Postmodern Conservative

Higher Education and Rational Control

Serenity now; or, getting over yourself

So I’ve found a few minutes this afternoon to work on the keynote talk I’m giving next Saturday at the conference of the professors who teach with core texts. Theirs is the only teaching method and delivery system I can believe in. Here is a very rough taste:

Higher education, Tocqueville says, is countercultural in a democracy because it’s basically aristocratic. That is, it privileges the truth about the human soul and the cosmos over the kind of utility that chains philosophy and science to economics, politics, and medicine. Higher education, from a democratic view, can be regarded as inconsiderate and sterile. Nothing ever gets done! The time for talk is over, and the time for action is now, say both the social-justice warriors and the disruptive innovators. 

As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, what time do we have for philosophy and theory when we have to be able to fend off the asteroids threatening to pulverize our planet? And then there’s the climate that’s always threatening to change enough to make human life or even human flourishing impossible to sustain on our planet.  

There’s no time to raise the merely theoretical question of the meaning of climate change. Or to wonder whether there’s a lot more than we often realize about our sometimes paranoid preoccupation with the extinction of life or of our species. And there’s our transhumanists who are spending so much time and treasure trying to deploy technology to fend off their own personal extinctions. One’s own biological death, they think, is no longer a reality that we accept in order to live well and be happy; death has become a problem to be solved. 

From the point of view of higher education, the dominant view of the great books across the ages is that philosophy is learning how to die, to get over obsessing about your personal significance. Being itself is not in our hands, and it’s the fate of persons to be extinguished, unless there’s a personal and loving God willing to save us. Some raging against the dying of the light is to be expected and can even be noble, as long as you don’t forget that the light is being extinguished, no matter what you may do.

But, the middle-class democrat responds, the resulting serenity now gets in the way of what we really can do to control our environment and make the lives of persons more secure. The dissident philosopher-novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one of the most courageous persons of the 20th century, says that what’s wrong with the Americans is their lack of a clear and calm attitude toward death. But maybe that’s what’s right with them: They’re all about being agents of change, about bringing the future under our rational control. 

But if the point of life is to extend one’s own being through rational control, then there’s very little place for real higher education. That might be the main reason that what remains of liberal education in our country is under siege.

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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