The following is an essay I wrote for an American Studies Class, “We the People”: An American Journey
Once upon a time, a little farm boy in Nebraska grew up to be a young man, and as he grew, he decided to go to college. But he didn’t want to go to just any college; he wanted to go far away to a big city, where there were lights, and paved streets, and pretty girls. So, after he planted his last crop, went to his last church service, walked the fields for the last time, and ate his last family dinner, he walked to the train station, handed the Ticketmaster his one-way ticket to Chicago and waved good bye to everything he had ever known. When he arrived on campus, he felt as if he had been plopped into a magic city–buildings touched the heavens, horseless carriages zoomed across corners, and blinking signs illuminated the chilly air. At first, he was just as enamored with the classroom as he was with the city. The sophisticated professors and cultured students lived a life of leisure, compared to his days on the farm. Yet, the longer he attended classes, the more he questioned the professors’ philosophies, and there was something in his soul that cringes at this idea that “everything means anything.” The dancing and drinking and beautiful women, however, distracted him from his questions, and slowly he began to accept more and more of his professor’s teachings.
Many other young people went off to college just like the Nebraskan farm boy, only to experience a period of transformation—one in which they discarded their traditional values replaced them with a scientific system. The American founders continued the Western tradition of accepting that a divine order plays an instrumental role in society. The importance of theodicy, or recognizing a God, is demonstrated by the First Amendment’s protection of free exercise alongside free speech. The pairing of the two allowed religion to inform citizens’ positions in the public square. Until the 1860s, the outcome of the discussions in the public square both solidified and promoted a Christian understanding of man and his relationship with the divine. The American universities, one of the largest physical manifestations of the public square, followed this trajectory, and though there were fluctuations within that trajectory—especially during the enlightenment—the old dogma prevailed above the others until the late 19th century. Social Darwinism and Progressivism began to seep into the classroom, and these philosophies paved the way for Modernism and then Post-Modernism to reign in universities. These liberal ideologies unraveled the Christian dogma, eventually rejecting the idea that God ordered society. In order to promote their own ideologies, many professors taught under the guise of “Academic Freedom,” allowing them to express their own views as superior to the old order. In truth, academic freedom protected professor’s ideologies while pushing eternal truths further and further to the margins of academia. The bifurcation of religion from speech in the public square, specifically in the university, stifled students’ imaginations and led to the demoralization of society.
The First Amendment guaranteed both freedom of religion and freedom of speech, suggesting that they exist as a bundle. The First Amendment lists numerous rights that the government may not infringe upon, and two of the most revered liberties rest side by side: “free exercise” of religion and “freedom of speech.” As the founders drafted the Bill of Rights, they referenced numerous states’ Bill of Rights, yet their pairing of these two rights marks a moment of innovation in American history. While many states did not promote freedom of religion, going so far as making laws that supported a specific church, the framers of the Bill of Rights recognized the distinction between the states’ role in religion and the National government’s involvement in both religion and free speech. The founders believed that the United States should be a forum of ideas and each state, each community, and each man should have the ability to represent their beliefs in the public forum. They hoped to break away from the European trend that they had just escaped—one that adopted a national church and then persecuted religious dissenters—and instead create an avenue for the liberty to reign among the people. Liberty, they proposed, would flow from freedom of religion married to freedom of speech. For, only when these two things existed together could men freely express religion and discuss it openly. In other words, men needed freedom of religion and freedom of speech to live in the land of liberty—a land which respected the individuals’ right to believe the doctrine he had discovered to be true as long as he did not harm others.
The framers bundling of freedom of religion with freedom of speech recognized that when men entered the public square, they could not leave religion at the door. The Public Square is the place where citizens come together, discuss ideas, and allow the public to judge which ones they will adopt. Men brought their differing opinions to the public square, and they debates issues ranging from the meaning of liberty to the significance of duty in a republic; from the beauty within a piece of art to the scientific validity of a new hypothesis; from the benefits of technology to the importance of tradition. Men and women in the public square have fleshed out ideas like this since the founding of America. Many differing opinions enter the square, and each position is confronted with another. Each person defends his position and he allows the people to decide who wins. The opinion that wins becomes the predominate public opinion, which then shapes the public philosophy. The public philosophy, or the prevailing dogma, is defined as the peoples’ understanding of the nature of man, his relation to the world and to his creator. There are many physical manifestations of the public square, including town halls, neighborhood associations, rotary clubs, and many other public forums, but one of the most expansive and influential public forums is the university campus.
