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

From the moment the 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson arrived at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776, he was on the radical side. That caused John Adams to like him immediately. Then the Congress stuck Jefferson and Adams together on the five-man committee to write a formal statement justifying a break with Great Britain, and their mutual admiration society began.

Jefferson thought Adams should write the Declaration. But Adams protested, saying, “It can't come from me because I'm obnoxious and disliked." Adams reasoned that Jefferson was not obnoxious or disliked, therefore he should write it. Plus, he flattered Jefferson, by telling him he was a great writer. It was a master class in passing the buck.

So, over the next 17 days, Jefferson holed up in his room, applying his lawyer skills to the ideas of the Enlightenment. He borrowed freely from existing documents like the Virginia Declaration of Rights. He later wrote that “he was not striving for originality of principle or sentiment." Instead, he hoped his words served as “an expression of the American mind."

It's safe to say he achieved his goal.

The five-man committee changed about 25 percent of Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration before submitting it to Congress. Then, Congress altered about one-fifth of that draft. But most of the final Declaration's words are Jefferson's, including the most famous passage — the Preamble — which Congress left intact. The result is nothing less than America's mission statement, the words that ultimately bind the nation together. And words that we desperately need to rediscover because of our boiling partisan rage.

The Declaration is brilliant in structure and purpose. It was designed for multiple audiences: the King of Great Britain, the colonists, and the world. And it was designed for multiple purposes: rallying the troops, gaining foreign allies, and announcing the creation of a new country.

The Declaration is structured in five sections: the Introduction, Preamble, the Body composed of two parts, and the Conclusion. It's basically the most genius breakup letter ever written.

In the Introduction, step 1 is the notificationI think we need to break up. And to be fair, I feel I owe you an explanation...

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…

The Continental Congress felt they were entitled by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" to “dissolve the political bands," but they needed to prove the legitimacy of their cause. They were defying the world's most powerful nation and needed to motivate foreign allies to join the effort. So, they set their struggle within the entire “Course of human events." They're saying, this is no petty political spat — this is a major event in world history.

Step 2 is declaring what you believe in, your standardsHere's what I'm looking for in a healthy relationship...

This is the most famous part of the Declaration; the part school children recite — the Preamble:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That's as much as many Americans know of the Declaration. But the Preamble is the DNA of our nation, and it really needs to be taken as a whole:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The Preamble takes us through a logical progression: All men are created equal; God gives all humans certain inherent rights that cannot be denied; these include the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; to protect those rights, we have governments set up; but when a government fails to protect our inherent rights, people have the right to change or replace it.

Government is only there to protect the rights of mankind. They don't have any power unless we give it to them. That was an extraordinarily radical concept then and we're drifting away from it now.

The Preamble is the justification for revolution. But note how they don't mention Great Britain yet. And again, note how they frame it within a universal context. These are fundamental principles, not just squabbling between neighbors. These are the principles that make the Declaration just as relevant today. It's not just a dusty parchment that applied in 1776.

Step 3 is laying out your caseHere's why things didn't work out between us. It's not me, it's you...

This is Part 1 of the Body of the Declaration. It's the section where Jefferson gets to flex his lawyer muscles by listing 27 grievances against the British crown. This is the specific proof of their right to rebellion:

He has obstructed the administration of justice...

For imposing taxes on us without our consent...

For suspending our own legislatures...

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us...

Again, Congress presented these “causes which impel them to separation" in universal terms to appeal to an international audience. It's like they were saying, by joining our fight you'll be joining mankind's overall fight against tyranny.

Step 4 is demonstrating the actions you took I really tried to make this relationship work, and here's how...

This is Part 2 of the Body. It explains how the colonists attempted to plead their case directly to the British people, only to have the door slammed in their face:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury...

They too have been deaf to the voice of justice... We must, therefore... hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

This basically wrapped up America's argument for independence — we haven't been treated justly, we tried to talk to you about it, but since you refuse to listen and things are only getting worse, we're done here.

Step 5 is stating your intent — So, I think it's best if we go our separate ways. And my decision is final...

