At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Is “the Right Wing” Responsible for Neglect of Liberal Arts?

posted by Jack Kerwick

Just hours before writing this, some colleagues of mine at a local community college in New Jersey where I teach philosophy were busy lamenting their students’ utter lack of interest in the liberal arts.  Indeed, the phenomenon to which my colleagues refer is one of which educators everywhere are all too familiar.  They are further correct in recognizing it for the tragedy that it is.   

Even more tragic, though, is that their analysis of the problem is a function of the problem itself. 

You see, the reason why college students have zero interest in reading Shakespeare, Plato, or any of the classics of Western civilization, according to them, is because of developments that transpired within American society during the last couple of decades. The name of Bill Bennett—Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan—was dropped during this conversation.  One of the parties to it also spoke of what he evidently thinks is the mutually antagonistic relationship between “free market capitalism” and liberal learning.  “Right wing radio” too was identified as one of the culprits behind the state of neglect to which the liberal arts have been reduced.

So, what my colleagues are basically saying is that roughly since the time of Reagan’s presidency, non-leftists have succeeded in affecting a radical paradigm shift in higher education.  Thanks to their efforts, the contemporary university has transformed itself from a place of classical liberal learning to one that is now modeled on the pattern of a business.  Courtesy of “the right wing” with its commitment to “free market capitalism,” the university no longer exists to promote knowledge for its own sake. It now exists for the sake of promoting its students’ careers.    

That the university is in a state of ill repair is undoubtedly true.  And that there is a sense in which students are treated as customers is equally true.

But the proposition that it is those on the right—Republicans!—who have managed to visit all of these changes upon—of all places!—academia and only within the last twenty to thirty years, is just laughable on its face. 

The university has been and remains a bastion of leftism.  Any analysis of the state of education today that fails to mention this stone cold fact is fatally flawed.  Any analysis that both fails to mention this and that lays the blame for all of the challenges facing higher education solely at the feet of those on the political right is preposterous.

In reality, there are many things that account for the poverty of imagination from which far too many of our college students suffer.

First, it is true, I think, that what my colleagues call “free market capitalism” indeed has something to do with students’ anti-intellectualism. But this is just another way of saying that, from its inception,America herself may not have been the most hospitable clime within which to foster a love for the liberal arts. 

“Free market capitalism,” mind you, is not an “ism” at all, for “free market capitalism,” strictly speaking, no more exists than does some thing called “the weather.” Rather, in America, where liberty has historically been prized above all other goods, what we have had is a set of institutional arrangements that diffuse power and authority widely.  One way—the only way—to insure this is by seeing to it that every individual citizen has a right to private property.   

“Capitalism” refers to nothing more or less than a situation comprised of countless people exercising their property rights. 

That is, “free market capitalism” is nothing more or less than freedom.

Now, that being said, freedom—as Americans have traditionally conceived it—may very well inhibit students’ interest in the liberal arts. America, after all, is a relatively new country, a country that prided itself on parting ways from the ancient traditions of the Mother continent of Europe.  It is not by accident that as American freedom grew in favor so too did the notion of “practical knowledge” grow among Americans.

In glaring contrast, the classical ideal of liberal learning affirms knowledge for its own sake—not the sake of some material satisfaction regarding which knowledge is a mere means.

Second, the liberal arts presuppose a particular orientation toward time. More specifically, since they compose the inheritance that is our civilization, to study the liberal arts is, necessarily, to center our attention primarily upon the past.  This doesn’t preclude present enjoyment, but it is utterly incompatible with the obsessive focus on the future that marks those “capitalists” who are beholden to the god of “practical knowledge.”

Ironically, though, the “capitalist’s” leftist critics, like my colleagues, are just as obsessed with the future as is the object of their critique.

Leftist professors tend to be activists.  Not unlike “the capitalists” who they despise, their eyes are always looking off into the future, for it is in the future where the next utopia is to be found. And because this as-yet-unrealized promised land requires for its realization a particular set of political arrangements, what this means is that the leftist professor, in being an activist, can’t resist politicizing education.

But politics is as topical and transitory as any enterprise, and the political activist is as preoccupied with the next achievement as are consumers and entrepreneurs (i.e. “capitalists”). 

