Cross-post: The idea of a University

The Idea of a University in Nine Discourses
by John Henry Newman (1858)
available online

At a time when the proper mission of a university has been obscured by commercial and ideological interests, we can with profit consult the classic lectures on this topic delivered by Cardinal Newman to commemorate the establishment of a Catholic university in Dublin.

It is unfortunate, as Newman points out, that English lacks a convenient word for what he means as the distinctive excellence of the intellect, the equivalent of what “health” is for the body, because this is what a university education is meant to cultivate.  Intellectual cultivation might aid professional success and moral refinement, but it is a separate good worthy of pursuit in itself.  Newman refers most often to two particular facets of the properly formed mind.  First there is what one might call a philosophical enlargement, an appreciation for the validity and proper limits of each discipline.  Second, there is what he sometimes calls discipline of the mind, the habit of precision and systemization.

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How the Grinch stole Valentine’s Day

I see that the feminist harpies have been out in force recently on campuses throughout the country with their “V-day” booths, their “Stop the Violence” (the traditional patriarchal family being equated with “violence” in their usual dishonest way) posters, their obscene “Vagina Monologues” productions, and their “all men who don’t approve of me being a slut are rapists” marches.  Well, you say, why be surprised?  That’s what feminists do.  Yes, but they make a special point of doing it around Saint Valentine’s Day.

So, sure, Valentine’s Day is mostly a gimick for card and flower salesmen to make money.  On the other hand, I have no objection to these honest businessmen making money, and the holiday is named for a Catholic saint and martyr (or, actually, maybe three of them).  Above all, marital love is a good and holy thing, and it takes a deep and abiding spitefulness against the normal and natural mass of mankind to deliberately set out to spoil a holiday in this love’s honor.  What the hell is wrong with these people?  They see lovers exchanging chocolates and their furry green heads turn red.  Everything warm and human is hateful to them.

Clarity: good vs evil

I’ve been on the fence about BGC & Proph’s claim that good and evil are getting more unambiguous with time, but this would seem to be a case of it:  a man cultivated and wise by any century’s standard defending the noblest truths about human nature and being confronted by a mob of what any other age would call “unimaginable depravity” but ours calls “tomorrow’s leaders”.

Should liberals try to understand conservatives?

Sometimes intra-liberal debates can be fun to watch.  Remember that spat some years back between the evolutionary psychologists and the feminists over whether there is an evolutionary explanation for rape?  The ev-psych guys were throwing out their usual “just so” stories, and feminists were outraged, saying that any natural explanation of rape would somehow justify it.  To understand is to approve, so if something is bad, we must try not to understand it.  Now there’s a similar argument going on in the halls of liberaldom about whether or not they should try to understand a phenomenon that most of them would put on a moral par with rape–political conservatism.

Jonathan Haidt is a Leftist psychologist who tries to plumb the reactionary mind.  As always, the Chronicle of Higher Education is the place to go:

To Haidt, the evolution of morality can help make sense of modern political tribes like this one. And in that evolution, the big question is this: How did people come together to build cooperative societies beyond kinship?

Morality is the glue, he answers. Humans are 90-percent chimp, but also 10-percent bee—evolved to bind together for the good of the hive. A big part of Haidt’s moral narrative is faith. He lays out the case that religion is an evolutionary adaptation for binding people into groups and enabling those units to better compete against other groups. Through faith, humans developed the “psychology of sacredness,” the notion that “some people, objects, days, words, values, and ideas are special, set apart, untouchable, and pure.” If people revere the same sacred objects, he writes, they can trust one another and cooperate toward larger goals. But morality also blinds them to arguments from beyond their group.

How much of moral thinking is innate? Haidt sees morality as a “social construction” that varies by time and place. We all live in a “web of shared meanings and values” that become our moral matrix, he writes, and these matrices form what Haidt, quoting the science-fiction writer William Gibson, likens to “a consensual hallucination.” But all humans graft their moralities on psychological systems that evolved to serve various needs, like caring for families and punishing cheaters. Building on ideas from the anthropologist Richard Shweder, Haidt and his colleagues synthesize anthropology, evolutionary theory, and psychology to propose six innate moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation….

And the six moral foundations are central to how Haidt explains politics. The moral mind, to him, resembles an audio equalizer with a series of slider switches that represent different parts of the moral spectrum. All political movements base appeals on different settings of the foundations—and the culture wars arise from what they choose to emphasize. Liberals jack up care, followed by fairness and liberty. They rarely value loyalty and authority. Conservatives dial up all six.

