American higher education must assume some blame for today

Of the myriad of autopsies on the riot at the United States Capital and the Trump presidency Yale historian Timothy ‘[Snyder’s piece, “The American Abyss,” in the January 9, 2021 edition of the New York Times Magazine is worth a read. Professor Snyder’s essay unpacks the oft-repeated refrain since 2016 […]

Of the myriad of autopsies on the riot at the United States Capital and the Trump presidency Yale historian Timothy ‘[Snyder’s piece, “The American Abyss,” in the January 9, 2021 edition of the New York Times Magazine is worth a read. Professor Snyder’s essay unpacks the oft-repeated refrain since 2016 that “Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president.” Snyder writes post-truth includes the loss of agreement about “some basic facts” that puts citizenship in peril. Worse, losing “institutions that produce facts” leaves us wallowing in “abstractions and fictions” with the end result being “post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth.” The upshot: Trump’s presidency is an avatar of post-truth pre-fascism in the United States.

The claim demands further examination. If Trump is the first post-truth president, how did we come to a post-truth moment in our politics? Were there indications we were sliding away from “basic facts” into “abstractions and fictions” before Trump’s election? If the erosion and distortion of truth is a symptom of fascism the origins need to be understood, and answers may precede the Trump years by some decades. In particular, we should consider those institutions designed to convey truth from one generation to the next, such as our educational system, and chiefly our universities.

From the founding of the country the promise of American freedom and the duties of American citizenship depended upon a public committed to training rational people capable of virtuous behavior. In other words, citizenship in a free society required a certain understanding of personhood itself. If one wishes to understand freedom and responsibility one must first ask and answer what a person is. People can know good from bad, they can balance and discipline their intellect and their affections; they can suspend their appetites and self-interests for the sake of peace and negotiate differences through shared moral assumptions. Family, religion, friendships, and community organizations are essential for such training. But so too is education.

In recent decades elements of higher education have called personhood into question as well as inherited ideas of personhood that make citizenship sustainable. In the hands of the more suspicious among the professorial class reason, virtue, and moral order have been interrogated and dismissed as tools of power and oppression. Freedom is posited as a foundational good and necessary reality, but inherited understandings of reason and morality that serve as checks on freedom are subject to constant scrutiny. “Post-truth” found fertile soil in classrooms across the country through the resulting confusion of tongues. Not mind you, in the sciences, nobody wants a post-truth engineer or surgeon, but rather in the disciplines intended to convey purpose and meaning.

The first victim in the post-truth revolution is not politics, but human nature itself. Rational human nature is rejected as an organizing principle of reality. Humanness is plastic, it is whatever one says it is in the name of freedom. Moderation, a prerequisite of freedom, is replaced by will and desire. Justice devolves into no more or less than the realization of personal fulfillment and the assertion of one’s chosen happiness. Faction and conflict, inevitable amongst free people, fail mediation and are instead encouraged until one political side completely obliterates the other. In the world of post-truth, the premises of American order are turned on their head.

More than politics, higher education contributed to this revolution in our understanding of human nature and American order. Over the course of a generation the Civil Rights Act of 1964, itself a monumental work of rational human nature in the virtuous pursuit of freedom, transformed into a sweeping program of identity politics at war with a pliable abstraction called “privilege.” The college years, a time intended to bring reflection and inquiry to maturity before assuming adulthood, saw activism become inseparable from academics. Critical theory, a post-World-War-Two European import of “fiction inviting regimes of myth” to borrow Snyder’s expression, expanded and weaponized. Diversity emerged as a political good, but offered no criteria by which it could be morally evaluated, nor any coherent means by which diverse peoples could pursue common civic values. Universities charged outrageous tuition for degrees emphasizing such teachings at the expense of older humanistic pursuits that reinforced responsible citizenship and leadership. In short, crucial aspects of American higher education reduced truth and personhood to the constraints of will and power long before Trump descended the escalator in 2016.

Higher education used to make room for dissent and disagreement without resorting to tribalism or subversion. Modern universities have severely narrowed such room. Our politics are a reflection, rather than the cause of this deficit. American higher education must assume some blame for the dystopia stalking our shared public lives. Fragmentation, suspicion, and relativism championed in the classroom translate into post-truth adults longing for order, coherency, and security. The loss of freedom and the road to fascism begins not with any one political figure but rather with moral commitments and the kind of personhood they endorse.

President’s Trump’s exit and the arrival of a new administration will not rectify the post-truth crisis of our politics. The corrosion of post-truth politics will be slowed when those who claim the power of cultural and political interpretation accept that truth not only exists, but they themselves are subordinate to it.

William Jason Wallace holds the Stockham Chair of Western Intellectual History in the History Department of Samford University

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