A Theodicy, or divine order, undergirds the foundations of society, and more specifically, the educational framework of the university. Berger defines man’s understanding of the divine order as “Theodicy,” and all citizens— from the pauper to the prince—accept this framework. Peter L. Berger explains the need for a theodicy from a sociological perspective, stating, “A meaningful order, or nomos, is imposed upon the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals.” In other words, men are born into a world that God has predetermined to have certain eternal laws that man cannot mutate, though they can ignore them. These eternal laws predetermine limits to humanity, and the society that humans have the ability to create. Because each man admits his limitation, a theodicy requires a “surrender of self to the ordering power of society.” Since man is inherently flawed, he will never reach perfection, and he must recognize his limited nature when he develops communities. Yet, man must also realize that he is created in the Imago Dei; man can strive to understand God more fully through his own exercise of reason, just behavior, of love. As the great English political philosopher, William Blackstone explains it: “This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God Himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws.” Men create institutions based on these predetermined laws. Starting with the family and reaching all the way to the national government, God’s order underwrites man’s reality. As Berger observes, men from Moses to Machiavelli have recognized this ordering principle. Because most men in the American founding accepted the Western tradition’s conception of divine order, America was grounded in a predominately-Christian philosophy.
American’s understanding of a divine order created a Christian philosophy, or dogma, which played an important role in the classroom, setting a framework in which students viewed the rest of the world. Robert Nisbet explains a dogma as “a system of principles or ideals widely believed to be not merely true or right but also beyond the necessity of the more or less constant verification we feel obliged to give so many other aspects of our lives.” The prevailing dogma of the university was that God ordered the world, and men began to see glimpses of His ordered reality through studying the liberal arts. The liberal arts grounded students in the ideas that had shaped Western Heritage, allowing them to understand their intellectual tradition and begin to piece together the truths of reality. When men founded the first American colleges, the pursuit of the truth was a good in and of itself, and it enabled men to pursue one of the highest human gifts—to use his ability to reason to understand more about human nature and about the God who governs men. It embodied Thomas Aquinas’ maxim: “The purpose of philosophy is not to learn what others have thought, but to learn how the truth of things stands.” Men cannot pursue truth in a vacuum; they must be willing to consider the deity who ordered truth in the first place. Thus, an acceptance of God, and his principles, has always been an important part of the pursuit of truth, both in the classroom and in the life-long journey towards truth.
Through the Enlightenment, Social Darwinism and Progressivism, the old Christian dogma slowly faded from the classroom. The Enlightenment posed the first challenge to this dogma because many enlightenment thinkers concluded that men understood truth through logic and empirical evidence rather than God’s order revealed through the history of civilizations. In this enlightenment strand of thinking, men like Thomas Paine argued that common law and the English tradition were inherently flawed, instead, he claimed: “I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.” Through logic, Paine proposed, men would conquer the flaws of past government, liberating themselves from past traditions. There has always existed a liberal strand in America, Paul Roazen explains, some of the major historical figures, like “Thomas Jefferson and the first paragraphs of his Declaration of Independence” reveal enlightenment thought. Yet, this liberal strand, synonymous with the enlightenment, was simply that—one strand of several that contributed to the American tradition. The other influences included Whiggish republicanism, Classical balance and virtue, and Judeo-Christian moral order. Thus, during the foundations of the republic—1609 until 1793—the debate in the university included enlightenment thinking, but it did not dominate. The enlightenment ideas did pervade the university, but taken with the other streams of thought, they did not exclude the Christian Dogma; however, the movement began to chip away at the previously uniform Christian dogma that characterized the early institutions.
The enlightenment paved the way for Social Darwinism and Progressivism, which examined man’s soul in a different light. Social Darwinism proposed that men continued to evolve into beings with higher capacities than humans had ever reached. As early as 1909, many professors saw man not as a person created by God but as a homo-sapien, who resulted from an evolutionary coincidence over the course of millions of years. Once Darwinism became the prevailing scientific doctrine, it seeped into the philosophy of education. Because evolution rejected the notion that God created man, it also did away with the idea that God placed man within the bounds of a divinely ordered framework that defined natural law, justice, and man’s limitations. Progressivism used the evolving nature of man as the basis for suggesting that men had the potential to reach perfection, shedding his previous limitations and climbing to new heights of intellectual and moral behavior. As George Marsden makes clear, many supporters of evolution believed that “higher truth was an ever-progressing ideal towards which the human community of scientific inquirers always moved, yet never reached.” The idea that truth was changing opposed the Christian idea of eternal truths. Yet, many professors adopted this scientific and evolving view of reality and as they taught this in the classroom, they only multiplied the numbers of students who doubted Christian truths.
