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Rethinking the Future of the University

David Lyle Jeffrey
Dominic Manganiello

Part II. Where are we now?

The politicization of the university and its consequences

Jean Bethke Elshtain

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1“Education is a subject on which we all feel that we have something to say,” wrote T.S. Eliot, and here one is reminded of the American writer Flannery O’Connor’s pithy riposte to a query from an earnest young student following a lecture she had given on the state of American fiction. The student fretted that education, the dead hand of the past, must surely stifle many a budding genius. Did not Miss O’Connor find this to be the case? O’Connor’s typically sardonic response was that, to the contrary, education didn’t “stifle enough of them.” She would surely join hands with T.S. Eliot in holding that everyone has something to say, but not everything said is worthy of sustained attention. How to sort the wheat from the chaff, especially on a subject on which all feel they have something to say?

2This quickly takes us to the heart of how we define education, its meaning and purposes—a necessary first step in assessing whether inappropriate politicization of the university is underway. Here I believe we must steer a course between those who opt for a strong stipulative definition of education that brooks no dissent and, by contrast, those who wobble all over the place, careening wildly in their understanding depending upon the passing political and pedagogical enthusiasms of a given moment. I refer, of course, to those who give themselves over to trendiness. The latter temptation is particularly great for educators and the definition of education in a democratic society under the presumption that what is new is surely better. Not necessarily. Understanding education in and for a democratic society is an especially controversial task. For democracy is not simply a set of procedures, a constitution, if you will, but an ethos, a way of responding, including standards of conduct in public and private life.

3Not being simple, democracy does not afford us a straightforward definition of what education in, and for, democracy might be. If we move too quickly to the notion of education for relevance, we may stress a watery adaptation above authentic excellence. If we concentrate exclusively on the few, assuming that the many are less vital in the overall scheme of things, the culture necessary to sustain democracy over the long haul will either wither on the vine or not bear fruit in the first place. We are on the horns of more than one dilemma. Ours is a vibrant, living political world and culture. We cannot freeze a tradition, pinion it under glass and hold it intact for future use. As well, one culture’s definition of education in and for democracy will not and cannot be identical to that of another. We arrive at democracy and our understanding of education in many complex ways, framed within a horizion of limited, not limitless, possibility dictated in part by our historic time and place. We must, nevertheless, try to grasp meaning and to clarify purpose, for to abandon the attempt altogether would be to live in an amorphous and pointless world in which nobody cared very much about anything. Because a democratic culture is one in which responsibility and freedom go hand in hand, human beings, limited though they may be, can and must sort out the important from the less important, the vital from the trivial, the worthy from the unworthy, the excellent from the mediocre. Democracy is a culture of, and for, the stout-hearted, persons who, in their efforts to define and to realize the good life, can live with complexity and uncertainty.

4From Jefferson’s bold throwing down of the gauntlet to the British Empire not knowing whether the upshot would be “hanging together or being hanged separately” to Lincoln’s “nation thus conceived and thus dedicated,” to Martin Luther King’s dream of an essentially pacific democratic people who judge their fellow citizens by the content of their character not the color of their skins, democratic culture in the United States has been a wager, not a frozen accomplishment. Education in a democracy might not guarantee the robust spiritedness that democratic culture, if it is to be a living thing, requires, but it, too, must be cast in the form of anticipation and stirring expectancy. We know this much, surely: that any and all attempts to define education locate us in a complex relationship to a tradition. How we acknowledge and view the past forms a frame of reference for our understanding of the perils and possibilities of the present. We are entangled with tradition. And tradition, no more than education, is of a piece. Indeed, human life itself, in any complex culture, is an ongoing contestation over the meaning of tradition, including that tradition transmitted through education, and the ways in which we would affirm or challenge that which is given to us in our own particular time and place.

5One might put it this way: a democratic culture is neither an à la carte menu nor a fixed dinner. No one among us could participate in all the multiple possibilities contemporary life spreads before each human subject. Nor is it workable in late modernity to be so totally immersed in one mode that no alternative to this conception, this belief, this way of doing things ever presents itself. Education is about being in and of one’s society, yes, but it also means being able to stand back, take a hard look and criticize or reaffirm, as the case may be, the way of life of which one is a part.

