Thursday, March 16, 2017
Robbie George and Cornell West have written an elegant yet powerful statement in response to the debacle at Middlebury, inviting folks from political left, right and center to join on. Middlebury professor Allison Stanger was among the first to sign. I've just signed on. Here's hoping you will too.
Sign the Statement: Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression - A Statement by Robert P. George and Cornel West
March 14, 2017
The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.
That’s why all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses. As John Stuart Mill taught, a recognition of the possibility that we may be in error is a good reason to listen to and honestly consider—and not merely to tolerate grudgingly—points of view that we do not share, and even perspectives that we find shocking or scandalous. What’s more, as Mill noted, even if one happens to be right about this or that disputed matter, seriously and respectfully engaging people who disagree will deepen one’s understanding of the truth and sharpen one’s ability to defend it.
None of us is infallible. Whether you are a person of the left, the right, or the center, there are reasonable people of goodwill who do not share your fundamental convictions. This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that all speakers are equally worth listening to. It certainly does not mean that there is no truth to be discovered. Nor does it mean that you are necessarily wrong. But they are not necessarily wrong either. So someone who has not fallen into the idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions and loving them above truth itself will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations—evidence, reasons, arguments—led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself.
All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs.
It is all-too-common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities. Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions; or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded from campus or, if they have already been invited, disinvited. Sometimes students and faculty members turn their backs on speakers whose opinions they don’t like or simply walk out and refuse to listen to those whose convictions offend their values. Of course, the right to peacefully protest, including on campuses, is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, each of us should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?
Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking. Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.
Cornel West is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy in the Divinity School and the Department of African and African- American Studies at Harvard University.
If you would like to join Professors George and West as a public signatory to this statement, please submit your name and title and affiliation (for identification purposes only) via email to jmadison@Princeton.edu. Open to all to sign.
If you signed on to the statement but do not yet see your name listed here, please check back later. We're working diligently to manage the large volume of signatories to this statement.
Monday, March 13, 2017
Just a word, since the insanity at my alma mater last month has been covered in almost every noted publication to date. As Professor Allison Stanger returned to the hospital yesterday with a concussion, we still await definitive action on the part of the administration. Thankfully, on March 6, 100 professors spoke out swiftly in favor of free inquiry, offering "core principles that seem to us unassailable in the context of higher education within a free society."
Having had Stanger as a senior at Middlebury in the 90s, these student (and outside) protesters don't know what they missed. She was as tough as nails and would have given any thinker (especially one positing spurious claims) a run for his money. Then again, watching a good portion of the (now removed) video of Charles Murray's talk presented in a protected Plan B setting leads me to think the students would have found in Murray some ammo for their current assault on 'privilege' (in which, at a hefty price tag, Middlebury so manifestly indulges). Too bad they couldn't just...listen. Rod Dreher's investigative reporting presents some evidence from the campus newspaper of what-was-going-on-at-Middlebury ahead of Murray's arrival.
To think Middlebury was the site of my own intellectual conversion, precisely because it was a place willing to invite (and employ!) diverse thinkers that challenged my own far left/secularist thinking: most notably professors Murray Dry, Paul Nelson, visiting professor Paul Carrese, and guest speaker Stanley Hauerwas.
But that was the 1990s.
The Heritage Foundation hosted a lovely live-streamed lunch-time panel today on the life and legacy of the late Michael Novak. Panelists included friends, collaborators, and students of the celebrated (if controversial) theologian who died last month. (As a participate in the Tertio Millenium Seminar in Poland, I number myself among his many grateful students--and was honored and delighted to spend time with him at Ave Maria and CUA over the last year.) Hosted by Ryan Anderson, panelists Catherine Pakaluk, Samuel Gregg, George Weigel and Mary Eberstadt offered intelligent and moving accounts of their friendship with Novak and his enduring legacy.
