A Conservative Professor's View From a Liberal Wasteland

Self-Mastery, Academic Freedom and the Liberal Arts


Robert P. George

Self-Mastery and the Liberal Arts Ideal

In the revisionist understanding of many of today’s academic humanists and social scientists, liberal arts education is ultimately about liberation from the traditional beliefs and structures by which earlier generations of Americans and Westerners generally had been taught to govern their conduct for the sake of personal virtue and the common good.  For it has become a matter of dogma that traditional norms and structures are irrational—superstitions and phobias that impede personal development by restricting people’s capacities to act on their desires.

In this dogmatic context, teaching and scholarship are aimed at exposing the texts and traditions once regarded as the intellectual treasures of our civilization—the Bible, Plato, Dante, Aquinas, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Locke—as mere propaganda meant to support and reinforce unjust (racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) social orders.

Moreover, since for liberationists, what one fundamentally is, is one’s desires, being true to oneself means acting on one’s desires, in defiance of any “hang-ups” based on putatively outmoded moral ideas and social norms.  The very essence of liberation, on this view, is transcending the traditions that ground these “hang-ups” to embrace one’s desires by, for example, “coming out” as a homosexual, transvestite, polyamorist, or member of some other “sexual minority.”

Nowhere is this clearer than in freshman orientation programs in colleges and universities throughout the United States that feature compulsory, one-sided events designed to undermine new students’ traditional beliefs about sexual morality and decency. 

Shortly after arriving at the prestigious Williams College, a young friend of mine was placed in a group with other new students to discuss campus life. An official moderator asked them to introduce themselves as “gay” in order to understand sympathetically how it felt to “come out.” (The presupposition, of course, was that a person who experiences dominant homosexual inclinations must come out as “gay” in order to be true to himself.)  When his turn came, my friend politely but firmly refused on the ground that this absurd exercise had nothing to do with the reason he came to Williams College—to learn to think critically and for himself.

Of course, what goes on in these collegiate re-education camps, and in far too many classrooms, is radically different from the classical understanding of the goal of liberal arts education, which is not to liberate us to act on our desires, but precisely to liberate us from slavery to them.  Personal authenticity, under the traditional account, consists in self-mastery—in placing reason in control of desire. 

How can it be liberating to enter into the great conversation with Plato and his interlocutors?  According to the classic liberal-arts ideal, doing so enables us to grasp more fully the humanizing  truths by which we can direct our desires and our wills to what is truly good, beautiful, worthy of human beings as possessed of profound and inherent dignity.  The liberal-arts ideal is rooted in the conviction that there are human goods, and a common good, in light of which we have reasons to limit and even alter our desires, thus becoming masters of ourselves.

Now if you accept this ideal, you are seeking answers to the question:  What qualities make for an upright life?  In a talk at Princeton a few years ago, Richard Brookhiser explained that George Washington came to be who he was by imagining an ideal, noble individual and then trying to become that person by acting as that person would and ridding himself of wayward desires that would have no place in that person’s character. 

On the classical view, Washington’s was an act of the most profound authenticity.  He sought to be master of himself, rather than a slave to his desires.  But to some students, Washington’s conduct seemed radically inauthentic.  He was play-acting, being untrue to himself by reshaping his desires in line with standards drawn from “outside himself.”  Overlooked entirely was the classical liberal-arts view of man as a rational creature, capable of understanding reasons in light of which he can discipline his desires.

Academic Freedom

True liberal-arts learning will flourish only under conditions of freedom.  It is compromised when well-qualified scholars are denied positions or promotions for dissenting from campus orthodoxies at institutions that claim to be non-partisan and non-sectarian.   It can be smothered by an atmosphere of political correctness.  It can fail to emerge as a result of the sheer lack of diversity of opinions among students and, especially, faculty.

Crystal Dixon is Associate Vice President of Human Resources at the University of Toledo.  She is an African-American woman and a faithful Christian.  Recently, she wrote a letter to the editor of her local newspaper, rejecting the claim that “sexual orientation” is like race and should be included as a category in anti-discrimination and civil-rights laws.  When her letter was published, the President of the University of Toledo suspended her from her job and threatened further punishment if she did not recant and apologize for publishing a view that he evidently regards as heretical.

What is remarkable about this case is how unremarkable it is.  Scarcely a week passes without some offense being committed against academic freedom.  Given the strong leftward tilt in most of the academy, the victim is typically a student, professor, or administrator who has dared to dispute a left-wing dogma.

But all is not darkness.  A few months ago the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia voted against granting tenure to an outstanding young scholar of family sociology named Bradford Wilcox.  Despite his extraordinary record of intellectual achievement and distinguished teaching, Professor Wilcox was punished for his conservative religious and moral opinions.  But the University’s president, John T. Casteen, reviewed the case and reversed the decision, thereby striking an important blow for academic freedom and the liberal arts ideal.  His example will encourage (in the literal sense of the term) those who dissent from prevailing opinions to stand up and say what they actually think; and it will serve as a warning to those who would attempt to punish their dissent. 

As we consider the appalling behavior of one university president in Crystal Dixon’s case, and the encouraging conduct of another university president in Bradford Wilcox’s case, perhaps it is worth pausing to ask why we should care so much about intellectual freedom in the academy. 

In my view, it is not merely a passion for freedom for its own sake.  We should honor academic freedom as a great and indispensable value because it serves the values of understanding, knowledge, and truth that are greater still.

