Nationalism, Culture, and Higher Education

James R. Stoner, Jr.

In his chapter on “The Clean Slate” in The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom distinguished European and American students in the 1960s and the sort of education they brought with them when matriculating to the university. The European students came deeply versed in their country’s culture and well-read in its literature; they had heard about its leading authors since childhood and had read them in high school. The American students, by contrast, were comparatively a “clean slate,” having spent their high school years reading the likes of Catcher in the Rye or The Fountainhead. (If young Americans were to read the previous sentence, one would have to explain that the phrase “clean slate” was a reference to John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and its denial of “innate ideas,” then explain who Locke was, then what the Enlightenment was, and so forth.) European students came to the university to specialize, Bloom explained, and in their sophistication thought there was nothing more to learn from the authors with whom they were so familiar. This was true even though their view of the world had been shaped by these authors in ways that defined their national culture and thus derivatively their nationalism—for the French, English, Germans, and Spanish had each their own authors and rarely read one another’s. American students, in their naivete, encountered great literature for the first time in college, and the minds of some of them proved more fertile soil for serious study of serious books than the well-trodden paths or weed-choked fields of their contemporaries across the Atlantic.

As a teacher, Bloom delighted in the opportunity afforded by American openness—not the dogmatic “openness” he excoriates in his previous chapter, but the genuine, natural eagerness of minds to really know for themselves, not just rely on what they had been told—but in fact his argument is more complex. The contrast between the Europeans and the Americans was one he first drew in an essay in 1965, and on reconsideration in the 1980s he perceived that the American mind was not so fallow as he had thought. It had itself been formed, not by a national literature like the Europeans’, but by two sources, the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. I suppose Bloom might concede it was very American of him to overlook the cultural influence of these great sources—the latter, at least, begins from natural rights and seems, in its theoretical paragraphs, to suppose only human nature, not cultural formation—and in any event he is mostly interested in the documents as the sources of the regime’s defining opinions or prejudices. Not that for Bloom the word “prejudice” has the negative connotation it generally does for Americans: “Prejudices, strong prejudices, are visions about the way things are. They are divinations of the order of the whole of things, and hence the road to a knowledge of that whole is by way of erroneous opinions about it.” Higher education is about replacing opinion with knowledge, and so for Bloom ultimately about seeing the limitations of the Declaration and the Bible, but this is only possible if it has something to work with. The fertility of the soil is rarely simply a gift of nature; rather, it depends on the plowman’s art. Put differently, nationalism, or at least national character, is not the end of higher education, but it is its beginning. In addressing the question of “nationalism, culture, and higher education,” I want to ask, from Bloom’s perspective, whether universities have the responsibility and the capacity to fertilize afresh the fields they harvest. Supposing Bloom has properly identified the two key sources of American identity, what can and ought universities do with the Declaration and the Bible?

Let me speak first of the Declaration. Its luminous introductory paragraphs are still today read by many American schoolchildren, and the list in the second paragraph of self-evident truths is indisputably the core doctrine of American politics. Of course today much is made of its author’s hypocrisy on the matter of slavery, but that indicates rather the power of the principles than a reason to dismiss them: both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement are unintelligible without the Declaration. I find that students still recognize the self-evident truths and even profess belief in them: the notion that there is a human nature, that human beings are equal, that they have rights, that government ought to secure those rights, and that government that violates those rights instead can be resisted and even replaced. Some applaud the mention of the Creator—of this more later—while others follow the example of their teachers and are more comfortable with the mention of equality than with the attribution of its source. They probably see hypocrisy here as well, since they are naturally aware of extensive inequalities in American society. But you can see them begin to puzzle when confronted with the distinction between equality of rights and the inequality that results from the choices people make in the use of their rights. And that puzzlement is precisely where the civic education accessible to all—is it really too much to ask that every schoolchild learn the list of self-evident truths and how they relate to one another, and to learn the meaning of the word “prudence” in the sentence that follows?—diverges from the higher education for which only a smaller number will have the inclination or the capacity.