This is the powerful Conclusion. If people know any part of the Declaration besides the Preamble, this is it:

...that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved...

They left no room for doubt. The relationship was over, and America was going to reboot, on its own, with all the rights of an independent nation.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The message was clear — this was no pitchfork mob. These were serious men who had carefully thought through the issues before taking action. They were putting everything on the line for this cause.

The Declaration of Independence is a landmark in the history of democracy because it was the first formal statement of a people announcing their right to choose their own government. That seems so obvious to us now, but in 1776 it was radical and unprecedented.

In 1825, Jefferson wrote that the purpose of the Declaration was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of… but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm… to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take."

You're not going to do better than the Declaration of Independence. Sure, it worked as a means of breaking away from Great Britain, but its genius is that its principles of equality, inherent rights, and self-government work for all time — as long as we actually know and pursue those principles.

On June 7, 1776, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania State House, better known today as Independence Hall. Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion calling for the colonies' independence. The “Lee Resolution" was short and sweet:

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

Intense debate followed, and the Congress voted 7 to 5 (with New York abstaining) to postpone a vote on Lee's Resolution. They called a recess for three weeks. In the meantime, the delegates felt they needed to explain what they were doing in writing. So, before the recess, they appointed a five-man committee to come up with a formal statement justifying a break with Great Britain. They appointed two men from New England — Roger Sherman and John Adams; two from the middle colonies — Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin; and one Southerner — Thomas Jefferson. The responsibility for writing what would become the Declaration of Independence fell to Jefferson.

In the rotunda of the National Archives building in Washington, D.C., there are three original documents on permanent display: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. These are the three pillars of the United States, yet America barely seems to know them anymore. We need to get reacquainted — quickly.

In a letter to his friend John Adams in 1816, Jefferson wrote: “I like the dreams of the future, better than the history of the past."

America used to be a forward-looking nation of dreamers. We still are in spots, but the national attitude that we hear broadcast loudest across media is not looking toward the future with optimism and hope. In late 2017, a national poll found 59% of Americans think we are currently at the “lowest point in our nation's history that they can remember."

America spends far too much time looking to the past for blame and excuse. And let's be honest, even the Right is often more concerned with “owning the left" than helping point anyone toward the practical principles of the Declaration of Independence. America has clearly lost touch with who we are as a nation. We have a national identity crisis.

The Declaration of Independence is America's thesis statement, and without it America doesn't exist.

It is urgent that we get reacquainted with the Declaration of Independence because postmodernism would have us believe that we've evolved beyond the America of our founding documents, and thus they're irrelevant to the present and the future. But the Declaration of Independence is America's thesis statement, and without it America doesn't exist.

Today, much of the nation is so addicted to partisan indignation that "day-to-day" indignation isn't enough to feed the addiction. So, we're reaching into America's past to help us get our fix. In 2016, Democrats in the Louisiana state legislature tabled a bill that would have required fourth through sixth graders to recite the opening lines of the Declaration. They didn't table it because they thought it would be too difficult or too patriotic. They tabled it because the requirement would include the phrase “all men are created equal" and the progressives in the Louisiana legislature didn't want the children to have to recite a lie. Representative Barbara Norton said, “One thing that I do know is, all men are not created equal. When I think back in 1776, July the fourth, African Americans were slaves. And for you to bring a bill to request that our children will recite the Declaration, I think it's a little bit unfair to us. To ask our children to recite something that's not the truth. And for you to ask those children to repeat the Declaration stating that all men's are free. I think that's unfair."

Remarkable — an elected representative saying it wouldn't be fair for students to have to recite the Declaration because “all men are not created equal." Another Louisiana Democrat explained that the government born out of the Declaration “was used against races of people." I guess they missed that part in school where they might have learned that the same government later made slavery illegal and amended the Constitution to guarantee all men equal protection under the law. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were an admission of guilt by the nation regarding slavery, and an effort to right the wrongs.