Far from being mutually antithetical, freedom and truth are mutually supportive and even dependent.  A defense of academic freedom must at least implicitly appeal to truth, and a complete defense will present understanding, knowledge, and truth as the intrinsic values that make sense of freedom as something indispensable to their pursuit and meaningful appropriation.  On the other side of the question, the overwhelming evidence of history shows that freedom is as necessary to the intellectual life of man as oxygen is to his bodily life.

Academic freedom should not be boundless, but its scope, as a value ordered to truth, must be generous—especially in the academy, where free inquiry and exploration are often essential to insight and richer understanding—even if that freedom will sometimes be abused. 

But why must we permit even securely known truths to be questioned and denied?  The most important reason is that freedom is the condition of our fuller appropriation of the truth.  Knowledge and truth have their value for human beings precisely as fulfillment of capacities for understanding and judgment.  Education liberates the human spirit because knowledge of truth attained by the exercise of our rational faculties is intrinsically and not merely instrumentally valuable.  Knowledge that elevates and enriches must be appropriated.  It cannot be merely a matter of affirming correct propositions.  It is knowledge not only that something is the case, but why and how it is the case.  Freedom to inquire, to assent or dissent as one’s best judgment dictates, is a condition of the personal appropriation of the truth by the human person for the sake of whom—for the liberation of whom—intellectual inquiry, understanding, and judgment are intrinsically valuable.

The full essay will be published in the September issue of The American Spectator

Everything comes down to the two Senate runoffs in Georgia. If we lose both races, we lose the country. Democrats know this and are pouring in millions to usher in a Marxist agenda.

As the Left tries to hide how radical the two candidates really are, Glenn takes us inside the Democrat war room to expose the wolf in pastor's clothing, Raphael Warnock, and America's Justin Trudeau, Jon Ossoff. Socialism, the Green New Deal, and "defund the police" are all on the table. And Glenn warns of what's to come if conservatives don't activate: Chuck Schumer will weaponize the Senate, and the radical Left will launch an all-out assault to ravage the Constitution.

Watch the full special below:

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Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) joined the "Glenn Beck Radio Program" to explain how mail-in ballots are typically disqualified during recounts at a far higher rate than in-person, Election Day ballots, and why this is "good news" for President Donald Trump's legal battle over the election.

"One of the things that gives the greatest cause for optimism is, this election ... there's a pretty marked disparity in terms of how the votes were distributed. On Election Day, with in-person voting, Donald Trump won a significant majority of the votes cast on in-person voting on Election Day. Of mail-in voting, Joe Biden won a significant majority of the votes cast early on mail-in voting," Cruz explained.

"Now, here's the good news: If you look historically to recounts, if you look historically to election litigation, the votes cast in person on Election Day tend to stand. It's sort of hard to screw that up. Those votes are generally legal, and they're not set aside. Mail-in votes historically have a much higher rate of rejection … when they're examined, there are a whole series of legal requirements that vary state by state, but mail-in votes consistently have a higher rate of rejection, which suggests that as these votes begin being examined and subjected to scrutiny, that you're going to see Joe Biden's vote tallies go down. That's a good thing," he added. "The challenge is, for President Trump to prevail, he's got to run the table. He's got to win, not just in one state but in several states. That makes it a lot harder to prevail in the litigation. I hope that he does so, but it is a real challenge and we shouldn't try to convince ourselves otherwise."

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Fox News senior meteorologist Janice Dean is perhaps even more disgusted with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for his coronavirus response than BlazeTV's Stu Burguiere (read what Stu has to say on the subject here), and for a good reason.

She lost both of her in-laws to COVID-19 in New York's nursing homes after Gov. Cuomo's infamous nursing home mandate, which Cuomo has since had scrubbed from the state's website and blamed everyone from the New York Post to nursing care workers to (every leftist's favorite scapegoat) President Donald Trump.

Janice joined Glenn and Stu on the "Glenn Beck Radio Program" Tuesday to ask why mainstream media is not holding Gov. Cuomo — who recently published a book about his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic — accountable?

"I'm vocal because I have not seen the mainstream media ask these questions or demand accountability of their leaders. [Cuomo] really has been ruling with an iron fist, and every time he does get asked a question, he blames everybody else except the person that signed that order," Janice said.

"In my mind, he's profiting off the over 30 thousand New Yorkers, including my in-laws, that died by publishing a book on 'leadership' of New York," she added. "His order has helped kill thousands of relatives of New York state. And this is not political, Glenn. This is not about Republican or Democrat. My in-laws were registered Democrats. This is not about politics. This is about accountability for something that went wrong, and it's because of your [Cuomo's] leadership that we're put into this situation."

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As America grows divided and afraid to disagree with the Democrats' woke plan for America, Megyn Kelly is ready to fight back for the truth. For nearly two decades, she navigated the volatile and broken world of the media. But as America leans on independent voices more than ever, she's breaking new ground with "The Megyn Kelly Show."

She joined the latest Glenn Beck Podcast to break down what's coming next after the election: Black Lives Matter is mainstream, leftists are making lists of Trump supporters, and the Hunter Biden scandal is on the back burner.

Megyn and Glenn reminisce about their cable news days (including her infamous run-in with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump) and to look into the chaotic and shady world of journalism and the growing entitlement it's bred. For example, many conservatives have been shocked by how Fox News handled the election.

Megyn defended Fox News, saying she believes Fox News' mission "is a good one," but also didn't hold back on hosts like Neil Cavuto, who cut off a White House briefing to fact check it — something she never would have done, even while covering President Obama.

Megyn also shared this insightful takeaway from her time at NBC: "Jane Fonda was an ass."

Watch the full podcast here:

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