Questioning the Founders—and Ourselves

Thomas K. Lindsay

The question of the relation between liberal education and political liberty, perennially important, is driven for this forum by the Obama administration’s endorsement of A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future, according to which the chief ends of postsecondary civic education ought to include the promotion of sweeping egalitarianism, progressive activism, and cosmopolitanism.1

In its guidelines for addressing this issue, Academic Questions offers contributors a dichotomy between the “university as a ‘temple of science,’ where rival theories, perspectives, and preferences receive a rigorous and impartial testing,” versus A Crucible Moment’s promotion “of a particular political view.” The guidelines go on to distinguish the vision behind the “scientific university” from that underpinning institutions that carry “ideological and philosophic commitments.” Keen to the dangers attending this dichotomy, Academic Questions also offers contributors the option of defending instead a “‘mixed regime’—part science, part commitment.”

Success at addressing the challenge offered by A Crucible Moment requires additional reflection on the danger of approaching this issue within the strictures of the science-versus-commitment gulf. The language of science versus commitment presupposes the victory of positivism, according to which there is a radical distinction between “facts” and “values.” Facts alone are knowable, because empirically verifiable. Facts are thus sought by and established through the method of science. Values are subjective preferences regarding facts. Values inhabit and define religion as well as the realm referred to by the guidelines as “ideological” and “philosophic commitments.”

The victory of positivism in the social sciences was short-lived. It fell to the following critique: “value-free” social science is impossible. Rather, facts become apparent and meaningful only in the light of prior values, which, in turn, derive their weight from their historical epoch. So long as History was deemed progressive, that is, on the ascent, so too was the authoritative status of each succeeding epoch’s defining values. But with the rise of historical relativism, confidence in progress died. Because it cannot answer on its own terms the question “Why science?” positivism succumbed to historical progress, which in turn gave way to relativism. Inconsistently, albeit powerfully, progressivism of the Left is today wedded to moral-cultural relativism. No surprise, these twin pillars of postmodernism—progressivism and relativism—inform the agenda of A Crucible Moment. Therefore, the preceding account, sketched of necessity with a broad brush, nonetheless may suffice to suggest the ineffectiveness of seeking to combat A Crucible Moment while simultaneously employing the assumptions embedded in the language of the science-commitment dichotomy.

To offer a better civics, one needs at least to begin with an attempt to understand the American Founders as they understood themselves. The Founders wrote before the rise of positivism, historical relativism, and the progressive Left. Questioning them on their own terms is the first, though not the last, requirement of scientific integrity; for to view their project simply or primarily through the later lenses of relativism and progressivism is to plead guilty to the charge of digging up bones that we ourselves buried.

There is a third way between the commitment-less temple of science and unscientific commitment. This third way is not a “mixed regime.” Rather, its model is the Socratic turn. Liberal education is born of the proposition that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates argues that our quest for knowledge of the whole cannot take place in a vacuum. It requires that we simultaneously examine our act of examining—that we study the context in which we pursue discovery. This is why Socrates turned away from the sole study of what today is called the “natural sciences” and toward the “human things,” politics chief among them. Simply put, the particular study of the foundations of American democracy is, for Americans, not merely a commitment, nor is it a betrayal of reasoned discourse and academic freedom. Rather, it is indispensable to our quest to know.

Following Socrates, the highest end of liberal education is the freedom of the mind; that is, freedom from unexamined assumptions, for example, swings in intellectual fashion, partisan politics, and ideology. Only when illuminated by intellectual freedom do both the possibilities and limitations of the other freedoms—moral, political, and economic—disclose themselves fully. Liberty at its peak is thus identical with the pursuit of truth. This pursuit, as Socrates’s example suggests, is not without peril. For this reason, the Socratic quest has at times throughout history been forced underground. To exist and thrive aboveground, an institution devoted to intellectual liberty must be situated in a system of political liberty. In the American context, the cultivation of free minds simultaneously transcends and depends on the political freedom enshrined in the Constitution. This dependence, coupled with the Socratic imperative to examine our examining, should lead American colleges and universities to require their students to study the moral, political, and intellectual foundations of American democracy.

Because the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution remain the central legitimating symbols of American political life, the curriculum I propose would begin with these Founding documents, plus select essays from The Federalist and leading anti-Federalist writers, as well as other original sources that both informed the Founding and reacted to it.

As there are core texts that need to be consulted, so too are there core questions that need to be asked. Space constraints allow me list four major areas of questioning.2

First, what is the meaning of human equality as articulated in the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal”? Equal in what respects? What view of human nature does this presuppose?

Second, what does the Declaration mean by asserting that we possess rights that are not “alienable”? Who or what, precisely, cannot alienate our rights? Are all rights deemed inalienable, or only some? Why?