Catherine Pakaluk, a Harvard-trained economist and now assistant professor of economics at the Busch School of Business and Economics at CUA, made the case for Novak as a true economist, articulating similar themes in the beautiful tribute she scribed for NRO last month:
The economics curriculum at my university (and Penn was not unique in this) suffered acutely from the problem identified by James M. Buchanan in his 1964 article “What Should Economists Do?” What frustrated Buchanan, who went on to win the Nobel prize in economics in 1986, was that to most economists “our subject field is a problem or set of problems, not a characteristic human activity” (emphasis mine). He argued that this mistake would lead inexorably to the disintegration of “economics as a well-defined area of scholarship.” What he did not say but might have said is that a set of merely technological problems cannot inspire, cannot ennoble, and risks a sort of massive irrelevancy with respect to the great questions of human life. I raise this point because it seems to me that there is no better way to describe Novak’s work than to say that he never touched on a subject as anything other than “a characteristic human activity.”
It is worth noting that Novak’s formal education in philosophy, theology, and religious studies was much more like that of Adam Smith than like that of any modern-day economist. This has profound implications for higher education and may explain why Novak was such a fan of religious colleges, helping to found Ave Maria University and finishing his academic career at The Catholic University of America. We should expect, I hope, many initiatives in the coming years, especially at religious institutions, which seek to unpack the importance of philosophy and theology for economics and social science at large.
Catherine offers her own brilliant unpacking in a paper she wrote on the occasion of receiving the Acton Institute's 2015 Novak Award (which recognizes "outstanding scholarly research that examines the relationship between religion, economic freedom, and the free and virtuous society.") The paper, now available online (behind the paywall at the Journal of Markets and Morality, but more readily at academia.edu), is entitled, "Dependence Upon God and Man: Toward a Catholic Constitution of Liberty." Putting Catholic social thought in conversation with liberal thinkers such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, Catherine seeks to develop what she calls a "'liberty of dependence'...a doctrine of freedom in society that isn't quite a manifesto of personal liberty as Hayek might have wanted it--but rather a manifesto of social freedom in which freedom for the individual is required so that he can be dependent and responsible."
As one who also has written of late on the theme of dependency as an essential and forgotten element of the human condition--and as one happy to call Catherine a dear friend--I heartily recommend this deeply philosophical and learned approach to political economy. Catherine is a mentor to many, an intellectual force for good, and a true gift to the Church. She is also the mother of eight very blessed children.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
CNN contacted me before Christmas to ask if I'd weigh in on Trump and abortion. I was thankful for the invitation as I'd really not said much about his candidacy during the general election. (Rick was thoughtfully expressing many of my own sentiments.) Like many others, I was more relieved by Hillary's loss than I thought I would be. I am now also hopeful for solid judicial nominations [identity politics warning: perhaps a woman to eventually overturn Roe!] and the life-changing possibilities for poor schoolchildren in a Department of Education that favors school choice. Still, like so many on the left and right, I remain deeply concerned about Trump's character. (I'm hoping Kellyanne Conway provides as much counsel as possible...it'd help as a start if she just took away his phone.)
CNN held the piece for weeks, well, until the Women's March on Washington became a...thing. So I contextualized. CNN then took the liberty of suggesting in their title that I was among those concerned about not being included in the march. Just for the record, though I understand the desire for some pro-life feminists to be represented--to give voice to another perspective--I would never have attended their march to protest a fair election, especially a demonstration that so extols abortion and even links its availability to human rights; my serious concerns with Trump put me too in the wait and see (and pray and write) category. And to further aggravate this pro-lifer, this "women's march" (for half the country's women anyway) is getting far more press than the annual March for Life which generates hundreds of thousands of protesters each year! Thus, my friend Carol Crossed's piece in today's Washington Post is more aptly titled for my way of thinking about all of this. Alas, here's my piece at CNN.
More happily titled is the two part series also published yesterday at Public Discourse on how to think ecologically about our culture's current...mess. I think the concepts of human and social ecology are especially helpful in responding to the ubiquitous Millian worldview that considers the "harm principle" as the only just way to think about cultural issues. (JS Mill, by the way, said this: “[M]isplaced notions of liberty prevent moral obligations on the part of parents from being recognized, and legal obligations from being imposed, where there are the strongest grounds for the former always, and in many cases for the latter also....")
