Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Sex and love in the contemporary university

Others may wish to dwell on the "sex" part of Thomas Hibbs’s essay--for which the biggest recent piece of evidence is this article in Rolling Stone--but I’ll stick to the love. Here’s a snippet:

In his classic statement The Idea of the University, John Henry Newman argues that liberal education can be justified only if "knowledge is capable of being its own end." Although Newman defended professional training, he argued forcefully that universities ought to develop in students a philosophical habit of mind, a habit of wonder and an ability to trace the relationships among different parts of knowledge. One of the reasons for the inclusion of all branches of knowledge in the university curriculum is that even though students "cannot pursue every subject, they will still gain from living among those who represent the whole circle."

There are manifold obstacles to realizing Newman’s idea in today’s university. Given the increasing emphasis on specialization in faculty research, few if any faculty can be said even to approximate representing the "whole circle." And of course students do not "live among" the faculty anyhow. The shared libertarianism of faculty and students results in a diminishing number of contact hours between students and faculty, and even between faculty, who rarely know colleagues outside their departments.

Specialization breeds an inevitable individualism and elevates narrow expertise over breadth of learning. Clearly a university cannot do without rigorous, specialized knowledge in its faculty. The challenge Mr. Lewis and others pose is whether universities can create incentives to balance focus with breadth.

This would entail another sense of liberalism. Such a liberality or generosity of spirit would revive a proper appreciation of amateurism – not in the sense of an absence of serious training but in the etymological meaning of the word "amateur," from the French for "lover."

In an academic context, an amateur would be one who has a passionate enthusiasm for knowledge, an infectious joy at human inquiry itself and a commitment to transforming students from dependent absorbers of information into colleagues in a shared pursuit of knowledge. This spirit of wonder is the most compelling embodiment of Newman’s claim that knowledge is an end in itself. Such a spirit knows no bounds – it can be equally present in an English poetry class, a chemistry lab, a music tutorial or a philosophy seminar.

The modern university seems to offer an excellent example of "the joyless quest for joy," for which genuine liberal education may be something of an antidote.

Read the whole thing.


Hat tip: Rick Garnett.

Discussions - 5 Comments

What a fine essay! (And I’m usually bored by all essays on higher education.) That "shared libertarianism" is the key observation, and the one that defines more than anything else I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS.

When Profs. Dennis Quinn, Frank Nelick and John Senior (protege’ of Mark Van Doren at Columbia) began the "Integrated Humanities Program" at the Univ/Kansas in the early 70s, they adopted as the program’s motto: "Nascantur in Admiratione": "Let Them be Born in Wonder". They were, uh, quite familiar with Newman. Not a day goes by that I don’t recall something one of those great teachers said. With this post I hope to repay some small part of the debt of gratitude I owe them.

Inspiring conclusion from Hibbs as I once again enter the classroom. He also quotes one of the best sentences from Wendell Berry’s approaching-classic-status essay "Sex, Economy, Commmunity, and Freedom": "Sexual liberation ought logically to have brought in a time of ’naturalness,’ ease and candor between men and women. It has, on the contrary, filled the country with sexual self-consciousness, uncertainty and fear."

This bit from Hibbs also seems remarkable, quoting an attractive young undergraduate female: "I’ve never been asked out on a date in my entire life – not once." Nor has a guy ever bought her a drink. "’I think that if anybody ever did that, I would ask him if he were on drugs," she says. Of course for you younger NLT guys reading this, take notes, some of those unattainable-seeming women might be more open to a romantic approach than you’d think, even if you’d have to suffer some incredulousness at first. Perhaps Kate could chime in here, although I’m sure she’ll advise you to focus on beauty of soul first and foremost.

Carl reminds us of a fine quote from Wendell Berry, one of many. If sexual liberation is freedom to experience the truth about our natures, then that truth is not innocence and transparency but anxious self-consciousness and the struggle for power and status. (Again, see I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS) It would be evidence that the Bible is right and, say, Rousseau is wrong about who we are. But for the Bible (not to mention Thomists, Walker Percy, true Aristotelians etc.) the illusion of sexual liberation, of course, is a perversion of our natures as social, loving, and self-conscious beings open to the truth, including the truth about the responsibilities we’ve been given to share in common.

College girls really are treated terribly today, but "market forces" or a perverse incentive system are partly to blame. There are way too few men, as we’ve said, in our better colleges and universities. The result is that women are not in such a good position to teach men how to behave and live, and men mediocre in every way can easily meet etc. girls while rather ruthlessly ignoring the formalities of dating, buying drinks etc. This fall, something live seventy percent of the new students at Berry College are women. Carl is right that the romantic approach would be more effective than ever today, but too many guys are doing well without it. He’s also right, of course, that the nature of women hasn’t changed, and they’re as interested in courting, marriage etc. as ever.

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