Allowing modern ideology to seep into the classroom, the university has gradually pushed religion further and further to the margins of academic life. Modernism takes the premises of Social Darwinism and Progressivism and forms a new way of living out of it. In other words, it assumes that men are evolutionary creatures, and that they are neither inhibited by sin nor redeemed by grace. They are progressing towards something, but they cannot seem to discover what it is. Several of the modern writers include Eliot, Joyce, Frazer, Nietzsche, and Freud. These authors (with the exception of Eliot after his conversion), and many others, as Gertrude Himmelfarb asserts, “were profoundly subversive of culture, society, morality, conventional sexuality—of all that which was once confidently called “civilization.” These were “dread beasts” lurking at the bottom of the “Abyss.” And it was this abyss that the students “dutifully and gladly”—and intelligently—looked into and found “interesting,” even “exciting.” Students danced with the ideas of modern authors and philosophers, ripping off the restrictive order of their parents’ generation and liberating themselves from a transcendent order that gave purpose to men’s existence. The irony of this liberation lies in the fact that supporters of modernism became slaves to pleasure, self-fulfillment, and the demoralizing behaviors that often follow. This decent into meaninglessness is demonstrated in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, as Armory Blaine, a student at Princeton, quoted from Browning: “Each life unfulfilled, you see; / It hangs still, patchy and scrappy; / We have not sighed deep, laughed free, / Starved, feasted, despaired,—been happy.” Students like Amory Blaine went about their days wondering, exploring, yet never discovering the meaning of things. For, without God, men became soulless creatures wondering the earth.
Post-modernism has crystallized the meaninglessness of modernism, and the guise of “Academic Freedom” has flowed from it. Post-modernism takes modernism to its logical extreme: it transforms “relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphus perversity.” As more and more professors adopted this outlook on life, they constructed a system to cushion this ideology—“Academic Freedom.” This term manifests the things post-modern professors spend their life defending. (1) Academic—in the present age, this has the aura of something elite, touched only by the “experts,” not for the rest of mankind to meddle with. This provides them the leverage they need to teach anything they would like while they can discount students and outside observers alike. (2) Freedom—liberation from social order, morals, religion, institutions, authority, nothing is off limits. Gertrude Himmelfarb compares the modern professor to Hegel’s pedagogues: “They are academic critics who treat the masters of literature with all the reverence of a valet, who put Shakespeare to bed, so to speak… Secure in the knowledge that he is only a man like themselves, and that they can read, interpret, and “deconstruct” his plays as if they had written them.” Though academic freedom may initially seem to connote an open forum for ideas and discussion, in truth, it simply promotes the professors’ agenda. Before the 1950s, academic freedom defined professors’ responsibility to present “abiding truths superior to the ephemeral quarrels of the hour.” Since then, however, professors have misconstrued it “as merely license to say whatever they pleased to whomever they pleased; to conduct a perpetual debate without ever aspiring to ascertain any values, after the manner of the old Sophists.” Professors can present any information as long as it does not include any hint of “dogmatic truth,” or principles that suggest that a framework for society which includes a divine order. In other words, academic freedom excluded a discussion of the “eternal truths” from the classroom because it asserted that those principles were restrictive and authoritative. At the same time many academics argued that the idea of divine order claimed too much authority, they erected their own ideologies, which replaced the old framework with a human-constructed one.
By deconstructing the old dogma of the “permanent things” and replacing it with the new dogma of “ideology,” many professors separated freedom of religion from freedom of speech. The general acceptance of ideology—first used during the French Revolution to mean the “science of ideas”—presented students with a very specific, pointed view of knowledge. For example, classical liberalism, neo-conservatism, neo-liberalism, libertarianism, have become accepted ideologies in various academic circles. The very presumption that a “science of ideas” exists, in which some positions reach beyond a level of reproach defies the old notion that professors must study the liberal arts to reach a fuller understanding of a divinely-ordered reality. Many professors who promote “free expression,” as Russell Kirk asserts, “desire in their hearts of hearts, to obtain the power to bend their colleagues and their students to their own will.” When professors neglect the divine framework, they resurrect their own system, which artificially raises their position to a god-like status while at the same time discounting any notion of a higher power. Thus, the guise of academic freedom actually makes students slaves to their professors’ constructions of reality rather than ordering their mind and souls more towards eternal truths. In truth, “academic freedom” is not free expression; it is secular expression that attempts to liberate professors and students from the ancient notion of the supernatural. Yet, this liberation only corrupts men’s souls and leads them further and further into the abyss. The bifurcation of expression from religion degrades humanity, darkening the cave of ignorance; whereas, the synchronism of these two freedoms brings potentiality to the elevation of man created in the Imago Dei, slowly guiding students out of the shadows of the cave, into the flickering light of a fire, and eventually to the brilliance of the world illuminated by the sun.