This is not bad.  Note that he’s explained conservatism in a way that isn’t manifestly derogatory.  Some attempt is being made to understand conservatives’ motivations, to understand us on our own terms, even if he doesn’t accept those terms himself.  It’s better than Corey Robin version that we conservatives just want to rob our workers and rape our wives.

As I said, Haidt is a Lefty himself.  His primary concern is to understanding these moral cues so that the liberals he approves of can more effectively manipulate the populace.

Now Haidt wants to change how people think about the culture wars. He first plunged into political research out of frustration with John Kerry’s failure to connect with voters in 2004. A partisan liberal, the University of Virginia professor hoped a better grasp of moral psychology could help Democrats sharpen their knives. But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”

So far Haidt hasn’t had much luck interesting political types in his ideas. He reached out to Democratic politicians in his home state of Virginia, like Mark Warner and Tom Perriello, as well as to the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group tightly wired to the White House. But folks in Washington strike Haidt as too fixated on dodging daily bullets to think about the long-term future of liberalism. The few political people who gave him any time seemed more interested in tapping behavioral science for fund raising, or simply too busy to engage with his ideas.

Needless to say, the intelligentsia is outraged that someone is trying to understand conservatives–as opposed to simple condemning them–even if he’s doing it in the interests of liberalism.  One must not admit that there are any moral arguments for conservatism, even invalid ones.

But even as Haidt shakes liberals, some thinkers argue that many of his own beliefs don’t withstand scrutiny. Haidt’s intuitionism overlooks the crucial role reasoning plays in our daily lives, says Bloom. Haidt’s map of innate moral values risks putting “a smiley face on authoritarianism,” says John T. Jost, a political psychologist at NYU. Haidt’s “relentlessly self-deceived” understanding of faith makes it seem as if God and revelation were somehow peripheral issues in religion, fumes Sam Harris, one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism and author of The End of Faith.

The theory frustrates some. Patricia S. Churchland, a philosopher and neuroscientist, has called it a nice list with no basis in biology. Jost, the NYU psychologist, feels Haidt makes a weak case for defining morality so broadly. Philosophers have long considered whether it’s “morally good to favor members of your own group, to obey authority, or to enforce standards of purity,” Jost says. “And they have come largely to the conclusion that these things don’t have the same moral standing as being fair to people and trying to minimize harm.” Following leaders can lead to horrific consequences, he notes.

Haidt acknowledges that the same beelike qualities that foster altruism can also enable genocide. But as a psychologist, not a philosopher, he generally sees his job as describing moral judgments, not advising what is right and wrong for individuals.

So, court theologians of the liberal establishment insist that their’s is the one true faith.  Imagine that.  Given how incredibly flawed consequentialism is as an ethical system, I would say that philosophers who prioritize “being fair to people and trying to minimize harm” to the extent liberals do should have a reduced “standing” on our attention.

African industriousness

Homespun Wisdom provides some quotes from Wangari Maathai’s The Challenge of Africa, including one of the best examples of unintentionally-funny liberal cluelessness that I’ve seem in a while:

As Christianity became embedded in Africa, so did the idea that it was the afterlife that was the proper focus of a devotee, rather than this one—a legacy that continues to affect development.  Putting so much emphasis on the delights of heaven and making it the ultimate destination devalues life in the present.  It is as if all happiness and satisfaction, as well as relief from material wants and needs, will be found in heaven, not on Earth.

In my view, such an attitude allows institutions (such as the church) and powerful people (a member of parliament or other politician) to encourage people to remain passive.  The people come to believe, in effect, that they will ultimately be saved by an outside force rather than by the sum of their actions…

That’s it!  I knew there had to be a reason why sub-Saharan Africa has always been so industrious and prosperous, while Christian Europe has been a backwater shithole.  It can’t be pure coincidence that civilization has so long been synonymous with African animism.  Now the Europeans, in one of their fits of mindless passivity, have spread their otherworldliness to this bright continent, and if the Africans aren’t careful, they’ll sink to European levels of torpor.

Still, I don’t think Africans have to give up entirely on the idea of an afterlife if they fancy it.  After all, the Muslims also hold such beliefs and are an enormous presence in Africa, and Maathai doesn’t indicate that that is a problem.  Presumably it’s just belief in an afterlife contaminated by Christian-Western cooties that’s the problem.  Also, I’m sure that the Leftist belief that whites are responsible for all of Africa’s problems and have a duty to fix them has nothing to do with African passivity.  Got it.