When he turns toward the past and the present at all, it is for the purpose of conscripting them into the service of bringing to fruition the future of which he dreams.

Whether, then, we are dealing with “free market capitalists” or leftist academics, it appears that the classical ideal of learning for its sake—the principle of the liberal arts—is obsolete.

There is, though, but another respect in which students’ disinterest in the liberal arts may just be one of the leftist academic’s chickens coming home to roost.

Both academic and popular leftists have labored inexhaustibly to convince the inhabitants of the Western world that their civilization is incorrigibly oppressive. And this is but another way of saying that the whites, the white men especially, with whom it had historically been identified, are evil.

But if Western civilization is the cesspool that leftists make it out to be and if whites are responsible for the lion’s share of wickedness in the world, then on what basis can we convince the young (or anyone else) that Western civilization is something to be learned and preserved?  On what grounds can we hope to persuade them that some of the most wicked men in the world—such dead white males as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Shakespeare,Canterbury, etc.—are fonts of wisdom and virtue?

In politicizing the study of the liberal arts by making it all about the study of racial, gender, and class oppression, the academic leftist has chopped off his proverbial nose to spite his face.

If we truly wish to understand the condition of the liberal arts today, we need to abandon the silly notion that the American right or Republicans have anything to do with it.

This, in turn, means that we need to know a thing or two about the larger American culture, yes, but, even more importantly, the leftist ideologues who teach the liberal arts. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redistribution: What is It and Where Does It Lead?

posted by Jack Kerwick

We now have exhibition 4,003 to prove that, at bottom, Barack Obama’s agenda is and has always been socialistic to the core.

The most recent piece of evidence confirming what, by now, everyone should know all too well is an audio recording of a speech the President delivered at a Loyola University conference back in 1998.  It was there and then that Obama called for Americans to “pool resources” in order to “facilitate some redistribution [.]”  He unabashedly declared: “I actually believe in redistribution.”

When we couple this with Obama’s now notorious claim that the successful did nothing to deserve their success—“You didn’t build that!”—a larger worldview begins to come into focus.

Yet to see that worldview spelled out, we must go beyond the sloganeering of the leftist politicians who promote redistributionist ideas to the leftist intellectuals who give rise to them.

Philosophers John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin are among the contemporary academic world’s biggest stars.  And they are recognized as such because of their ingenuous and tireless efforts to construct an intellectual apparatus for “social justice”—i.e. redistribution.

Rawls devises what he calls “the original position.”  In the original position, individuals gather together to determine what kind of society they shall inhabit together.  In this regard, it is roughly comparable to what philosophers of an earlier era called “the state of nature.”  However, in the original position, individuals stand behind a “veil of ignorance” that blinds them to every one of those characteristics—race, sex, class, religion—that distinguish them from one another in the real world.

Now, because no one knows what his circumstances will be in the society chosen, parties to the original position arrive at a consensus that their society shall be governed by two principles of “justice.” 

The first asserts that everyone is to have as expansive a right to liberty consistent with the same right for everyone else.  But the second demands that all inequalities that arise from the observance of the first principle must be “arranged” or redistributed in order to benefit “the least advantaged.”

Parties to the original position would agree to this, Rawls thinks, because no one knows whether or not he will be counted among the least advantaged in the new social order.

Notice, society here is treated as a lottery in that no one has done anything to deserve either his standing in it or “the advantages” or “disadvantages” that attach to his standing.  (Translation: “You didn’t build that!”) Yet it is unlike a lottery in that—just because one’s fortunes and misfortunes are undeserved—the just society requires of life’s winners that they share their earnings with life’s losers.

Dworkin follows Rawls down this path.

Dworkin contends that a distribution is equal and, thus, just, if it passes what he calls “the envy test.”  When a person envies the resources of another, he is willing to exchange his own resources for them.  When no one envies the resources of others, then “equality is perfect,” Dworkin says. 

A person has two kinds of resources, “personal” and “impersonal.”  Personal resources are mental and physical traits—health, strength, talent.  Impersonal resources are material goods.  The latter depend upon the former, but since no one did anything to earn his personal resources, no one is entitled to keep the impersonal resources that they made possible as long as there are others that envy them.   

