Readers of this magazine are probably familiar with the depressing situation on American campuses: the ideologues, disinvitations, deplatformings, policies detrimental to free speech and free enquiry and so on. It might be tempting to consider those universities a lost cause, doomed to consume themselves in cycles of ever-increasing hysteria and persecution. But it would be wrong.
In his new book Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education, conservative professor Jonathan Marks agrees that American universities have many problems, but urges caution (in true conservative fashion) to his fellows on the right who would burn it all down. Marks believes in liberal education: liberal in the broad, philosophical sense, not the narrow political one. And he uses data to show that the problem is not nearly as bad as the apocalyptic right would have it.
To hear such an eloquent, witty conservative make this case is refreshing. Marks argues against those on the right, like Patrick Deneen, who are fed up with the Enlightenment and liberalism and want to engage in an all-out power struggle with the left to impose their own totalising, even totalitarian, vision on society. (Marks might find much of value in Matthew McManus’s work on postmodern conservatism, which I have examined before and which discusses Deneen and the irrational modern right from a thoughtful leftist viewpoint). Marks’ conservatism is based on the principles of the American founding and the Enlightenment. It is, as he says, a conservative liberalism, conservative in the sense that it wishes to preserve the American Enlightenment tradition (he is cautiously optimistic about the power of reason). This is quite different from the European conservatism that defined itself against the Enlightenment in the wake of the French Revolution, as well as the global postmodern variety.
Marks is a little too defensive for my taste in justifying his conservatism against the likes of Deneen:
This is not the time to have it out between conservatives who wish to conserve liberalism and those, like Deneen, who have been waiting five hundred years to say, “I told you so!” But we don’t need to have that fight to see that Deneen’s fundamental reason for separating conservatives from the idea of liberal education, that liberal education makes too many concessions to the wrong turn Europe took in the seventeenth century, relies on a rather narrow understanding of conservatism.
Though I am not a conservative, I applaud Marks’ defence of a thoughtful and sensible conservatism in the face of dogmatists on both left and right. In fact, the liberal principles Marks wishes to conserve were and still are quite radical, since they go against millennia of morbid defences of authoritarian control over knowledge and governance. Liberal principles continue to inspire revolutionaries and opponents of tyranny even today.
But what does Marks mean by the term liberalism? Taking his cue from Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, Marks writes:
From Closing, we learn that liberal education responds to the question “every young person asks: ‘Who am I?’” which means, “‘What is man?’” Teachers assist students in fulfilling “human nature against all the deforming forces of convention and prejudice.” But in “our chronic lack of certainty” about how to answer the question of what we are and what the best way of life is, liberal education “comes down to knowing the alternative answers,” many of which are to be found in books, “and thinking about them.” The “liberally educated person” is free enough of the prejudices of her time and place to “resist the easy and preferred answers” to these questions. Liberally educated people will almost certainly be good at dealing with complicated things, and may even be nice. But they’ll also know what it’s like to put the questions of what one is and of how one should live at the center of their concerns, and be familiar with the pleasure, usefulness, and freedom of conversing about those questions.
I think that liberal education so conceived can shape reasonable people, the shaping of whom I’ve proposed as liberal education’s aim.
Liberalism, for Marks, entails an appreciation, in the true Bloomian tradition, of the great books and great minds of the past. And it entails a respect for reason, above all. Invoking John Locke, Marks says that one of the main aims of education should be to instil rationality—by which, he doesn’t mean an ability to logic-chop or list intellectual fallacies from memory, but a respect for reason as our best guide to finding truth and solving problems. While a partisan might doggedly cling to her point, “reasonable people” will be open to examining their own ideas and admitting when they are wrong.
A reasonable person, in this view, follows reason, argument and evidence wherever they take her. This sounds simple but, of course, it is a very difficult virtue to cultivate in oneself, let alone to persuade others to adopt. Marks is not arguing for reason as a battering ram with which to crush one’s opponents, he is arguing that we should think of reason in moral terms. Again invoking Locke, Marks says that anyone who would betray reason ought to feel morally ashamed.
How might Marks’ liberal aims be achieved? In his final chapter, Marks uses the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement as a case study. BDS is a good example of tribalism from the left, whose theorists, shows Marks, care more about taking over universities for their own political ends than using them as places of rational enquiry and debate. So they betray reason, by using propagandistic tactics like exaggerating Israel’s actions or misleadingly reporting on events in the region. BDS treats the university as an ideological launching pad. Some professors have combatted this by fashioning courses—in Marks’ case with a leftist colleague—in which all sides of the issue can be discussed with rigorous scholarly discipline.