For the Declaration, while not a work of political philosophy, is a fecund prompt for philosophical education. The mention of the “laws of nature” in the first paragraph points to an historic and still vibrant tradition of higher learning. The universalism of the appeal to “the opinions of mankind” invites a host of questions, not least how world opinion relates to natural law, which in the understanding of its proponents ought to be the basis of world opinion but in practice probably is not, and in 1776 certainly was not, except in a few enlightened circles. The meaning of equality is hardly transparent, as I already noted, and whether government has no purpose beyond the security of rights is, I’m afraid, not self-evident. At the least, advanced students need to know that the political theory summarized in the Declaration entails a rejection of the classical political science of Aristotle, which held that the city exists by nature, not consent, has as its purpose the promotion of the common good, not only the security of rights, and owes its structure to a hierarchy of human goods, not simply choice. Actually, I left out the origin of government in consent when I listed the truths the students still accept, for I think our constitutional government usually appears to them more a legacy than a choice, and not one they feel they have a choice—much less a duty—to embrace (although I believe they think—unlike the Founders, but like the suffragettes—that voting is a natural right). Does the Declaration’s principle of consent entail the whole theory of the social contract, and if so, whose version? And if the Constitution is, as its framers surely understood it to be, the fulfillment of the Revolution, then inquiry prompted by the Declaration includes not only classical and modern political theory, but constitutional law and much of political science as well.

And that is only to speak of the first two paragraphs of the Declaration. The long bill of particulars indicates not only the importance of “facts submitted to a candid world” but of the principles and practices of Anglo-American constitutionalism, for the “facts” are not names and dates but violations of constitutional liberty. One-by-one the complaints can be traced back in English and colonial history and then forward to the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights to see how the elements of free government were first discovered and later amended. Here, too, if the Constitution is seen as the Declaration’s fulfillment, one can look ahead to its amendments, to see what emerged from the tradition and what was added to it on the basis of other principles, often those implicit in the theory of natural rights. Then comes in the Declaration’s final paragraph its call for republican action. The theory of natural rights and government by consent does not hold monarchy illegitimate, only its decay into “absolute despotism.” But the authors of the Declaration chose to act as fellow republicans, and Publius in Federalist No. 39 counts as a principle of the Revolution that any government of the United States must be republican—and then, of course, the inquiry into what that means would prompt a syllabus of its own. And that is not to mention the appeal to the Supreme Judge and the firm reliance on Divine Providence.

Thus, while American nationalism and culture may not have generated a literature comparable to that of the European nations Bloom describes, the Declaration and its continued authority suggest ample avenues for university-level research and reflection. That they are centered on political science is no accident, since political liberty, the key teaching of the Declaration, is arguably the chief contribution of American civilization to the world—alongside economic liberty, its sometimes companion, sometimes opponent. It is not that the theory of natural rights was a brake on literary reflection; on the contrary, Catherine Zuckert has shown that it was the spur driving emergent American literature in the nineteenth century. But if natural rights solves the problem of tyranny, by acknowledging the right of self-government in individuals and, by joint action, in communities, it does not guide individuals in the use of their rights or even in the choice of what goods to seek in common beyond protection. This is by design, of course. The “new order of the ages” envisioned by the Founders is one where government does not prescribe what to believe and how to live, the effort to do so having led even well-intentioned rulers to despotism; under modern republican government, a free people need not be of one mind about all things, even the most fundamental things. On the one hand, this is enshrined in the prohibition of religious tests for office in the Constitution and the religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment, protecting the integrity of the individual conscience. On the other hand, as Harvey Mansfield has put it, liberalism has an empty center, which can be dangerous politically, as various forms of illiberalism indifferent to individual rights rush to fill the vacuum.

The Founders were not unaware of this risk, but they seem to have had confidence in enlightened reason and republican virtue possessing sufficient strength, not to eliminate serious differences or even factions, but to “control their effects.” Enlightened republicans would recognize they had more to lose by the destruction of constitutional government than they would gain through the momentary triumph of their party. Besides, the Founders supposed that by happy accident, or rather by providence, there was sufficient cultural convergence among Americans to foreclose an empty center: a common language, an appreciation of common law, shared customs, and a more or less shared religion. This last is what Bloom was referring to when he wrote of the Bible as a defining source of American culture or at least of elementary education. To be sure, he was aware that to posit the Bible as a common text required a certain finessing of complexity. He speaks of his Jewish grandparents as people of the Book, but of course their Holy Book was shorter than the Christians’, leaving out the New Testament. Catholics and Protestants count different biblical texts as canonical—or rather, Protestants omit as apocryphal some books that Catholics include—and still today they generally use different translations and even number the ten commandments differently. (Protestants, too, differed extensively and self-consciously among themselves; everyone knew that in the old country a civil war had been fought between the adherents to the Church of England and Dissenters, most of whom had branches in America.) Protestant, Catholic, and Jew—all present at the Founding and acknowledged as equal citizens by no less than George Washington—had different customs and traditions and holidays. The studied non-denominational references to God in the Declaration and the prohibitions of the Constitution make the accommodation of these differences possible.

