David’s recent posts on the Emily Brooker case got me to thinking about the breakdown in higher education of what James Bowman, in Honor: A History, calls “cultural honor.” (See David Billet’s fine review of the book, “Saving Face,” in April Commentary – login required.)
David (French) had reported earlier on a settlement favorable to Brooker, a social work student at Missouri State University who was required to write the state legislature in support of homosexual adoption and then brought up on charges when she refused. As part this settlement, the university pledged to call in professors from outside the university to evaluate the social work department itself.
Later David commended these investigators and the MSU administration for producing an honest report on the disreputable academic department and for demanding that it be called to account for its often “bullying” offenses against academic freedom. (On a different note, Anne added that the “woeful” condition of this department is in part due to ideologically-charged accrediting standards in the field.)
That an academic institution has had the integrity to admit its mistakes is welcome news. But let’s not get carried away: This instance of objective institutional self-examination is scarce as dinosaurs’ teeth; it issues from a rare student’s willingness to fight back against usually unbreachable campus forces and from long, painstaking litigation on the part of the Alliance Defense Fund; and, more to my point here, there would have likely been no happy ending here without investigation from outside MSU.
For many campuses, like MSU, simply no longer live up to their responsibilities to students and society unless they are strong-armed from without their campus ranks. As further evidence of this breakdown of traditional, vigilant self-governance, consider also that it is no small task to find outside “peers” with the courage to objectively judge their irresponsible colleagues.
This decay of engaged, accountable self-rule in the academy can be seen as part of a broader trend on the part of Western elites to abandon the honor tradition that from time immemorial helped give rise to civilization.
Bowman, in his history of the tradition, observes that in primitive societies honor was based on the recognition of brave deeds by one’s peers. In Homeric times it came to mean a great merit to be attained by subordinating one’s individual needs to those of the tribe or community. Over centuries in the classical and Judeo-Christian world, the attributes that led to achieving honor broadened to include not only military accomplishment but private and civic courage and fortitude – from whence sprang what Bowman calls “cultural honor,” a quality associated with fair play, leadership and justice toward the weak, not only in war, sports and chivalry, but also in other social institutions. The American founders extended these characteristics to include productive participation in peacetime endeavors, in addition to patriotism and defense of country.
The demise of institutionalized honor began, Bowman writes, in the trenches of World War I, where bravery and fortitude came to be viewed as futile in face of mechanized weaponry. Propelled next by psychotherapy, which elevated the alienated victim above the heroic warrior – and then by liberal utopianism, pacifism and radical feminism – an ethos outright hostile to honor arose by the time of the Vietnam war.
In what sense is there a connection between honor and the Brooker case, and the contemporary academy?
The resolution of the case was enforced, in the end involving little voluntary private and civic virtue. Without such uncompelled virtue, the academy’s pact with society, consisting in extraordinary privileges of self-management in exchange for its educational services, collapses.
And much of higher education today overtly disdains the attributes ascribed to the erstwhile honor culture:
* It has led the way in nurturing the ideologies that have produced the anti-honor, anti-defense, anti-patriotism state of mind and has become notoriously lax in evaluating the quality of its educational services – in time of war or peace.
* It has not the bravery nor fortitude to champion, as real leaders would, fair play and justice, for example, for the likes of Emily Brooker who take unpopular stands.
* It flagrantly subordinates the public’s needs to its own self-interest.
* And, within its peer group it exhibits and rewards a herd-like conformity – unlike even primitive societies which honored valor.
The academy behaves, in short, dishonorably. The honor tradition must be rekindled within it if it is to serve to guard and transmit civilization, and indeed it must take up its leadership role in transmitting that tradition to the rest of Western elites.
Bowman is firm on the consequences of the failure to reinstate the impulse to honor to its rightful place: Civilization cannot likely endure without it.