Last week, while we were teaching in the forbidden courses program of UATX (commonly referred to as the University of Austin), the economist Deirdre McCloskey told me a story. The year was 1969, and an official from Princeton had come to the Institute for Advanced Study to discuss the university’s decision to establish an African-American Studies program. Students in Cornell’s Afro-American Society had recently engineered an armed takeover of Willard Strait Hall. Met with skepticism about the proposal, the exasperated official finally blurted out, “But the black students have the guns!” To which economist Alexander Gerschenkron replied, “When I hear the word ‘guns,’ I reach for my culture.”
On hot-button political issues, Americans today have itchy trigger fingers. Chalk it up to poor education. Academia, which is upstream of culture and politics alike, has become a den of ideological uniformity and score-settling snitching that promotes the forceful (and sometimes violent) suppression of speech. But while most colleges and universities are effectively teaching students to reach for their guns, some teach them to reach for their culture. That means cultivating the citizenly virtues of interpretive charity, intellectual humility, and open-mindedness without which politics in the proper sense—the collective determination of matters of common concern through public debate—becomes impossible.
UATX’s forbidden courses program, which brought together undergraduates from leading colleges and universities, lived up to its name. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s course analyzed “key foundations of critical thinking, argumentation, reasoned debate, and freedom of expression, as these pertain to some of the most controversial issues of our day.” Students studied logical argumentation and read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty in preparation for exploring theses like “Islam is a religion of peace” and “transgender women are women” from opposing perspectives. Kathleen Stock’s course on varieties of feminism examined “what kind of metaphysical and political subject is being implicitly conjured in the background under the heading ‘woman,’ and whether it is a coherent one.” Writer Thomas Chatterton Williams introduced his class to the “pain, rage, and hope of America’s most loyal critics,” including Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. McCloskey’s course asked whether capitalism has been a tragedy or a triumph. Historian Niall Ferguson led an examination of free and unfree societies in the twentieth century.
Energized by these and other courses, students uniformly expressed their eagerness to obtain more intellectual nourishment. The discussions sparked during the morning seminars continued as casual but deep conversations through lunch and even dinner. One student noted that, during bowling one evening, “it was a running joke that we were all missing our turns because we were so engaged in conversation.”
The disarming power of culture was palpable. Students who had learned to hold their tongues in college classrooms poured forth their souls once the cork of wariness was unstopped. They attended workshops and discussions with Nadine Strossen, Bari Weiss, Peter Boghossian, David Mamet, Edward Luttwak, and Arthur Brooks, among others. Stock, a lesbian feminist with teenage children who was hounded out of the University of Sussex for her belief that “we should be free to debate the trans lobby’s growing demands that we recognize a person’s ‘gender identity’ rather than their biological sex,” and McCloskey, a world-class economist whose 1999 book Crossing details her social and surgical transition from male to female, engaged in a riveting public debate about sex, gender, and identity that modeled vigorous but respectful disagreement. (Stock said that this was the first time any transgender individual had been willing to debate her in public.) The benefits of this event were immediately apparent. During the discussion period, students followed the example of the speakers in posing hard questions and frankly sharing their opinions.
Students in my course on “The Opium of Ideology” wanted to talk about the nature and preconditions of meaningful discussion. We began with Aristotle’s understanding of politics as the citizenly exercise of speech (logos): the public sharing of articulate perceptions of the advantageous and the harmful and hence (because these things can be distributed fairly or unfairly) the just and the unjust. How can people with fundamental moral disagreements talk to one another? Then again, is real speech possible where there exists total uniformity of opinion, as in Babel? How does speech differ from voice, the often-indignant expression of emotion that now passes for public “conversation”? Does personal experience give one absolute authority in an argument?
Readings from Dostoevsky, Raymond Aron, Czesław Miłosz, and Joshua Mitchell elicited more questions. How does the biblical claim that human beings are made in the image of God capture the sacrosanct character of individual freedom and dignity? How does ideology appropriate the form of religion while distorting and debasing its content? Can one produce good art if the purpose is to promote propaganda? Is patriarchy more to be feared, or matriarchy—as Dostoevsky, Tocqueville, and Kierkegaard believed?
Discussions in the forbidden courses ultimately centered on the kinds of fundamental questions for which Socrates was known, ones that take the form “What is x?” What is a woman? What is race? (Is it an essential human characteristic, or an adventitious one?) What is justice? What is compassion? The widespread insistence that we have arrived at incontestable answers, or that ordinary citizens are unqualified to discuss such matters, conceals the fact that we have forgotten how to ask the most basic questions. This goes a long way toward explaining the collapse of essential American institutions.
If we are to restore our society’s political health—and that is the awesome burden facing the rising generation of young Americans—we must recover the capacity of speech and reinvigorate the virtues that sustain it. The forbidden courses left me full of admiration for the many capable students who have joined us in this endeavor, and more confident than ever that it will succeed.
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