How does higher education in America address religion? Probably the first thing to note is that many American colleges and universities were founded by churches, and the oldest and most prestigious schools usually had the cultivation of an educated clergy as a principal aim. Religion was often central to the curriculum, which however included classical languages and literature and numerous other secular studies, increasingly the natural sciences; traditionally the capstone course was in moral philosophy, taught by the president of the college. Pluralism in practice if not in theory was endemic from the start across the colonies and later states—America’s oldest universities are significantly older than the republic—and a healthy competition probably existed from quite early on among schools and denominations. Even today new schools are founded by religious denominations or movements, from “Bible colleges” to entire universities. In the twentieth century the religious influence on the curriculum waned and in the 1960s many or most of the older schools severed what remained of formal ties with their founding Protestant denominations, abolishing mandatory chapel and relaxing codes of student conduct. But some universities retain strong religious identities while maintaining faculties who are full participants in the scholarly world: Consider, for example, Notre Dame and Georgetown, Baylor, Brandeis, and Brigham Young.

State institutions were precluded by the First Amendment or its equivalents in the states from denominational identity, and many at the outset concentrated on the practical arts and the natural sciences. Interestingly, as the private, religiously founded institutions secularized in the middle of the twentieth century, state universities began establishing departments of religious studies, taking their cue, ironically, from dicta in the Supreme Court’s cases forbidding organized prayer in the public schools. To study religion from the perspective of sociology or history, and to study the Bible as literature, is not exactly to study religion as it understands itself; indeed, it might seem to invite debunking of the claims of faith, and it is probably not hard to find faculty in such departments who make this their profession. But it is characteristic of American religions, as it is of American society generally, that differences fascinate and mutual influences promote convergence. Toleration discourages proselytizing, but it also makes possible the relationships that lead to genuine conversion. It might in addition be noted that religious studies easily allows the incorporation of religions that, until recently, had little following among American citizens, particularly Islam and the religions of Asia.

The Bible, then, and the religions it sustained, served as original patrons of higher education and then became an object of study in the secular and scientific university of the twentieth century. What is missing from the curriculum of most of our major universities is the study of theology and religious law, with those disciplines now having been relegated to specialized, denominational seminaries and to extra-curricular study at the universities themselves. Actually, what happens at many of the secular universities today mirrors Jefferson’s original idea for religious study at Virginia, where religion was not to be a part of the curriculum (which he painstakingly designed), but where denominations were permitted to instruct their own faithful on the periphery of the campus. Something is lost in this arrangement, above all the sense that religion is a serious subject of learning and reflective thought, not a matter of irrational emotion, as otherwise learned professionals in the law and in journalism sometimes seem to take for granted. But something is gained, too, for the students who seek out religious knowledge do so not because it is required but because they genuinely wish to learn. This is not exactly what Allan Bloom had in mind when admiring student inquisitiveness, and it might indeed risk a level of amateurism among those who in their regular studies are capable of genuine rigor, not to mention the usual danger that fideism poses to faith. But while the specifics are plural, the impulse seems widespread. Whether it serves to create a common culture in support of religious liberty, and whether it leavens the intellectual life of the university—Bloom’s concern—seem to me still too soon to know.

Bloom wrote that, in contrast to the nationally oriented educated Europeans, “to the extent that Americans are readers, the whole world is their bookshelf.” This seems true to me, and I think it is a mark of American greatness, or at least the potential for greatness: We aim to embrace all that is true, without regard to its origin. This makes it natural for us to assimilate new perspectives and new literatures, to recognize and welcome previously excluded voices. Multiculturalism—anchored necessarily in our religious diversity—is part of our liberal democracy and does not need to be enforced as official ideology; indeed to do so is suspect, for in the competitive world of America, ideas, like individuals, need to prove themselves in the marketplace—what the Romans called the forum—and deserve no unearned privileges. Even in this moment when resentful ideologies command their adherents with pseudo-religious fervor and call for the overthrow of what remains of the traditional American curriculum, I am confident that, in a genuine argument, the Declaration and the Bible can hold their own.

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