Unlike impersonal resources, personal resources cannot be redistributed.  However, Dworkin is a clear enough thinker to know that if it is permissible for the government to redistribute one’s impersonal resources, then it is no less permissible for it do whatever it can possibly do to make good for inequalities in personal resources when envy extends to them. 

Dworkin writes that if the distribution of personal resources fails the envy test, then there must be “compensatory strategies” set in place to “repair…inequalities in personal resources and luck.” 

To know the true character of Obama’s redistributionist policies and where they logically lead, we need to know about the theories underwriting them. 

 

 

Obama’s Broken Promises

posted by Jack Kerwick

Prior to his election to the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama and his supporters made us several promises.

First, they promised us that if Obama is elected, American race relations will improve dramatically.  After all, the office of the presidency is the most visible, and arguably the most powerful, office on the planet.  If a black man occupied it, it would be obvious for all with eyes to see that whatever obstacles their color once threw up for blacks had been safely relegated to the dustbin of history.

If Obama is elected, Obama enthusiasts continued, the white American majority will have redeemed itself.  It is the election of Obama—and nothing more—that would open the portal to the promised land of a post-racial era.

This is what we were promised.

Another promise, closely linked to this first, pertained to the unity generally that Obama would allegedly bring to the country upon his election. 

His presidency would be post-racial, yes; but it would also be post-partisan, or trans-partisan.  There would be no blue-state America or red-state America, as Obama famously said.  There would be only one America—and he would be the President of all Americans.  The country was more divided under George W. Bush and Republican rule than at any other time, we were told. Obama would heal our wounds and unify us.

Thirdly, Obama would make us loved throughout the world once again.  He would restore our damaged global image, especially throughout the Middle East.  During a visit to Israel, then Senator Obama went so far as to vow to “bring peace to the Middle East,” if he should become the president.

Each of his major promises Obama has shattered into a gazillion pieces.

The country is at least as divided today as it has ever been.  An impartial spectator would be in no danger of confusing our present state with anything that could plausibly be described as “unity.”  For that matter, neither would Obama or any of his fellow partisans be in any such danger.  That they are forever charging Republicans with “obstructionism” proves that even they know that they can’t so much as pretend to have unified the country.

Have we entered a post-racial millennium under Obama?  Not even close.  The orgies of black violence—euphemistically characterized in terms of “flash mobs” by a politically correct press—that have erupted throughout the nation over the last couple of years is one proof of this. 

Another is the alleged rise in white “hate” groups that has occurred during the course of Obama’s tenure in office.

Tellingly, it is the leftist, Democratic-friendly Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that has been beating the drum on this last score.  It is the SPLC that warns us of an explosion of “white supremacist groups” that has allegedly been ignited by the election of a black man to the office of the presidency.

The SPLC reports: “Strands of the radical right—hate groups, nativist extremist groups and Patriot organizations—increased from 1,753 groups in 2009 to 2,145 in 2010, a 22 percent rise.  That followed a 2008-09 increase of 40 percent.”

What about America’s standing in the world?  Has our President, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, let us not forget, proven to be a force for peace, whether in the Middle East or, for that matter, anywhere else?

As anti-American protests now spread to 21 (and counting) countries throughout the Islamic world, it is painfully obvious that the man whose mixed racial ancestry and Islamic name were supposed to smooth relations between East and West has done nothing of the kind.  Obama’s conduct toward the Islamic world has actually made our relationship with it worse than ever—no mean feat considering that things were never good to begin with.

For the first time since September 11, 2001, Americans were murdered by Islamic terrorists on American soil.  This happened during the Fort Hood massacre of 2009.  And it happened again on the second 9/11, September 11, 2012, when an American ambassador and three others were slaughtered by an angry mob that stormed our embassy inLibya.

Both attacks occurred under Obama’s watch.

Now, the Islamic world is on fire as those whose pro-American sentiments Obama was supposed to compel attack American embassies wherever they can be found.

Things are actually worse for Obama than I make them sound.