6There is a peril in all this. If criticism runs wild, if critique is absolute and becomes an end in itself, it may invite the giddy belief that one can reject the entire cultural menu; that one can eschew all previous definitions. But this is no genuine alternative either. Indeed, to take the example of recent heated debates over “the canon,” one discerns immediately that the anticanonical camp requires the idea of a canon as the basis for its own revolt and its presentation of an alternative. The canon functions as a kind of master thought that governs their anticanonical revolt. This is the sort of thing we simply cannot get out of, even if we try. It is, then, best for us to recognize the ways in which we are entangled in a culture and a way of life, including previous evaluations of literary and philosophical works.

7Perhaps one way to characterize our situation, as we lumber to the end of this troubled century, is to highlight its deep and abiding irony. By this I mean to refer to the dilemma of those in the present, who, standing restlessly on the shoulders of giants, teeter and grumble and would leap off and run forward on their own but do not, for they recognize that to make that leap is not to be “free” so much as terribly diminished. The authoritative traditions to which we are heir bind us, yes, but they help us to see further and to move more surefootedly than we could on our own. The mesmerized worshipper of authority denies himself the critical freedom that is rightly his, a freedom those he idealizes seized and put their own individual stamp on; on the other hand, the agitated negator of all that has gone before preaches freedom, but, in fact, she denies herself real freedom in its deepest meaning, for each and every move she makes is governed by the tradition she condemns and can see only as pervasive and menacing.

8A genuinely critical education helps us to bring these and other matters to the surface, to engage in a debate with interlocutors long dead or protagonists who never lived save on the page, and, through that engagement, to elaborate rich conceptions through which to apprehend our world and the way that world represents itself. That, at least, is one way to understand a living language and culture and the education ongoingly defined and imperfectly realized within it.

9“Perhaps,” writes political philosopher Michael Oakeshott,

  • 1 Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education, ed. Timothy Full (...)

we may think of the components of a culture as voices, each the expression of a distinct and conditional understanding of the world and a distinct idiom of human self-understanding, and of the culture itself as these voices joined, as such voices could only be joined, in a conversation—an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all. And perhaps we may recognize liberal learning as, above all else, an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices; to distinguish their different modes of utterance, to acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to this conversational relationship and thus to make our début dans la vie humaine.1

10At present in our culture, education is increasingly defined with reference to diversity or, as it is usually put, multiculturalism. We should worry about the presumptions that undergird much of this effort and the practices it yields. For all too often we are asked to become “sensitive” not so much to a wondrous variety of idioms and voices as to group exclusivities and grievances. In other words, our definition of education may have become, or is in peril of becoming, inappropriately politicized. In a world of overheated political demands, education is required to serve all sorts of political and ideological masters and loses its integrity in the process. Let me spell things out just a bit. Education is never outside a world of which politics—how human beings govern and order a way of life in common—is a necessary feature. Education is always cast as the means whereby some or all citizens of a particular society get their bearings and learn to live with and among one another. Education always reflects a society’s view of what is excellent, worthy and necessary. These values are ongoingly refracted and reshaped as definitions, meanings and purposes alter through contestation. In this sense, education is political. But this is very different from being directly and blatantly politicized.

11Consider the following examples. A class takes up the Declaration of Independence and the great pronouncement that “all men are created equal.” But women, and many men, were disenfranchised. Slaves were not counted as fully “men.” How could this be? What meaning of equality did the American founders embrace? How did they square this meaning with what we perceive to be manifest inequalities? What was debated, and what was not? What political and moral exigencies of that historic moment compelled what sorts of compromises? Might things have gone differently? I take this to be an instance of reflective political education to and for American democracy. But let me offer a second example. A teacher declares that nothing good ever came from the hand of “dead, white, European males.” Their words and deeds are nefarious. They were nothing but racists and patriarchs, blatant oppressors, who hid behind fine-sounding words. All they created is tainted and hypocritical. Here matters simply end. There is no room for debate—only for tabloid exposé. Indeed, debate is discouraged or not permitted. To express a different point of view is to betray one’s false consciousness or patriarchal privilege. This I take to be an instance of unreflective dogmatic politicization. It evades the dilemmas of democratic society and the transmission of tradition rather than offering us points of critical reflection on those dilemmas. This sort of education fails in its very particular and important task of preparing us for a world of ambiguity and variety. It equips us only for ressentiment, in Kierkegaard’s prescient sense of the word.

