The big threat on cam­pus

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Ramesh Ponnuru

Robert P. Ge­orge and Cor­nel West, both pro­fes­sors at Prince­ton, are a po­lit­i­cal odd cou­ple. Ge­orge is out­spo­kenly con­ser­va­tive while West has been co-chair of the Demo­cratic So­cial­ists of Amer­ica. One mea­sure of the po­lit­i­cal dis­tance be­tween the two of them is that Ge­orge re­fused to sup­port Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign be­cause of doubts about his con­ser­vatism and char­ac­ter, while West dis­sented from Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign from the left.

Yet they are close friends, fre­quently and un­af­fect­edly call­ing each other “brother.” For sev­eral years they have been teach­ing a class to­gether — ti­tled “Ad­ven­tures in Ideas” and ex­plor­ing the thought of writ­ers from Plato and St. Augustine to John Dewey and C.S. Lewis — and hold­ing pub­lic dis­cus­sions around the coun­try.

A few days ago, I mod­er­ated a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween them at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, where I am a fel­low, on the pur­pose of the lib­eral arts. From time to time th­ese dis­cus­sions have led to con­tro­versy: At Swarth­more, some stu­dents op­posed host­ing the duo be­cause Ge­orge, an alum­nus of the col­lege, op­poses same-sex mar­riage.

Given their com­mon com­mit­ment to ro­bust de­bate, you might ex­pect Ge­orge and West to be con­cerned about the de­clin­ing tol­er­ance for it on col­lege cam­puses. Both of them see at­tempts to dis­in­vite or shout down speak­ers based on their points of view as a betrayal of the lib­eral arts. As West puts it, “It’s not a mat­ter just of hav­ing the courage of our con­vic­tions, but the courage to at­tack our con­vic­tions.”

One thing that sur­prised me about our panel, though, was how lit­tle they dwelt on po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and how much they talked about an­other threat to the lib­eral arts: the ten­dency to view higher ed­u­ca­tion purely in terms of its eco­nomic ben­e­fits. “Our age is an age of the cel­e­bra­tion and val­oriza­tion of wealth, power, in­flu­ence, sta­tus, pres­tige,” Ge­orge said. “Those things are not bad in them­selves, but they eas­ily and all too of­ten be­come the com­pe­ti­tion for lead­ing an ex­am­ined life.”

And it is the ex­am­ined life that both Ge­orge and West view as the pur­pose of a lib­eral-arts ed­u­ca­tion. Its goal, that is, is to en­cour­age crit­i­cal re­flec­tion on the big­gest ques­tions; to lead us into an in­tel­lec­tual en­gage­ment that ful­fills our na­ture as think­ing be­ings; to help us achieve self-mas­tery; to en­large our souls. It is, of course, pos­si­ble to pur­sue th­ese goals with­out go­ing to col­lege, but in­sti­tu­tions of higher ed­u­ca­tion are (or should be) ded­i­cated to them in a spe­cial way.

It is a mis­sion that asks a lot. West pointed out that stu­dents have to be pre­pared to shed their un­ex­am­ined be­liefs, even ones that are part of their iden­ti­ties: “That’s a form of death.” Pro­fes­sors have to be will­ing to ex­pose stu­dents to points of view with which they deeply dis­agree — and to do it with­out stack­ing the deck. Par­ents have to be will­ing to pay for the ex­pe­ri­ence even when it has no ma­te­rial pay­off.

The pro­fes­sors have both sketched and mod­eled a noble vi­sion of what ed­u­ca­tion can and should be. But it is also a coun­ter­cul­tural vi­sion — one that faces chal­lenges and ob­sta­cles even more for­mi­da­ble than those posed by po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness.

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