Not only has he failed entirely to deliver his promises of bi-partisanship, interracial harmony, and world peace.  The price of Obama’s first term seems to have been unyielding partisanship, greater racial animosity, and greater anti-Americanism.

This all needs to be born in mind on Election Day.    

 

Polls and Realities

posted by Jack Kerwick

Republican activists at this year’s Values Voters Summit are perplexed that the race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama remains tight.

According to an AP story from September 15, activist R.J. Robinson put it bluntly: Romney “ought to be killing Obama, and he’s clearly not doing that.  He should be doing better.”

Mike Garner, another attendee at this weekend’s conference, elaborated: “If Romney loses this election, the party really needs to do some soul-searching.”

Doubtless, it isn’t only those Republicans who were in attendance at the Values Voters Summit who are losing some heart. GOP voters from across the country are frustrated and anxious as well.

And this is exactly the intended effect of polls that depict this as a tight presidential contest.

The pollster, along with other journalists and politicians, has succeeded in convincing us that he is on a quest for objectivity. He would—and does—have us think that he is concerned with nothing more or less than simply revealing the will of the voter.  In reality, however, like his peers in the rest of the media and his counterparts in politics, pollsters shape the voter’s will.

This is not a new insight. The early 20th century conservative political theorist and Harvard professor Joseph Schumpeter established this long ago.

Political coverage is no different from commercial advertising, Schumpeter observed.  Consumers “are so amenable to the influence of advertising and other methods of persuasion that producers often seem to dictate to them instead of being directed by them.” Similarly, the voter’s will “is largely not a genuine but a manufactured will.”

In politics and commercial advertising, “we find the same attempts to contact the subconscious.”  Both also rely upon “the same technique of creating favorable and unfavorable associations which are the more effective the less rational they are.”  Both political and commercial advertising rely upon “the same trick of producing opinion by reiterated assertion”—not “rational argument.”

In other words, the stimuli—like polls—with which the voter is continuously fed are not designed to discover his wants.  They are designed to create them.

Yet politics and commercialism are alike in another respect: politics is a form of commercialism.

Political journalists, pundits, pollsters and the corporations that they serve have a deeply invested monetary interest in doing all that they can to arouse, as much as possible, the enthusiasms of audiences.  A presidential election season, more so than anything else, provides them that opportunity, for it is only during such times that Americans from coast to coast take at least some interest in the political life of their nation.

Since, then, it is only once every four years that a presidential race is held, it is a no brainer that media figures should use every ounce of their power and influence to render it as exciting as possible.  Like anything that excites consumers, exciting politics sells.

And a tight presidential race is more exciting politics than one that is not so tight.    

Bear all of this in mind as we make a few notes. 

First, in 2008, Obama beat John McCain by seven points.  This was a decisive victory, yes, but not anything at all like a landslide.  And this was at a juncture when the aged, debilitated McCain was as powerful a symbol of the GOP fatigue pervading the country as was the unknown, youthful, and charismatic Obama a symbol of the equally pervasive hope for a new course of direction.

Still, Obama couldn’t best McCain by more than seven points.

Second, Obama now has a record—a record of which no one who is not an Obama loyalist has anything very good to say. In truth, it is a bad record.  He and his supporters can claim all day long that Obama inherited it from his predecessor, but the reality is that the economy that Obama inherited isn’t nearly as bad as the one over which he presides.

Many people—most, I think it is fair to say—understand this.  Actually, their appreciation rivals that of their understanding—a fact born out by the enthusiasm with which voters delivered a truly landslide defeat to Democrats in 2010. 

This enthusiasm has not abated.  Not in the least.  And this brings us to our third note.

Everyone who voted for McCain in 2008 can be counted on to vote for Romney this year.  Obama, on the other hand, will not garner as much support as he received four years ago.  There are far too many disenchanted Obama voters—small business owners and entrepreneurs, some independents, some self-avowed conservatives, and even some Democrats.

Romney is not McCain.  President Obama is not the idealistic Senator Obama with whom the American public was presented.  The country is now weary of the Democrats. 

We should recall these facts the next time we are presented with polls showing this to be a tight race.     

 

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