This helps cultivate “reasonable people” and “intellectual communit[ies]” rather than fanatical ideologues and warmongering tribes. Outside the academy, of course, we are free to engage in political fisticuffs, but inside it we should value reason over propaganda.
Marks admits that progress on this front will be slow, but points to recent concrete achievements by the likes of FIRE and Heterodox Academy as evidence that such an incremental approach can work. I would add that mandatory first-year courses on the arguments for and against free speech would also help to cultivate a “moral atmosphere” of the sort Marks would like to see.
The BDS movement and the Deneen school of conservatism are interesting examples of how both sides converge against liberal education. Deneen has even openly agreed with radical leftist Harvard student Sandra Korn that academic freedom is a load of rubbish and that specific ideological agendas should be instilled in students (although they he and Kohn obviously differ as to which ones). As Marks summarises:
Enemies can come to resemble each other. So it’s no surprise that some conservatives share the view of their progressive opponents, that colleges and universities, whose dedication to reason is a sham, are instruments of a ruling elite, whose dedication to freedom and equality is a sham. It’s no surprise that some conservatives share the view that we should wage war against universities, albeit from without rather than from within. It’s no surprise that some conservatives share the view that everything is political, that politics is about dominance and subjection, and that those conservatives who think otherwise are squishes.
The woke left and the postmodern right, in other words, would prefer to use propaganda in the pursuit of naked power rather than engage reason in the pursuit of truth.
Marks writes fluently and humorously and his clear devotion to his students is one of the loveliest aspects of the book. If only we had more conservatives like Marks, more academics who could write like this, and more teachers and students who thought like this!
However, Marks misses one of the main reasons for the recent wave of wokery. He is sometimes a bit too concerned with knocking down the image of students as mollycoddled cry-babies. He is right to temper the exaggeration we so often see, but one reason things have become worse over the past five years or so is the crystallisation of a new ideology: that of Critical Social Justice, as discussed in Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories. The reification of postmodern and Social Justice ideas, mixed with other trends that Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have outlined, has produced something especially malignant, I would argue.
Another small issue I take is with Marks’ focus on “civility” and his too hard distinction between mere arguers and intellectuals. As I have written elsewhere, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of pugnacity!
Marks rightly argues that liberal education challenges our presentism: by analysing the problems that the great thinkers and civilisations of the past faced and how they faced them, we can gain better insight into our own time, instead of obsessively focusing on the here and now as somehow uniquely different from the situations other humans have experienced.
Marks is right. Liberal education could help us overcome the inanities of the present and build a glorious and meaningful future. To focus on such a magnificent shared endeavour, to echo Toby Ord, would be to make the best of being human.
Marks writes, “If we define ‘us’ as those inside and outside of universities who think the attempt to become reasonable is worth making at universities, and ‘them’ as those inside and outside universities who consider this attempt naïve or harmful, I think there are more of us than there are of them.” This is not about a simple struggle between the woke professors who indoctrinate students versus the brave defenders of tradition and civilisation: it is a contest between those who value reason and those who don’t. This is a very helpful way of cutting through tribal knots and countering the hyperbole with which many discuss higher education. There is an alliance to be forged here—between the liberal-minded of all political persuasions against their anti-reason, anti-liberal enemies, in the spirit of Pluckrose and Lindsay’s anti-anti-modernist manifesto.
Liberal education is something worth fighting for, not something rarefied or reserved for the middle classes. Marks discusses the Clemente Course, which provides a liberal education to the poorest and most desperate and Marks himself teaches at a non-elite college. And he is right that “the health of our civilization” depends, at least partially, on liberal education. Throughout the book, Marks invokes philosophers and writers from Socrates to Locke, Tocqueville and Bloom. Tocqueville thought that democracy could bring out “the natural greatness” in humanity. A liberal education is an instantiation of this idea: most of us can’t be geniuses, but we can all aspire to be reasonable in Marks’ sense. How immeasurably our civilisation would improve were this to be fully realised.
The book closes optimistically, recommending the Chicago principles and channelling the spirit of that great University of Chicago educator, Robert Maynard Hutchins. Says Marks, “Now, perhaps even more than in other times, those who love reason and know its fragility can be persuaded and, in turn, persuade others that liberal education addresses a permanent need.”
In his brilliant novel The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow’s eponymous hero speaks of “the universal eligibility to be noble.” This should be the goal of liberal education: to help us pursue this worthiness and to help others to do so, too. Marks’ book can help inspire us.