The Mod | Euthanizing Liberty

Tuesday, 30 Jun 2020

Upon learning of Liberty University’s decision to eliminate its philosophy program, I felt as I did when I learned Cedarville University cut its philosophy major back in 2013, and again when Gordon College did the same last year. Mt. Vernon Nazarene University, where I was an adjunct professor of philosophy, followed suit. The latest example in this trend is the University of the West of England, which just announced its decision to the shock and dismay of its philosophy faculty. I felt disheartened and disappointed—even a little embarrassed on behalf of these self-proclaimed liberal arts institutions for making such shameful decisions. How could they be so myopic?

They make these decisions mostly on utilitarian grounds, mostly “bottom dollar” considerations, irrespective of the actual worth of the field of study. Believing it to be impractical, philosophy is always one of the first on the chopping block. The intrinsic value of philosophy doesn’t even occur to them, and they get its practical value all wrong. Studying philosophy isn’t valuable because it teaches critical or creative thinking skills that aid a career in law, journalism, business, or even entertainment (something Monty Python, the Simpsons, and the Coen brothers all have in common). If we must think only of philosophy’s practical value, we should do so as Tom Morris does. “Something is practical,” he writes, “if it helps you to realize your goals. If your goals include knowing who you really are, what life in this world is all about, and what’s ultimately important, then philosophy is eminently practical. If these things are not among your goals, well, then you need new goals.” This is a point Robert George makes in his plea to Liberty to save its philosophy department, calling philosophy “the most practical of all academic disciplines.” Thus “you cannot have a true liberal arts college or university that does not have a vibrant philosophy department,” George concludes. I agreed with George’s plea.

But as I reflected more about this trend, I came to see it quite differently. The embarrassment remains, but being disheartened and disappointed implies having reasonable expectations that are frustrated. In the present case, we expect certain things, such as a having vibrant philosophy department, of any “true liberal arts college or university.” But this expectation betrays a naïve perspective of institutions of higher education today. There are few, if any, true liberal arts colleges or universities left. Why, then, should we expect there to by many vibrant philosophy departments?

The fact is, humanities departments have been on life support for years. And I don’t just mean financially. They are on ideological life support. What was once their heart—the cannon of literary classics of Western thought and tradition—no longer pumps its blood into these places. By that metric, humanities departments are, for all original intents and purposes, already clinically dead. What we owe them, therefore, is not a plea to their host universities to save them, but a plea for their mercy killing.

A learned man like George might object that euthanizing the humanities would effectively render modern institutions of higher education “universities” in name only. But that is what they already are. Universities, in the classical sense, were institutions based on a commitment to certain philosophical ideals. Chief among those ideals was that universities were places to acquire a deep understanding of not just one body of knowledge, but all of them into an integrated whole (hence their name, derived from the Latin universitas). The discipline of philosophy, wherein one often abstracts a universal from particulars, or perceives underlying unity in some diversity, was essential to this goal. Learning and understanding, furthermore, were assumed to be good not just for their utility, but for their own sake. Universities were therefore thought of as places to cultivate the ability to enjoy what John Stewart Mill called the higher pleasures: pleasures that require a disciplined mind and temperament to appreciate, such as might be found in a pithy translation of Homeric prose, the impossibly beautiful melodies of Bach, the elegance of a mathematical theorem, or the grasping of lofty philosophical concepts. This is all nowhere better articulated than in John Henry Newman’s magisterial The Idea of the University, where the importance of theology in university curricula, especially as facilitating students’ moral development, is also rightly emphasized.

The modern university is almost a perfect inversion of its classical counterpart. Aside from required “core” classes (the dual purpose of which is to scam students out of more money while making sure they’re exposed to the latest academic propaganda they wouldn’t otherwise encounter), students focus on increasingly narrow areas of specialization. Information is sought not as an end in itself, but as a means to a credential, and ultimately, a job. I say “information” and not “knowledge” because knowledge requires the integration of true beliefs with their reasons, which is an intellectual achievement too exacting for many modern students. “Will this be on the exam?” is perhaps the most frequently asked question, with “Did I miss anything important in class today?” as a close second. And if the answer is yes, a note is scribbled to later store the relevant soundbite in one’s memory only for as long as recall is needed. Learning is viewed as a necessary evil, peripheral to the summum bonum of indulging the lower pleasures of food, drink, sex, and passive entertainment.