What can turn nice Western Muslim boys into bomb-wielding terrorists?

Surprise!  It’s the same thing that turns non-Muslim boys into bomb-wielding terrorists.  How did it not occur to me before?  For those who haven’t guessed, here’s some hints:  it starts with a “U”, and I work at one.  Is it any wonder that an environment that makes kids think it’s cool to go around wearing T-shirts with pictures of psychopathic mass-murderer Che Guevara might make it more likely that a minority of these kids will act on their own mass-homocidal impulses?

Forgetfulness as academic policy

Can you believe this?

    Meanwhile, at many another school, the secular fires go on burning.  This week I met a wonderfully engaging and very smart candidate for a position teaching medieval literature at my school.  She told me that she had been informed by her department that they would cease to offer a course in the history of the English language after her departure.  That is not because such a course would be unpopular, but because they believed it should not be taught.  Why not, you ask?  She informed me that in many English departments, the professors believe that study of the older literature, say before 1800, and especially medieval literature, should simply die away.  It should not be taught.  Again, that’s not because Chaucer would be unpopular.  On the contrary, the fear is precisely that students would come to love Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton.  That’s why those authors should die the death.  Shakespeare, of course, avoids the ax, mainly by being conscripted into the legions of the politically correct.      So, as has happened before, it will happen again: if Western culture is to be preserved for a better age, the church will have to do it.  No one else will.

Random thoughts on gay marriage, patriarchy, and academia

  1. I don’t understand why liberals aren’t happier people.  If I were a liberal, I’d be absolutely ecstatic all day every day.  Just think of how life is for a Leftist.  Your side has none nothing but victory for centuries.  Your worst fear is that your opponents will capitulate before you have a chance to formulate your next set of demands.  Your set dominates the elite in every profession.  All the books, movies, and television shows you’re likely to encounter will reinforce your sense of moral superiority.  And yet they always act like it’s an outrage that they face any opposition whatsoever.  It’s not enough that they always win–they’ve gotten so accustomed to that they don’t notice it anymore; they think victory should be immediate.  Victory is wasted on the party of the future.
  2. What upsets me most isn’t the fact that we traditionalists are going to lose on the marriage and gender role issues–we’ve gotten so accustomed to that we don’t notice it anymore.  What bothers me is that we never really fought.  We never really presented our beliefs to the public.  The fullness of our vision–masculine and feminine virtues, chastity, personal dependency networks, absolute self-donation, the language of the body, and filial piety–was never presented to the public.  It was too “extreme”, too “medieval”.  We decided that we mustn’t frighten the public, and above all we mustn’t question the public’s idol of “sexual equality”, i.e. androgynism.  So we sacrificed the main principle and presented no rationale for our beliefs whatsoever.  The whole point of fighting gay marriage was to defend distinct gender roles.  Instead, the whole case of the “intellectually respectable conservatives” is that one can abolish gender roles while resisting gay marriage.  And one can, but why bother?
  3. I’m getting sick of hearing people say that we have to fight gay marriage because it will lead to polygamy.  If marriage becomes a angrogynous, temporary, nonprocreative legal construct (as it is about to), who cares about polygamy?  As Louis de Bonald pointed out two centuries ago, divorce is a worse offense against the family than polygamy.  The latter, after all, has long existed in many traditional, religious societies; unlike divorce and gay marriage, polygamy doesn’t negate the distinct roles and dependencies of the husband and wife.
  4. I was walking through the university bookstore today, looking at the textbooks for the fall semester.  I saw that there were two books on gender roles required for a sociology course, both written from a feminist perspective, of course.  I walked away feeling quite depressed.  Why is it that the enemy dominates the studies of all the things that matter most to our side?
  5. There’s a certain irony to this, too:  why are so many fields dominated by people who hate their subjects.  Liberals believe that the past is something we must overcome, yet most historians are liberals.  Gender roles are primarily studied by feminists who want to eradicate them.  Sociology is also liberal-dominated, even though liberals, being philosophical individualists, don’t really value society.  Theology departments are staffed by people who despise the Christian tradition.  Anthropologists always hate the culture in which they were raised.  Courses on the classics are taught by egalitarians who don’t believe that a work can be a classic.  It goes on and on.  I think maybe we’ve found a reason why some liberals aren’t happy.