Yet, the progressive logic goes something like this: many of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, including Thomas Jefferson who wrote it, owned slaves; slavery is evil; therefore, the Declaration of Independence is not valid because it was created by evil slave owners.

It's a sad reality that the left has a very hard time appreciating the universal merits of the Declaration of Independence because they're so hung up on the long-dead issue of slavery. And just to be clear — because people love to take things out of context — of course slavery was horrible. Yes, it is a total stain on our history. But defending the Declaration of Independence is not an effort to excuse any aspect of slavery.

Okay then, people might say, how could the Founders approve the phrase “All men are created equal," when many of them owned slaves? How did they miss that?

They didn't miss it. In fact, Thomas Jefferson included an anti-slavery passage in his first draft of the Declaration. The paragraph blasted King George for condoning slavery and preventing the American Colonies from passing legislation to ban slavery:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights to life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere... Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.

We don't say “execrable" that much anymore. It means, utterly detestable, abominable, abhorrent — basically very bad.

Jefferson was upset when Georgia and North Carolina threw up the biggest resistance to that paragraph. Ultimately, those two states twisted Congress' arm to delete the paragraph.

Still, how could a man calling the slave trade “execrable" be a slaveowner himself? No doubt about it, Jefferson was a flawed human being. He even had slaves from his estate in Virginia attending him while he was in Philadelphia, in the very apartment where he was writing the Declaration.

Many of the Southern Founders deeply believed in the principles of the Declaration yet couldn't bring themselves to upend the basis of their livelihood. By 1806, Virginia law made it more difficult for slave owners to free their slaves, especially if the owner had significant debts as Jefferson did.

At the same time, the Founders were not idiots. They understood the ramifications of signing on to the principles described so eloquently in the Declaration. They understood that logically, slavery would eventually have to be abolished in America because it was unjust, and the words they were committing to paper said as much. Remember, John Adams was on the committee of five that worked on the Declaration and he later said that the Revolution would never be complete until the slaves were free.

Also, the same generation that signed the Declaration started the process of abolition by banning the importation of slaves in 1807. Jefferson was President at the time and he urged Congress to pass the law.

America has an obvious road map that, as a nation, we're not consulting often enough.

The Declaration took a major step toward crippling the institution of slavery. It made the argument for the first time about the fundamental rights of all humans which completely undermined slavery. Planting the seeds to end slavery is not nearly commendable enough for leftist critics, but you can't discount the fact that the seeds were planted. It's like they started an expiration clock for slavery by approving the Declaration. Everything that happened almost a century later to end slavery, and then a century after that with the Civil Rights movement, flowed from the principles voiced in the Declaration.

Ironically for a movement that calls itself progressive, it is obsessed with retrying and judging the past over and over. Progressives consider this a better use of time than actually putting past abuses in the rearview and striving not to be defined by ancestral failures.

It can be very constructive to look to the past, but not when it's used to flog each other in the present. Examining history is useful in providing a road map for the future. And America has an obvious road map that, as a nation, we're not consulting often enough. But it's right there, the original, under glass. The ink is fading, but the words won't die — as long as we continue to discuss them.

'Good Morning Texas' gives exclusive preview of Mercury One museum

Screen shot from Good Morning Texas

Mercury One is holding a special exhibition over the 4th of July weekend, using hundreds of artifacts, documents and augmented reality experiences to showcase the history of slavery — including slavery today — and a path forward. Good Morning Texas reporter Paige McCoy Smith went through the exhibit for an exclusive preview with Mercury One's chief operating officer Michael Little on Tuesday.

Watch the video below to see the full preview.

Click here to purchase tickets to the museum (running from July 4 - 7).

Over the weekend, journalist Andy Ngo and several other apparent right-leaning people were brutally beaten by masked-gangs of Antifa protesters in Portland, Oregon. Short for "antifascist," Antifa claims to be fighting for social justice and tolerance — by forcibly and violently silencing anyone with opposing opinions. Ngo, who was kicked, punched, and sprayed with an unknown substance, is currently still in the hospital with a "brain bleed" as a result of the savage attack. Watch the video to get the details from Glenn.