Once men realign freedom of speech with freedom of religion, they will create a potentiality for restoring the “moral imagination”. Russell Kirk defines the moral imagination as “an enduring source of inspiration that elevates us to first principles as it guides us upwards towards virtue and wisdom and redemption.” Human’s imagination enables them to uncover the divine order as revealed through history and experience; it gives them a glimpse of the eternal and allows them to see those truths through human forms of art. Only when men align their minds and souls with an understanding of a divine order are they fully able to exercise their humanity. Only when men begin to uncover the truth, goodness, and beauty in eternal truths are they able to pursue the good life. Only when men understand their liberties as endowed by God are they willing to sacrifice some of their freedom for order. This imagination draws men closer to God and by the grace of God, elevates humanity to all that He intended it to be.
The plight of the American university sheds light upon American society as a whole. Just as academic freedom has attempted to sever religion from intellect—two things that should inherently be connected—American politics, economics, and culture have isolated individuals’ religion, which authorities consider a purely private and sentimental attachment, from the public square. This bifurcation only promotes licentious speech, which men are permitted to say anything they like as long as it excludes the mention of God. Inevitably, immoral behavior follows an amoral society, or a country that attempts to ignore divine order. This decent into meaninglessness leads to the degradation of the moral imagination. Once societies ignore divine order, men no longer recognize God’s grace and His purpose for creating humans. Instead, men become beasts of the flesh rather than humans of the spirit. Thus, only when men rekindle the moral imagination will they regain the fullness of their humanity.
The first Christmas went by, and the Nebraskan farm boy stayed in Chicago and went to church alone. The second and third Christmases past and he shot up a prayer before he went to a friend’s house. On the fourth Christmas, he finally bought a ticket back home, and as the gravel road pierced his patented-leather shoes, and the dusty air whirled around his dry-cleaned suit, and the smell of manure filled his nostrils, he knew he was in a foreign land. The city had become home, and this land surfaced memories that he had repressed for the past four years. For a moment, the gusty wind brought it all back to him—the swaying fields, the abundant harvest, the cultivation of life, the power of nature and the God who ordered it, the family hardships and successes, the devotion to God—but they were only images of a far-away past, a past he didn’t want to go back to. So he picked up his suitcase, dusted it off, turned around and stepped back onto the train, not even turning to say goodbye to that little town in the middle of Nebraska.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. As Federalist 45 explains, “The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people.” As Derek H. Davis, asserts in Religion and the Continental Congress 1774-1789 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 133, one of the primary issues the Framers’ Constitution left to the state was Religion; thus, each state could still maintain its religious tradition and inculcate morality.
2. Though not all states protected religious liberty, men had the ability to move to a different state and the religious association was more localized and true to the state’s founding. Furthermore, the national government instituted a national system that allowed religious liberty to prosper on a national level, respecting state sovereignty while creating a potential for religious liberty that would not come to actuality until years later.
3. Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy (New York: Random House, 1969), 19.
4. Ibid., 54.
5. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (New York: Collins, 1823).
6. Robert A. Nisbet, The Degradation of the Academic Dogma (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishing, 1997), 22.
7. Thomas Aquinas quoted in Marion Montogmery, The Truth of Things (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 1999), 1.
8. Thomas Paine, Common Sense (2009; repr., Hillsdale: Cat Paws Press, 1776).
9. Paul Roazen in the introduction to Walter Lippmann’s The Public Philosophy (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009), xii.
10. Men like John Dewey and Woodrow Wilson pioneered Progressivism in academia, and both still remain at the forefront of modern educational ideas.
11. George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 329.
12. Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking into the Abyss (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 4.
13. F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (New York: Pocket Books, 1920), 105.
14. Himmelfarb, Looking in the Abyss, 6.
15. Ibid., 28.
16. Russell Kirk, Decadence and Renewal in Higher Learning (South Bend, Gateway Editions, 1978), 16.
17. Ibid., 16.
18. Russell Kirk (aka “my brand of conservatism”) uses this term to explain the eternal truths.
19. Ibid., 17.
20. This analogy derives from Plato’s The Republic, book nine.
21. Russell Kirk, “The Moral imagination” in Literature and Belief, Vol. 1 (1981), 37.