Wisdom, the pursuit of which once drove people to the university, should now drive them away from it. This is the sad conclusion of two recent meticulously researched monographs: Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education: Why The Education System is a Waste of Time and Money and Jason Brennan and Philip Magness’ Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education. A real liberal arts education gave Alan Bloom the philosophical insight to foresee their conclusions more than three decades earlier, as detailed in his The Closing of the American Mind. Over the course of his career as a professor, Bloom witnessed the souls of his students becoming ever more bestial as universities lowered their standards. But even a man as prescient as him could not have foreseen the onset of speech codes, trigger warnings, and safe spaces. Such maternalistic niceties, designed as they are to “protect” students from discomfort, all but complete their bestial transformation by subordinating reason to instinct and passion, censoring the former out of deference to the latter. Unsurprisingly, this severely impedes students’ emotional, moral, and intellectual growth. For more on this, see Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s updated treatment of Bloom’s topic in their The Coddling of the American Mind.

Universities, therefore, are not producing well-rounded ladies and gentlemen. Those who earn humanities degrees tend to be particularly unwholesome, for they receive concentrated doses of the soul-poison variously known as “critical theory” and “intersectionality” and “gender studies”, the effect of which renders one incapable of forming true beliefs about race, sex, gender, class, and religion. Considering current events, perhaps virus is the better analogy.  Universities are hotbeds of an infectious ideological disease that destroys social cohesion. Christian universities are not immune, even ostensibly conservative ones like Liberty. Once graduated, infected students spread the virus throughout the rest of the body politic. Its symptoms have been evident for years but, as current events indicate, have recently become especially acute. I don’t see a cure being developed in the near future. But in the meantime—“these uncertain times”—the elimination of humanities departments would certainly help “flatten the curve.”

This recommended course of action does have one tragic consequence: the good professors left would be collateral damage. But they, too, have been suffering. Most of them I know silently endure countless indignities inflicted upon them from hen-pecking administrators and activist colleagues intent on infecting their once venerable discipline with the ideological virus. It is now not uncommon to require professors to alter their syllabi to include material from “marginalized voices,” quality being an irrelevant consideration. That a course on modern philosophy, for example, must now replace even the least luminous among Suárez, Descartes, Berkeley, Locke, Malebranche, Pascal, Spinoza, Newton, Leibniz, Clarke, and Montesquieu for, say, Margaret Cavendish is simply a perversion. And that’s the point. Whatever is normal is “problematic” and must therefore be “deconstructed.” Just the other day I received an email advertising a new reading group “open to any graduate student or faculty member in any department interested in decolonizing and/or abolishing the structures of their own fields of study.” Imagine having colleagues who want to destroy your field of study as it is traditionally conceived, and who will likely want to destroy you if you demur. So, to those real professors out there, get out if you can, for in the immortal words of Harvy Dent, “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

I will end on a (slightly) more hopeful note. In his 2017 book The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher says orthodox Christians should think of themselves as a people in exile, and that their best chance of preserving their faith and traditions is to form quasi-monastic communities within this increasingly hostile post-Christian culture. Those of us who still believe in the university, classically understood, would do well to consider adopting a similar strategy. Since we can no longer depend on modern institutions of higher education as places where the great classics of Western thought and tradition can be faithfully taught, learned, and engaged, we will have to do those things on our own. Thankfully, we are not in wholly untrodden territory. Homeschooling parents have been blazing these trails for a long time. As for aspiring academics, William Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, is a model. True, few people have the means to support themselves as an independent scholar. But those who find a way will be precisely those seek knowledge for its own sake. The independent scholar will not have to continually debase himself by justifying his own field of study to some institutional bureaucrat or even to his colleagues. Furthermore, being unburdened by the duties of managing classes of disinterested students and time-consuming administrative tasks, he is in a position to do his best work.

In conclusion, I now see the closure of philosophy departments, along with others in the humanities, as a good thing, for three reasons. First, institutions of higher education have already devolved to the point that the humanities are a mere vestigial organ. Their removal helps clarify the image of these institutions as something other than true universities. Second, removing the humanities will help slow the spread of the insidious ideology destroying society that’s incubated there. Finally, it’s plausible that the future of the humanities is better off in the hands of independent lovers of wisdom. So, to all the institutional bureaucrats just thinking about the bottom dollar: cut the humanities! Slash, chop, dice, hack them into nothing. Leave thinking about the bigger picture to those who know what a real university is.



C.A. McIntosh earned his BA in philosophy at Calvin College, and MA and PhD in philosophy at Cornell University. He currently lives in central Ohio where he enjoys homesteading and writing when he can.



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