The in­tel­lec­tual di­ver­sity we need

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

Etempe, ariz. ncour­ag­ing de­vel­op­ments are as wel­come as they are rare in col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties that cul­ti­vate di­ver­sity in every­thing but thought. For­tu­nately, state leg­is­la­tures, alumni and phi­lan­thropists are plant­ing lit­tle aca­demic pla­toons that will make cam­puses less in­tel­lec­tu­ally monochro­matic. One such, just launched, is Ari­zona State Univer­sity’s School of Civic and Eco­nomic Thought and Lead­er­ship.

A pri­mary mis­sion of in­sti­tu­tions of higher ed­u­ca­tion should be the trans­mis­sion of civ­i­liza­tion’s in­tel­lec­tual pat­ri­mony. With the per­me­ation of academia by pro­gres­sivism, how­ever, the mis­sion in­creas­ingly is lib­er­a­tion from this pat­ri­mony in or­der to fur­ther progress, un­der­stood as move­ment away from the prin­ci­ples of the Amer­i­can found­ing. One notable pro­gres­sive knew bet­ter. Some­thing Woodrow Wil­son ac­tu­ally got right was that a univer­sity should be an “or­gan of rec­ol­lec­tion” and a “seat of vi­tal mem­ory,” lest we “be­come in­fan­tile in ev­ery gen­er­a­tion.”

Dur­ing the na­tional frag­men­ta­tion of 1861, Abra­ham Lin­coln said that “the bet­ter an­gels of our na­ture” would be sum­moned by “the mys­tic chords of mem­ory.” But demo­cratic na­tions, which rest on the shiftable sands of opin­ion, are for­get­ful, so mem­ory needs to be nur­tured. In his novel “Mr. Samm­ler’s Planet,” Saul Bel­low wrote:

“It is some­times nec­es­sary to re­peat what all know. All map­mak­ers should place the Mis­sis­sippi in the same lo­ca­tion, and avoid orig­i­nal­ity. It may be bor­ing, but one has to know where he is. We can­not have the Mis­sis­sippi flow­ing to­ward the Rock­ies for a change.”

One thing we know is that what Amer­ica’s Founders con­sid­ered self­evi­dent truths should be stud­ied by fu­ture lead­ers be­cause, as his­to­rian Daniel Boorstin said, “Try­ing to plan for the fu­ture with­out know­ing the past is like try­ing to plant cut flow­ers.” It is not nec­es­sary that ev­ery­one read the Fed­er­al­ist Pa­pers and “The Wealth of Na­tions” (pub­lished in 1776) but some­one should, and stu­dents in ASU’s new school will.

Schools like this can counter what wor­ried Ron­ald Knox, the English priest and au­thor who said that in the mod­ern age “you do not be­lieve what your grand­fa­thers be­lieved, and have no rea­son to hope that your grand­sons will be­lieve what you do.” If so, the U.S. na­tional iden­tity will be­come at­ten­u­ated. Stu­dents in ASU’s new school will un­der­stand what the na­tion’s Founders be­lieved and why they did.

John Adams be­lieved that “ed­u­ca­tion makes a greater dif­fer­ence be­tween man and man than na­ture has made be­tween man and brute.” Be­cause ed­u­ca­tion in­creas­ingly strat­i­fies so­ci­ety, so it should dili­gently trans­mit com­mon­al­i­ties con­ducive to so­cial co­he­sion. Ari­zona, like the United States, faces a con­tin­u­ing chal­lenge — a wel­come chal­lenge — of as­sim­i­lat­ing new­com­ers. And Amer­i­cans are in­creas­ingly liv­ing in so­cial si­los and sus­cep­ti­ble to con­fir­ma­tion bias — re­cep­tive only to in­for­ma­tion and ideas that con­firm what they al­ready think. Hence the na­tion’s foun­da­tional pre­cepts need to be care­fully stud­ied, ro­bustly de­bated and thought­fully cel­e­brated.

Be­cause Amer­ica is, as Lin­coln said, ded­i­cated to a propo­si­tion with far­ra­di­at­ing im­pli­ca­tions, U.S. cit­i­zen­ship is uniquely de­mand­ing. Ideally, it in­volves fa­mil­iar­ity with the Founders’ doc­trine of nat­u­ral rights — rights that pre­ex­ist gov­ern­ment, which ex­ists to se­cure them. Th­ese rights are dis­cov­er­able by some­thing nat­u­ral, rea­son, but the en­joy­ment of th­ese rights de­pends on some­thing not nat­u­ral, a well­wrought gov­ern­ment. It should sus­tain a mar­ket econ­omy, in which earned suc­cess serves in­di­vid­ual dig­nity.

The United States be­gan as an er­rand into the wilder­ness and for many gen­er­a­tions had a long­ing for dis­per­sal, for liv­ing be­yond the sound of a neigh­bor’s ax. James Fen­i­more Cooper in the for­est, Henry Thoreau by the pond, Her­man Melville at sea, Mark Twain on the river, Teddy Roo­sevelt ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the “iron des­o­la­tion” of the high plains, and Willa Cather ex­pe­ri­enc­ing “that vast si­lence” of Ne­braska’s plains, all en­riched the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence. Now, how­ever, at­ten­tion must be paid to demon­strat­ing the con­tin­u­ing per­ti­nence of the Founders’ premises to places with the crack­ling en­ergy of boom­ing Ari­zona.

Some aca­demics who rel­ish pro­gres­sivism’s hege­mony on cam­puses, and who equate crit­i­cal think­ing with dis­par­age­ment, will re­gret and re­sist things like ASU’s new school. Hence it was ap­pro­pri­ate that the po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher Har­vey Mans­field, a.k.a. Har­vard Univer­sity’s con­ser­va­tive, par­tic­i­pated in the school’s launch. He ar­gues that one of higher ed­u­ca­tion’s high­est pur­poses is to counter democ­racy’s lev­el­ing ethos by teach­ing the young how to praise — how to rec­og­nize and honor hi­er­ar­chies of char­ac­ter and achieve­ment.

Here and around the coun­try this pur­pose is be­ing ad­vanced by en­ti­ties such as ASU’s new school, teach­ing the his­tory of ideas and states­man­ship. This grow­ing ar­chi­pel­ago of ex­cel­lence will leaven academia with the di­ver­sity that mat­ters most.

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