I hope these articles--mining social commentary from the 1990s--help a bit. More to come in months ahead in the form of a law review article... and, if all goes as planned, a book.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Mary Eberstadt and I gave back to back presentations at last spring's Human Ecology conference at the Busch School of Business and Economics. EWTN was on location and is airing our talks this Saturday, January 14th from 2-3pm. Mary's excellent presentation is on religious liberty. A bit from my presentation, which will also be published in Public Discourse later this month:
When John Paul II used the term “human ecology” in Centesimus Annus, he was entering a robust conversation that was already taking place among social thinkers here in the U.S., and perhaps across the Western world. Since the beginning of the last century, social scientists had been making use of the term to describe the now common idea of society as a complex organism, and to study the myriad ways in which various human surroundings influence the human person. The Russian-American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner notably wrote in 1977 of an “ecology of human development” in which one seeks to understand the human subject from within his “nested,” varied and ever-changing arrangement of environmental structures. An ecological approach is one that is intrinsically interdisciplinary, that seeks to integrate diverse perspectives to achieve a wider angle.
And so by the 1990s, social theorists from across the political spectrum were thinking ecologically about the dynamic interaction among familial, political, economic, and social influences and how these “mutually conditioning systems” affected children, families and communities across America. The ecological analogue helped a diverse group of thinkers to diagnose, even without agreeing to causes, the growing deterioration of once stable families and communities, the deleterious impact that was having upon the nation’s children and the nation’s poor, and in turn, the consequences of this cultural, or ecological, disintegration upon American institutions. In particular, communitarians such as Michael Sandel, Amitai Etzioni, and our own Mary Ann Glendon, worried together that America’s celebrated free economic and political institutions were actually at great risk of undermining their own foundations due to an erosion of the “moral ecology” or, in Robert Putnam’s term, “social capital” that these free institutions needed to thrive.
I often receive inquiries from undergraduates (in my case, women) asking what I recommend they read--or what sorts of summer institutes to attend--to prepare them for law school. I thought I'd post what I tell them, or some of what I tell them anyway, in the hopes that other MOJers might add their two cents as well.
As a devoted student (albeit never in the classroom) of Mary Ann Glendon, I always recommend Rights Talk and Nation Under Lawyers ahead of almost anything else (The Forum and Tower is also quite good for undergrads just cutting their teeth on the Western tradition). I am now happy to add Michael Stokes Paulsen's masterful book, The Constitution: An Introduction to my list of recommended readings. All of the aforementioned are admirably accessible, deeply interesting (well, for one interested in these things!), and perhaps most importantly, clarifying of the debates that have raged up and down the decades in the courts and legal academy throughout our nation's history.
As for summer institutes, the secret is now out: Catholic legal thinkers and others conservatives tend to receive much of their intellectual formation beyond the confines of their colleges and law schools. I found the Tertio Millenium Seminar really wonderful when I was a graduate student -- and that was well before the great Russell Hittinger joined the faculty. Other excellent seminars are offered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Witherspoon Institute. Liberty Fund, Acton Institute and Institute for Justice all have summer seminars too--more libertarian than the others, but worthwhile for the intellectual rigor and companionship. And, of course, we must not forget Notre Dame's Vita Institute.
American conservatives--like other Americans-- can be tempted to an unyielding activism (more threatening than ever due to ubiquitous technology) that is unbefitting of conservative ideals. To lead others to take delight in the highest things, and in order to truly be of service to those in need, we must take time for silence, study and contemplation. One hopes these seminars encourage students to form the habits of the intellectual life--habits best articulated in Fr. Sertillanges' great work--so they can meet the coming challenges of our world with clear-mindedness, charity, and wisdom.
From the Intellectual Life:
Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.
Saturday, December 31, 2016
Boston Magazine joins the post-election introspection with this cover article in its January issue, "How Liberal Professors Are Ruining College." (I was especially happy to see the cover centrally displayed while buying local honey in Whole Foods, not a grocer I visit frequently but that is always humming when I do.) From the article:
Long known as bastions of progressive thought, and home to the likes of Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn, our region’s schools have always been suspected of putting the “liberal” in liberal arts college. Until recently, though, no one had quantified just how far left higher ed here had drifted. [EB: See note below re this muddled use of the term "liberal."]