12Let us take up another theme. Education is neither the family nor the state; rather, “School and university are places apart where a declared learner is emancipated from the limitations of his local circumstances and from the wants he may happen to have acquired and is moved by intimations of what he has never yet dreamed. He finds himself invited to pursue satisfactions he has never yet imagined or wished for. They are, then, sheltered places where excellences may be heard, because the din of local partialities is no more than a distant rumble” (Oakeshott, 24). This, no doubt, is an idealized version of education as a nigh autonomous realm of culture. We understand that education can never be, nor should it be, wholly inoculated from outside forces, defined apart from all else. We believe this because we understand, however tacit this understanding may be, that education in and for a democratic culture is a porous affair, open to the world of which it is a part, yet not so open that it becomes the mere plaything of passing enthusiasms.

  • 2 John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of the University, ed. Daniel M. O’Connel, S.J. (New York: Am (...)

13Ideological definitions that give rise to overpoliticization of the university have been around for a long time. In The Idea of the University, John Henry Cardinal Newman criticized the political economists of his time for single-mindedly determining that what life is all about is the attainment of wealth; that “morals and happiness are made to depend on gain and accumulation... the pursuit of gain then is the basis of virtue, religion, happiness; though it is, all the while, as a Christian knows, the ‘root of all evils’, and the ‘poor, on the contrary, are blessed for theirs is the Kingdom of God.’”2 What I take Newman to be up to is arguing against any reductionist account of human meaning, purpose and motivation. But is this not precisely what our politicizers traffic in: we hear over and over again that what human beings are about is power, that life is about who has it and who does not; and that we can determine quite readily the answer to this question; that life is, then, about masters and slaves, and between masters and slaves there can only be war. One might call this the power-über alles view of human life.

14But there are many problems with this: the understanding of human beings or sets or anthropological presuppositions involved; the understanding of power; the understanding of what sorts of relations can and in fact do obtain between persons differently stationed or positioned; and the many levels and activities and associations and institutions of a complex, late-modern society.

15If you begin from impoverished assumptions, your view of education is itself bound to be impoverished—it cannot help but be—and you thereby lose education as, in Newman’s words, an “action upon our mental nature... the formation of character” (Newman, 131). For those “whose minds are possessed with some one object, take exaggerated views of its importance, are feverish in the pursuit of it, make it the measure of all things” (Newman, 156) lose a capacity for judgment. One enters the ranks of the intolerant, and intolerant in a particular direction—in the name of “going beyond tolerance,” tolerance being too tepid a word, one not signifying full and uncritical acceptance of every claim made on us in the name of multiculturalism or difference. The upshot, of course, is that we become deeply, ineradicably intolerant. We do not have to take what anyone says very seriously at all, if it is the case that we inhabit such different universes that we cannot really converse. If each of us has constructed our own world of meaning, we are given permission to refuse to engage.

  • 3 This, of course, is not the only possible definition of pluralism; indeed it negates authentic plu (...)
  • 4 Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics” in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thoug (...)

16Now what is at stake in all of this is our understanding of truth itself. For truth is part of what is up for grabs these days as we educate for pluralism defined as moral relativism.3 Students are not so much enjoined to debate what is true or not, as the case may be; to sort out what is true from that which is false; as to disdain the notion of truth altogether. Hannah Arendt saw this coming. In an essay now 30 years old, she surveyed the attack on truth, the “blurring of the dividing line between factual truth and opinion.”4 She detected an assault on authority in every arena, including the family and the school. Factual statements (her example is “Germany invaded Belgium in August, 1914”) are the last redoubt of political possibility, the need to have a record, to begin from some common understanding. But we find many who would dissolve even these sorts of truths. All is froth and foam on the disappearing sea wave. All is up for grabs—even, as we have learned to our dismay in recent years, the Holocaust. For every historical debate, there are radical revisionists. Debate about interpretation of events is, of course, one thing. Denial that such events occurred is something else. Sadly, Arendt argues, since “the liar” is free to fashion his “facts” to fit the profit and pleasure, or even the mere expectations of his audience, the chances are that he will be more persuasive than the truth teller. Indeed, he will usually have plausibility on his side; his exposition will sound more logical, as it were, since the element of unexpectedness—one of the characteristics of all events—has mercifully disappeared. Facts are stubborn. They bind us. Today, at least in the United States, there are many among us who would be free, so damn the facts. Deny the possibility that some arguments are more compelling than others; that a stronger case may be made for the authority of this way of understanding by comparison to that.

