Postmodern Conservative

Diversity and Higher Education

I’m giving a lecture tomorrow at 4 p.m. at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., on diversity and Catholic higher education.

Before I get to that, a few observations on the campaign: David Brooks has okayed the ruling team of Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan as worthy of responsible moderates such as himself. It is true that Rubio and Ryan are pretty responsible, and each has generated many policy proposals and manifestos. That means that Rubio–Ryan is now the Republican establishment. And may mean that Cruz will morph into the authentically anti-establishment or most-conservative-in-every-way candidate. If that happens, as our Peter S. point out, Rubio finally wins, because the working-class conservatives will see nothing in the Cruz platform for them. But what if Trump and Carson both endorse Cruz?

But, hold on! There’s no real evidence that the two finalists will be Rubio and Cruz. The first polls after the third debate show Carson and Trump holding steady, commanding together more than a majority of those polled. And alleged surges by Rubio and Cruz amount to pretty small changes that keep them, at this point, far from striking distance. And then there’s Christie and Kasich, both of whom we may be underestimating.

Anyway, my first elevenTED-talk takeaways at Assumption:.

1. The saving grace of American higher education is its diversity.

2. True diversity, of course, is moral and religious diversity, reflected in America’s singular array of public and private colleges.

3. The amount of diversity in American higher education is shrinking rather rapidly.

4. Alexis de Tocqueville claimed to find almost no diversity in American education, and almost no higher education properly speaking at all. All American education is techno-vocational — or for providing skills and competencies for middle-class beings, for free beings who work. There was no disciplined and leisurely study of philosophy, theology, music, literature, art, poetry, or even physics for their own sakes. In a restless country full of men and women on the make, nobody has the time for study that doesn’t lead to money.

5. He did find that the Puritans did value public education to a high level, for the purpose of allowing everyone to read the Bible for himself or herself. We see a powerful residual form of that devotion, Marilynne Robinson observes, into antebellum Oberlin, where everyone, including professors, did manual labor and everyone, including blacks and women, received a genuinely liberal, or deeply bookish, education. Oberlin was a model not only of diversity but of our other value of inclusivity. So we can compare neo-Puritanical Oberlin with the Oberlin graduate displayed on the HBO series Girls; the latter is lacking both in liberal education — or genuine self-knowledge — and any way to earn a useful living. She is a clueless parasite and a really bad friend. She’s also an official lover of diversity, although not in the genuine or moral and religious sense. She loves having a black boyfriend, until she finds out he’s a libertarian who votes Republican.

6. So, more generally, the Christian contribution to American higher education, which originates, for example, in St. Augustine, is that both work and contemplation are forever. Socrates was wrong when he thought he was above practicing the virtue of charity. And the Christians defended Sunday as a day of leisurely reflection for us all. It’s Christianity that has defended civilized leisure against our restless materialism, without denying that all creatures are equal under the law. Christianity — confidently dogmatic Christianity — is America’s counterculture, and Tocqueville was wrong not to see how important it has been in cultivating the diverse islands of excellence that save American higher education from leveling techno-mediocrity.

7. The American Catholic schools, historically, have contributed not only to our genuine diversity but to our inclusivity, with their noble effort to make philosophy and theology — and even Greek and Latin — available to every member of our immigrant working class. Everyone is to be educated for both work and as a being with a soul. The effort to educate all Americans with the soul in mind, Robinson says, is our finest moment, our non-condescending egalitarianism. We were all born to live the the truth, we are all unique and irreplaceable beings with singular destinies.

8. In response, allegedly, to the imperatives of the marketplace, many or most of our private colleges — including our Catholic colleges — are surrendering their missions of liberal education in view of the imperatives of the 21st-century global marketplace. Liberal education no longer sells, and it is irrelevant to the real world students will face.

9. The new goal is not to produce literate ladies and gentlemen with the literacy or “content” both to flourish in the marketplace and confidently live their faiths.  It is “competence,” or the acquisition of ”methods,” divorced from “content,” that can applied in any workplace setting. Competence wouldn’t seem to be the goal of higher education. Why competence? College, it is thought, pretty much is charged with doing what high school once did. Not only that. Colleges are criticized for not even delivering competence, for not adding any value to the students’ marketability, for charging them big money for results that don’t pay off. Competence must be demonstrated to prove to students and parents that the product is worth that sometimes huge tuition.

10. Competence also displaces content because colleges no longer think of themselves as having the warrant to teach authoritatively about what each of us is and what we are supposed to do. They no longer think that there’s any definitive human content that students must know to flourish as creatures or as citizens or individuals. So they think of the humanities as a series of preferences or lifestyle options or even hobbies that students can choose (or not) to tastefully consume. They can be justified as ways of picking up indispensable skills or competencies, but they are not the only way. And for the humanities to be rigorous enough to be the source of competencies, they must be taught by people who think of them as genuine sources of truth or beauty or of some kind of profound human insight that can be grasped only through disciplined pursuit.

11. That means, of course, that diversity in one sense undermines genuine diversity. If the bottom line is that philosophy, theology, and so forth present a diversity of perspectives or “truths,” and that the core competency of higher education is appreciating that diversity by refusing to privilege one claim for truth or excellence over another, then colleges surrender the diversity that comes from their being grounded in some faith-based truth or doctrine. Diversity understood as relativism makes all content equally optional for students, and it bolsters the view that education is all about the “hows” — or methods — that can serve any “why.” So even the humanities become the “digital humanities.” There’s no real moral and religious diversity in a country where all colleges make diversity the bottom line, as, for example, serving customers from very different backgrounds in a global marketplace. Diversity trumps the Catholic insight that people from different countries — from different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and so forth — can be united by sharing the same faith or the same understanding of the relationship between faith and reason or the same account of the personal logos that infuses each of us and that binds us all together.

That’s enough for now. Come to Assumption and here the rest.





Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...


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