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

The themes of healing and redemption appear throughout the Bible.

Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. — 1 Corinthians 15:43
It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. — Mark 2:17.

So, for many Christians, it's no surprise to hear that people of faith live longer lives.

Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise. — Jeremiah 17:14.

But it is certainly lovely to hear, and a recent study by a doctoral student at Ohio State University is just one more example of empirical evidence confirming the healing benefits of faith and religious belief.

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Moreover, the study finds that religious belief can lengthen a person's life.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. — Proverbs 17:22
Lord, your discipline is good, for it leads to life and health. You restore my health and allow me to live! — Isaiah 38:16

The study analyzed over 1,000 obituaries nationwide and found that people of faith lived longer than people who were not religious. Laura Wallace, lead author of the study, noted that "religious affiliation had nearly as strong an effect on longevity as gender does, which is a matter of years of life."

The study notes that, "people whose obits mentioned a religious affiliation lived an average of 5.64 years longer than those whose obits did not, which shrunk to 3.82 years after gender and marital status were considered."

And He called to Him His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. — Matthew 10:1

"The researchers found that part of the reason for the boost in longevity came from the fact that many religiously affiliated people also volunteered and belonged to social organizations, which previous research has linked to living longer. The study provides persuasive evidence that there is a relationship between religious participation and how long a person lives," said Baldwin Way, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at Ohio State.

Prayer is good medicine, and faith is a good protector.

In addition, the study showed how the effects of religion on longevity might depend in part on the personality and average religiosity of the cities where people live, Way said.

Prayer is good medicine, and faith is a good protector.

And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. — Luke 5:17
Heal the sick in it and say to them, The kingdom of God has come near to you. — Luke 10:9.

In early June, the Social Security and Medicare trustees released their annual report on the fiscal health of these programs, and the situation looks dire. Medicare is scheduled to run out of money in 2026 (three years sooner than anticipated), while Social Security is expected to run out in 2034. The rising national debt is only one of the well-known financial struggles the millennial generation faces. The burdens of student loan debt, high housing prices (thanks to zoning restrictions), stagnant wage growth, the rising cost of healthcare and lingering aftershocks of the Great Recession are among the biggest sources of economic anxiety millennials feel.

Progressive politicians have been very successful at courting the youth vote, partly because they actually promote policy ideas that address many of these concerns. As unrealistic or counterproductive as Senator Bernie Sanders' proposals for single-payer health care or a $15 an hour minimum wage might be, they feel in theory like they would provide the economic stability and prosperity millennials want.

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Republicans, on the other hand, have struggled to craft a message to address these concerns. Fiscal conservatives recognize, correctly, that the burden of the $20 trillion national debt and over $200 trillion in unfunded liabilities will fall on millennials. Some conservatives have even written books about that fact. But the need to reform entitlements hasn't exactly caught millennials' attention. Pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, in her book The Selfie Vote, notes that millennials generally view protecting the safety net as more important than reducing the deficit.

Clearly, Republicans have a problem. They need to craft solutions that address the millennial generation's struggles, but they can't seem to sell entitlement reform, their biggest policy preference that addresses those problems. The Republican approach to wooing millennials on policy is failing because talking about stopping the debt from reaching an unsustainable level is long-term and abstract, and offers few immediate tangible benefits. A new approach to both pave the way for entitlement reform and give millennials an immediate financial boost is to first reform not entitlement spending, but the payroll tax: specifically, by partially (or wholly) replacing it with a value-added tax.

Under the current Social Security model, workers pay for the benefits of current retirees through the payroll tax. This system creates the illusion of a pension program, in which what you put in is what you get out, but in reality Social Security is a universal safety net program for the elderly paid for by taxes. The payroll tax falls on workers and is a tax on labor, while the value-added tax (VAT) is a tax on consumption imposed at every part of the production process. Assuming that this policy change is revenue-neutral, switching to a VAT will shift the responsibility for funding Social Security and Medicare away from workers, disproportionately poorer and younger, and onto everyone participating in the economy as a whole. Furthermore, uncoupling Social Security funding from payroll taxes would pave the way for fiscal reforms to transform the program from a universal benefit program to one geared specifically to eliminating old-age poverty, such as means-testing benefits for high-income beneficiaries, indexing benefits to prices rather than wages or changing the retirement age.

