world in pursuit of perfection, now doubts its own ambitions. A dislike for the existing state of the world remains, but any claims regarding utopian truth are now seen as similarly suspicious; instead, liberation is now concomitant with destruction—a rejection of all that is.
In the context of liberal arts education, however, liberation was not always understood as the radical rejection of one’s heritage. Instead, Robert George writes:
“According to the classical liberal arts ideal, learning promises liberation, but it is not liberation from demanding moral ideals and social norms – it is, rather, liberation from slavery to self…Our critical engagement with great thinkers enriches our understanding and enables us to grasp, or grasp more fully, great truths – truths that, when we appropriate them and integrate them into our lives, liberate us from what is merely vulgar, coarse, or base. These are soul-shaping, humanizing truths – truths whose appreciation and secure possession elevate reason above passion or appetite, enabling us to direct our desires and our wills to what is truly good, truly beautiful, truly worthy of human beings as possessors of profound and inherent dignity.”7
Liberation, in this understanding, is the result of engagement with the legacy of our intellectual tradition rather than a rejection of it. This understanding must be pursued once again in the liberal arts. This is no easy task, for the dominance of historicism and nihilism in our current moment cannot be entirely escaped; it must instead be reconciled with. Men cannot be forced to believe once again in God, nor can the ancient conception of knowledge as timeless and universal be entirely recovered. A recuperation from this predicament instead requires a more humble proposition: A restored gratitude and respect for our inheritance as participants in the Western tradition. To anyone who cares to notice, the limitations of the historical point of view are revealed when one encounters the wisdom of the greatest thinkers in this tradition, in the revelation that Plato’s The Republic or Hobbes’ Leviathan still have something valuable to tell us about our current situation. Entering into a conversation with the wisdom of past epochs, we realize that the human condition is not wholly confined to the circumstances of its historical context—transcendence is possible, if only we regain the inclination to search for it once again.
Nate Hochman is a student at Colorado College and a former editorial intern at National Review.
- George, Robert P. “Academic Freedom and What It Means Today.” Liberty and Civilization, 80.
- Oakeshott, Michael. “Rationalism in Politics.” Rationalism in Politics and other essays.
- “God is dead.” First introduced in “The Parable of the Madman,” a section from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science.
- Strauss, Leo. “The Three Waves of Modernity.” An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays, 96.
- Ibid, 81.
- Another phrase from Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics.”
- George, 83.