17Arendt feared that whole societies might place themselves in a position in which they needed no minions operating under orders from Big Brother in order to make embarrassing facts and politically incorrect understandings disappear down an Orwellian memory-hole. Our own minds and lives would be such a memory-hole, a funnel down which facts and our arguments go out and out of which rushes opinion, but opinion of a particular sort, opinion that claims first-person privilege; that isn’t amenable to correction, reproof or authentic dialogue. “It’s just your opinion, I have mine.” This is a world in which authority has disappeared; a world that is itself dead, never a source of meaning or of purpose; a world entirely up for grabs, entirely “constructed” in the current lingo. Because, in Arendt’s words, “our apprehension of reality is dependent upon our sharing the world with our fellow men,” to the extent that there is no world to share—not even a culture of argument—we will have severed ourselves in that measure from the claims made upon us by other minds, other persons, and we will have witnessed the complete collapse of education and authentic pluralism and all the rest. We are not there yet, but we are getting too close for comfort. The danger in going too far down our present path is that our understanding of education is imperilled because we have done too little to protect education from heavy-handed intrusion on the parts of those who would have it serve this political master or that ideological purpose. At the same time, we seem intent on stripping education of what, in fact, it ought to be about: an invitation to particular “adventures in human self-understanding,” in Oakeshott’s terms.

18The implication for a definition of education is simply this: a democratic country is uniquely dependent on responsibility and self-limiting freedom. Because democracy is the political form that permits and requires human freedom as responsibility, any definition or system that sanctions evasion of responsibility imperils democracy. Whether in the name of change or to forestall all change, an ideological system of education is the worst possible way for human beings to order their collective affairs. For once a world of personal responsibility with its characteristic virtues and marks of decency (justice, honor, friendship, fidelity) is ruptured or emptied, what rushes in to take its place is politics as a “technology of power,” in Václav Havel’s phrase. Responsibility, according to Havel, flows from the aims of life “in its essence,” including our plurality for independent self-constitution by contrast to the stultifying dogmas of ideological left-and right-wing thinkers who abandon reality and assault life with their rigid, abstract chimeras. A living culture is one in which words acquire new associations in lieu of some of their old ones, but there is a limit to the process of redefinition. Words may, over time, be denuded of meaning rather than enhanced by definitional contestation without end. Part of my own culture’s desperate floundering at the present moment stems from the fact that we appear to have lost any solidity to our understanding of the most basic things. Words have become rootless and homeless.

19This has come about for some good reasons—recognition of the slipperiness of definitions—and, more and more, for some very bad reasons: cynicism bordering on vulgar antinomianism about the need for at least provisional (and no doubt imperfect) sharing of certain key words (freedom, democracy, truth, fairness, law), if we are to constitute ourselves a we in any robust sense; disdain bordering on a remorseless contempt for any and all attempts to articulate the norms we must share in order that democratic debate and dialogue continue to be reaffirmed as the way we citizens of a democratic culture do business with one another.

20Education is cut adrift, subject to ideologically inflamed demands and enthusiasms. We have grown uncertain, muddled, about the worth of our own traditions and what we can and ought, therefore, transmit to our children. This uncertainty stems not from robust skepticism but from a desperate failure of nerve. This wants explaining. I rely upon Hannah Arendt’s discussion of “The Crisis of Education,” an essay in which she ties diminution in authentic education to abdication by adults of responsibility for the world. She writes:

Insofar as the child is not yet acquainted with the world, he must be gradually introduced to it; insofar as he is new, care must be taken that this new thing comes to fruition in relation to the world as it is. In any case, however, the educators here stand in relation to the young as representatives of a world for which they assume responsibility... This responsibility is not arbitrarily imposed upon educators; it is implicit in the fact that the young are introduced by adults into a continuously changing world... and in education this responsibility for the world takes the form of authority. (Arendt, 189)

  • 5 Václav Havel, "The Power of the Powerless" in Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990, ed. Paul (...)