Switching from the payroll tax to the VAT would address both conservative and liberal tax policy preferences.

Switching from the payroll tax to the VAT would address both conservative and liberal tax policy preferences. As the Tax Policy Center notes, the change would actually make the tax system more progressive. The current payroll tax is regressive, meaning that people with lower incomes tend to pay a higher effective tax rate than people with higher incomes. On the other hand, the value-added tax is much closer to proportional than the payroll tax, meaning that each income group pays closer to the same effective tax rate.

For Republicans, such a change would fit conservative economic ideas about the long-run causes of economic growth. A value-added tax has a much broader base than the payroll tax, and therefore would allow for much lower marginal tax rates, and lower marginal tax rates mean smaller disincentives to economic activity. According to the Tax Foundation's analysis of a value-added tax, the VAT would be a more economically efficient revenue source than most other taxes currently in the tax code.

Not only would replacing part or all of the payroll tax provide an immediate benefit to millennial taxpayers, it would also open the door for the much-needed entitlement reforms that have been so politically elusive. Furthermore, it would make the tax code both more pro-growth and less regressive. In order to even begin to address the entitlement crisis, win millennial support and stimulate the economy in a fiscally responsible manner, Republicans must propose moving from the payroll tax to the VAT.

Alex Muresianu is a Young Voices Advocate. His writing has appeared in Townhall and The Federalist. He is a federal policy intern at the Tax Foundation. Opinions expressed here are his only and not the views of the Tax Foundation. He can be found on Twitter @ahardtospell.

Glenn was joined by Alanna Sarabia from "Good Morning Texas" at Mercury Studios on Thursday for an exclusive look at Mercury Museum's new "Rights & Responsibilities" exhibit. Open through Father's Day, the temporary museum features artifacts from pop culture, America's founding, World Ward II and more, focusing on the rights and responsibilities America's citizens.

Get tickets and more information here.

Watch as Glenn gives a sneak peek at some of the unique artifacts on display below.

History at the Mercury Museum

Alanna Sarabia interviews Glenn Beck for "Good Morning Texas" at Mercury Studios.

Several months ago, at the Miss Universe competition, two women took a selfie, then posted it on Instagram. The caption read, "Peace and love." As a result of that selfie, both women faced death threats, and one of the women, along with her entire family, had to flee her home country. The occasion was the 2017 Miss Universe competition, and the women were Miss Iraq and Miss Israel. Miss Iraq is no longer welcome in her own country. The government threatened to strip her of her crown. Of course, she was also badgered for wearing a bikini during the competition.

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In an interview, Miss Iraq, Sarah Idan, said:

When I posted the picture I didn't think for a second there would be blowback. I woke up to calls from my family and the Miss Iraq Organization going insane. The death threats I got online were so scary. The director of the Miss Iraq Organization called me and said they're getting heat from the ministry. He said I have to take the picture down or they will strip me of my title.

Yesterday, Miss Iraq, Sarah Idan, posted another selfie with Miss Israel, during a visit to Jerusalem.

In an interview, she said that:

I don't think Iraq and Israel are enemies; I think maybe the governments are enemies with each other. There's a lot of Iraqi people that don't have a problem with Israelis.

This is, of course, quite an understatement: Iraq, home to roughly 15,000 Palestinians, refuses to acknowledge Israel as a legitimate country, as it is technically at war with Israel. The adages says that a picture is worth a thousand words. What are we to do when many of those words are hateful or deadly? And how can we find the goodness in such bad situations?