Third, why did the Founders opt for representative democracy over the “pure” version of democracy practiced in, for example, ancient Athens? What did The Federalist assert was the inadequacy of ancient Athenian democracy?

Fourth, what economic conditions make American democracy possible? Why does the Constitution protect property rights? Why do critics such as Marx believe private property to be the root of injustice? How would Madison and Hamilton have responded to Marx’s critique?

The above approach seeks neither to reduce the study of the human things to that of the nonhuman, in the manner of modern social science, nor does it sacrifice the desire to know at the altar of “ideological commitment.” Ideological commitment is contrary to the rational inquiry to which universities at their best are devoted. It also is contrary to what the Founders intended. The Declaration’s appeal to a “candid world” makes no demands based on faith or tradition or blood lines. Instead, it asks us to reason about—to investigate and debate—its assertions that equality, inalienable rights, popular consent, and the right of rebellion are truths self-evident to those who reason rightly about what it means to be human.

Guiding students through the questions and sources I propose would continue the debate proposed by the Founders. Socrates argues that virtue, at its peak, may well consist primarily in investigating the question, “What is virtue?” Socrates taught Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle honors both Plato and Socrates when he takes Plato to task: “Plato is dear to me,” writes his best student, “but dearer still is truth.” In a like manner, we pay tribute to the Founders when we subject their radical reinterpretation of citizenship to the most searching scrutiny. But such tribute is far from unscientific commitment. It is, instead, the quest demanded by the desire to know ourselves.


Reviewing my civics proposal, some on the editorial staff at Academic Questions raised the following thoughtful questions, for which I am grateful.

To begin, they question whether I misunderstand their use of the phrase, “temple of science,” which, they argue, does not signify a university that excludes value judgments but, rather, and consistent with my quotation of Aristotle above, “pursues all questions in an attitude of open-mindedness as to an inquiry’s outcome.” Further, they ask whether my American civics proposal does not in fact violate the open-minded approach that it pretends to champion. That is, they object that I have privileged the Founders and therewith contradicted what they take to be my “no-commitments” mandate. They detect a normative judgment resid[ing] within my decision to make the Founders’ project the core object of my preferred civic curriculum. My so doing indicates a presumption that the Founders’ project is of special interest. They thus ask whether I acknowledge this normative judgment and, if not, how I justify focusing initially on “the Founders’ premises rather than the Ayatollah’s.” They conclude by wondering whether my approach to American civics only buttresses the postmodern denial of the possibility of moral neutrality.

To this I would reply that, as Aristotle loved truth more than he loved even his dear teacher, Plato, so too our approach to the study of American civics should be guided by the desire to discover truths about how one ought to live that may trump what we learn from the Founders’ project alone. But their project, and our questioning of it, constitutes an indispensable path toward these higher truths. American civics must start with the Founders’ thought for two reasons: (1) They formed our regime and hence are of great practical relevance to us, whereas the Ayatollah’s thought is not of such pronounced practical relevance, which is not to say that it might not be of some relevance. (2) Our lives are embedded in the regime to which they somehow gave rise; thus it is indispensable to our quest to know the whole and our place in it that we examine how their regime shapes us, including whether that shaping is for better or worse.

In this light, my civics proposal points neither to the positivistic, value-free university that eschews normative judgments, nor to the value-neutrality-denying university that the AQ editors identify with postmodernism. Rather, my proposal is animated by what I understand to be the core of the Socratic quest: to discover what the good life is. To this end, the political community and the thought that formed that community is of the first order of importance. That there are better and worse ways to live is implicit in the proposition that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” A reflective American civics curriculum, then, can have only one unqualified commitment, which is identical to that of liberal education generally—it is the commitment to clarity. The quest for clarity presupposes that, through study, the question regarding the good life can become clear, or at least clearer. That is to say, it presupposes that there is an order external to and independent of human doing and making.

Finally, I should respond to the editors’ question whether my proposal vindicates the postmodern denial of the possibility of moral neutrality. The postmoderns use the alleged impossibility of moral neutrality to license the right of the mightier and more insistent—dare I say, more committed?—to have their way. Following their understanding of Nietzsche (and in the process, attributing to him a progressive Left agenda), the postmoderns argue that moral choices are rationally groundless yet unavoidable; the will to power is all that remains. A commitment to the will to power is far from moral neutrality. Rather, it is a commitment, though unacknowledged, to the superior morality—that is, to the superior way of life—that constitutes the will to power. This in itself might lead us to question the postmodern doctrine regarding moral neutrality.

My proposal’s commitment to understanding better the truth not made but discovered by human beings is not what I would call moral neutrality. Rather, it seeks something perhaps akin but nonetheless superior to it, i.e., fair-mindedness in examining the great competing moral visions. The blanket denial of the possibility of moral neutrality undermines the imperative of fair-mindedness, with all-too-predictable effects on scholarship and teaching, effects all too familiar to the readers of Academic Questions.

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