Last week, a disruptive “Free Palestine” protest broke out on my campus, the University of Southern California. As a philosophy major, I’m often curious to talk with people and ask them why they believe the things they do. So, I spoke with one of the protesters. He was outfitted in black jeans and a black shirt bearing the phrase “Free Palestine.” He wore sunglasses and a mask emblazoned with the flag of Palestine. He carried a large Palestinian flag. I suspect that he was a student, but I could not confirm this.

“Why are you marching today?” I asked.

“To stop genocide,” he replied.

“Why would you march for that?”

“Because I think genocide is wrong.”

Continuing in attempted Socratic fashion, I asked: “So the morality of something depends on individual intuition? There is, as the saying goes, ‘no right or wrong, but thinking makes it so?’”

“Yeah, morality is, like, just what people believe, and what people believe changes over time and across cultures,” he said.

“If that is the case, then I don’t see why you are marching,” I responded. “One person thinks genocide is bad, and the other thinks it is fine. In your view, both are equally correct because there is no correct answer. What right do you have, then, to march up and down this campus telling others to change their opinion to match yours, if yours is no more right or wrong than theirs?”

At this point, the protestor offered several incoherent sentences before shouting wildly at me. This drew the attention of his fellow marchers, who accosted me similarly. I left to avoid a scene.

I hadn’t even argued for or against his major premise—one that I avidly reject—that Israel is committing genocide. Yet the demonstrator was nonetheless incapable of rationally justifying his belief. Anecdotal evidence from protests on other campuses around the country suggests he is not alone in this. How did it come to be that so many are incapable of defending their passionately held beliefs and discerning any objective notion of moral right or wrong?

Look no further than our institutions of higher education and their neglect of the great thinkers and ideas that get at life’s most persistent questions: What is good, what is justice, who am I? Many young people, atrophied of mind yet obstinate in opinion, remain largely unexposed to, and unable to grasp the value of, a humanities education. They navigate life through feelings, ignorant of works of history, philosophy, and literature, except those that confirm their priors. They don’t trouble themselves with coherence or consistency, either. The same students who decry the American Founders as hateful, colonialist oppressors maintain that morality is subjective, determined by each person in his own private judgment.

In part, today’s campus protests are the fruit of our educational institutions’ failure to impart an appreciation of the humanities. They point to a troubled future: one where slogans replace arguments, contradiction is accepted as fact, and public disorder is mistaken for private virtue.

We need to reverse course. Students shouldn’t be able to graduate from college without studying the Federalist Papers or Aristotle’s Ethics or having read Shakespeare and Tolstoy. Universities must once again transmit the best of the Western tradition, the ideas that have guided countless young people throughout the ages and taught them how to interrogate our world in search of truth. Only folly and arrogance prevent us from doing so once again.

Photo by Grace Hie Yoon/Anadolu via Getty Images


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