21Let me return to Havel to further deepen our understanding. A fusion of freedom and responsibility yields a distinct but definite political conclusion: democracy is the political form that permits and requires human freedom, not as an act of self-overcoming, nor pure reason, but in service to others in one’s own time and place. To live “within the truth” is to give voice to a self that has embraced responsibility for the here and now: “That means that responsibility is ours, that we must accept it and grasp it here, now, in this place in time and space where the Lord has set us down, and that we cannot lie our way out of it by moving somewhere else, whether it be to an Indian ashram or to a parallel polis,” writes Havel.5

22Havel believes we are living in the midst of a general crisis of human consciousness. That crisis manifests itself in the spheres of human freedom, responsibility and identity itself. Acceptance of the risks of free action—an affirmation education in and for democracy makes possible though does not guarantee—makes one a person and forms the basis of one’s identity. Any mode of thought or program of education that reduces human responsibility narrows the horizon of human possibility. To assume “full responsibility” is not to lapse into dour moralism, nor to universalize a giddy and boundless compassion, but to take up the specific concrete burdens of one’s own culture. Education that undermines even the possibility that at least some among us may be called upon to bear witness is an exercise in speciousness.

23Our malaise over education stems in part from a culturally sanctioned abdication by adults of their responsible authority as parents and educators. What on earth is going on when fourth-graders in my own country are being taught the intricacies of condom use but cannot read or cipher with any sophistication? What definition of education here reigns? Who has abdicated responsibility for what? Or, alternatively, what agencies, groups and enthusiasts seek to make education the vanguard or home base of their own essentially extra educational or polemical efforts.

24These are questions we must face head on, and, in answering, let the chips fall where they may, with this caveat: the crisis in education has not come about because a few self-interested groups have successfully hijacked the system. Indeed, it seems far more plausible that education in America is in its present straits because of a general collapse of authoritative meanings and institutions, an abdication by responsible persons (parents, teachers, intellectuals and politicians) of their necessary vocations. Being free means being able to shirk one’s responsibilities, but being responsible means one does not thus abdicate. The massive abdication of authority by those most responsible for its democratic exercise is a complex story, one ripe for the telling. For now I would simply note that we are in danger of forfeiting our cultural heritage—indeed, our cultural home—because we have convinced ourselves that it represents only the detritus of power and chicanery, rather than the way imperfect human beings, only a few of whom were villains, have offered us the fruits of their strengths and weaknesses, their moments of honor and their hours of despair. If education fails to incorporate within its living definition strong stories and conceptions, it cannot launch us into a wider world with the strength of character and firmness and flexibility of purpose democratic thinkers have presumed as both the cause and consequence of democracy itself.

25“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older, the World becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated of dead and living”—these words from T.S. Eliot’s poem “East Coker” haunt us as we approach the next millennium. Education, he suggests, should help us to appreciate and cherish that complexity, to love this strange world in which we are nonetheless required to be at home. If it fails in this task, our humanity itself is imperilled.


1 Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education, ed. Timothy Fuller (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), 38-39.

2 John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of the University, ed. Daniel M. O’Connel, S.J. (New York: America Press, 1941), 108-109.

3 This, of course, is not the only possible definition of pluralism; indeed it negates authentic pluralism of the sort that requires engagement and is open to the possibility of what used to be called “cultural exchange.”

4 Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics” in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Viking), 161; rpt. (New York: Penguin, 1983), 239.

5 Václav Havel, "The Power of the Powerless" in Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990, ed. Paul Wilson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 195.


The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is the author of many distinguished books on the relationship of politics to ethics in contemporary culture. These include Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought (1981) Women and War (1987), and Democracy on Trial, her 1993 Massey Lectures

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