Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Liberal education and liberalism

Peter Schramm beat me to the punch in linking to Jeff Jacoby’s fine article. But I can’t resist adding my two cents.

Jim Sleeper, former columnist of the New York Daily News and current lecturer in political science at Yale University, wrote this in the immediate aftermath of the election:

The challenge for liberals is not to mock those who are being oriented like magnet filings toward a darkening, doomed crusade but to acknowledge American liberalism’s own estrangement from a national character that is often, heaven help us, a balancing act as weird as that of a Jack Nicholson movie character, tottering along on a tightrope between rampant materialism and rapturous faith.

Many places besides Yale have been crucibles where people learn how to keep that balance constructively enough, in themselves as well as in their public posturings, to sustain a republic. But those crucibles are being drained now, or cracked, or chilled, or heated into cauldrons of selfish ambition masked by warlike rhetoric about saving "freedom" from its enemies. Freedom may first have to be saved from Bush, who once said that he "never learned a damned thing at Yale." He certainly didn’t stay on the tightrope of a liberal education any better than Dick Cheney, who dropped out after two years.

For Sleeper, liberal education seems to produce liberalism, which means above all liberation from religion. The balancing act, as he describes it, is accomplished by reason and puts religion in its place, which is surely not the same place that many red state folks put it.

I’m uncomfortable with this formulation and am here making a promise to blog more about this subject (or post something on the main site) after I dig myself out of the blizzard of papers and exams that strikes at the end of the term. Indeed, I’ve promised John Seery and Peter Lawler articles on liberal education and democracy due after the break.

Here’s what I’ll be reading to prepare for this task: William J. Stuntz’s fine "Faculty Clubs and Church Pews"; Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book, God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America, and Harvey Cox’s recent book, When Jesus Came to Harvard. I’ll no doubt remind myself also of what folks in the founding generation had to say on this subject and will consult Thomas and Lorraine Pangle’s invaluable volume, The Learning of Liberty.

Discussions - 4 Comments

Joe: You might also want to look at John G. West’s "The Politics of Revelation and Reason: Religion and Civic Life in the New Nation." (Kansas, 1996, I think)

i’ve been struck over the last few years with a simple fact. [and have seen it mentioned in one or two places recently] And that is, that when a liberal commentator/politician accuses someone of something. that it most certainly applies to the originator of the remark - and generally in an obvious degree.
i havn’t thought more than a minute or two about this post, but it already seems to strike me that way.
that it is the liberal minds that are devoid of free will and "oriented like filings"..... that he speaks of the nation as walking a tightrope , yet i think that most people end up secure in their faith. Especially as they get older.
the "heated cauldrons ... and ... warlike rhetoric" describe the universities far more than anywhere else... what i’ve never understood is how otherwise rational people can ignore facts to the degree that they do to hold typical liberal "positions".

This blog on liberal education and the later blog on diversity suggest essential considerations in connection with professor Knippenberg’s earlier solicitation of ideas about what qualities a college president ought to possess: Put simply, he must first and foremost understand what an American liberal education should be. I have some old ideas on this which, because I don’t know how to link to them here, I will forward to my old friend Peter, to forward to professor Knippenberg, or to the delete ashcan, as he thinks fit. cf

This may seem like a bit of micropsychia, but my first reaction to the passage from Sleeper is to scratch my head over the crucible/tightrope metaphor (you learn to tightrope-walk in a crucible? huh?). And let’s never mind the crusade, the magnet filings, the Jack Nicholson reference (since when does he play "balanced" characters of any sort?), or the cauldron images that swim through Sleeper’s prose like so many moribund grunion, struggling to beach themselves, spawn, and die . . . or whatever.

And this guy is a professional writer?

On second thought, maybe I’m not being so picky. Maybe the lousy writing is a telltale sign of confused thinking. Or maybe Sleeper, like squadrons of his liberalista and Dem buddies, is so intellectually crippled by rage at Bush that all he can do is sputter and fume before landing well short of the airstrip known as "Coherence Field."

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