Last spring, Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College, in New York, decided to run the numbers. From the start, he certainly expected liberal professors to outnumber conservatives, but his data—25 years’ worth of statistics from the Higher Education Research Institute—told a far more startling tale: In the South and throughout the Great Plains, the ratio of liberal to conservative professors hovered around 3 to 1. On the liberal left coast, the ratio was 6 to 1. And then there was New England—which looked like William F. Buckley’s worst nightmare—standing at 28 to 1. “It astonished me,” says Abrams, whose research revealed that conservative professors weren’t just rare; they were being pushed to the edge of extinction.
A key trouble for the article's author seems to be the potential radicalization of conservatives if they are pushed further and further underground while at college. (Conservatism is treated as yet another potential personal identity more than a philosophy of education or even of government.) But he is also (somewhat) attentive to the more essential trouble: that in becoming so ideologically monolithic, colleges have abandoned their raison d'etre. Quoting Abrams: “The goal of college is to give you multiple viewpoints and to grow your mind, not to just be comfortable in your own bubble. The real world is not full of progressives.”
The article hardly provides the sort of introspection offered by Columbia's Mark Lilla in the New York Times just after the election [interesting post-article interview with Villa here], but it does present research and anecdotes that are worth the quick read. Readers are of course offered an easy out in the form of a response provided by the NYT's Paul Krugman: "professors actually haven’t become more liberal, but rather that the meaning of conservatism has changed and the Fox-ification and now Trump-ification of the Republican Party has pushed highly educated members of the right over to the left." Still, it is something that Boston Magazine is trying to make sense of it all.
NB: For an excellent essay exploring the distinctive classical and progressive/revisionist understandings of how liberal arts education ought to "liberate," see "Liberalism, Liberation, and the Liberal Arts" in Robbie George's masterful Conscience and Its Enemies. Just a taste of what I think is the book's most important chapter, offering essential insight into the current troubles in the ivory tower:
Formally, the classical and revisionist conceptions are similar. Both propose the liberal arts as liberating. Both promise to enable the learner to achieve a greater measure of personal authenticity. But in substance they are polar opposites. Personal authenticity, in the classical understanding of liberal arts education, consists in self-mastery--in placing reason in control of desire. According to the classic liberal-arts ideal, learning promises liberation, but it is not liberation from demanding moral ideals and social norms, or liberation to act on our desires--it is, rather, liberation from slavery to those desires, slavery to self...
According to the classical liberal-arts ideal, 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, course, 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 a profound and inherent dignity. The classic liberal-arts proposition is that intellectual knowledge has a role to play in making self-transcendence possible. It can help us to understand what is good and to love the good above whatever it is we happen to desire; it can teach us to desire what is good because it is good, thus making us truly masters of ourselves.
Friday, December 9, 2016
The Supreme Court of Arkansas announced yesterday that the state has a vested interest in continuing to list a child's biological parents on his or her birth certificate. Last year, the county circuit court had allowed three same-sex couples to amend the birth certificates to include both spouses' names without a court order (as required in adoption cases). That decision was overruled.
Writing the AR Supreme Court's opinion, Justice Josephine Linker Hart explained: "In the situation involving the female spouse of a biological mother, the female spouse does not have the same biological nexus to the child that the biological mother or the biological father has. It does not violate equal protection to acknowledge basic biological truths." The dissent argued that the inclusion of the parent's name on the birth certificate ought to flow from marriage--not biology. Find the state court's opinion here.
Like the legal fiction created by the abortion cases in the use of the term "potential life" to describe the very actual, albeit nascent, vulnerable, and dependent human being whose life is snuffed out by the procedure, Obergefell v. Hodges created another such fiction regarding basic biology. From the Obergefell Court's opinion: "A third basis of protecting the right to marry...draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education..." And then, "All parties agree, many couples provide loving and nurturing homes to their children, whether biological or adopted." I do not quote these here to dispute the substantive point of the parties' agreement; rather, I seek to emphasize Kennedy's use of the terms procreation and biological children in the context of same-sex relationships. The use of these terms by the highest court in the land--like "potential life" in decades past--is pure legal fiction. To repeat the good Arkansas judge, who is simply upholding a well-grounded tenet of equal protection jurisprudence: "It does not violate equal protection to acknowledge basic biological truths."
Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly used the postal abbreviation for Alaska.
Monday, November 14, 2016