A version of this article originally appeared at Minding the Campus on November 6, 2017.
The Abolition of Man is the best refutation of moral relativism that has ever seen print (aside from the Bible, of course). In this short and cogent book, C.S. Lewis ponders what happens when human beings abrogate transcendent moral law and objective truth, and begin to fashion their own guidelines for living. One argument that he refutes is that “Man” needs not to observe old, age-encrusted commandments handed down from the Year One, but can decide the course of his own future through reason and deliberation.
Lewis responds, simply, that “Man” will not make such decisions, but a certain number of men who have the power in any given generation will do so, depending on the technology available to them, and that these decisions will then bind the generations afterward. “For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases,” Lewis explains, actually means “the power of some men to make other men what they please.”
Furthermore, Lewis argues, these powerful men will not necessarily act out of reason and deliberation, but, bypassing objective standards of truth, will be governed by their own “impulses.”
Lewis particularly faults the moral relativists for not considering, as physicists routinely must, the dimension of Time in their actions and calculations. Lewis is thinking in terms of generations. When we consider curricular changes propelled by students at a university, we are dealing with a much shorter timeline, four years really, the amount of time it takes most students to earn the degree, at least at the more selective schools--the ones who will earn the degree, that is, and not drop out altogether. So, at present, we are talking about changes demanded by, say, members of the Class of 2022, that will affect all future students in that particular college through the 2020s and into the 2030s and even the 2040s, some of them now obliviously playing video games, some toddling about their play groups, some not yet even born.
This prospective scenario may be playing out now at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. As Peter Wood writes at Minding the Campus, “a slow-motion protest” is being mounted at Reed by the “Reedies Against Racism,” who are
waging war on the college’s core humanities course, Humanities 110, “Greece and the Ancient Mediterranean.” The students seem to have gained the upper hand in their attack on Reed’s only required freshman course. Classes have been canceled; a day-long boycott was launched; a Black Lives Matter group presented the president of the college with a list of demands, and President John Kroger capitulated to many of them.
As Wood explains, “The humanities course in question has been a cornerstone of a Reed education since 1943 and is the successor to a requirement that goes back to the college’s founding in 1908.”
While the outcome of the Reedies’ disruptive activism is not yet known, the whole protest seems to illuminate Lewis’s point. Some members of the present student body at Reed are seeking to overturn a required course that has instructed generations of students before them, and to eliminate it from the education of cohorts of students after them, because these activists feel that studying Ancient Greece, foundational to Western civilization, is ipso facto “racist.”
I thought about this while at a New York Philharmonic concert featuring two works by Leonard Bernstein, inspired, respectively, by Plato’s Symposium and the Lamentations of Jeremiah. I saw a young couple there, perhaps in their early thirties, who would be about the right age to have graduated Stanford in, say, 2006, some years after the “hey-hey-ho-ho-Western-Civ-has-got-to-go” movement of the late 1980s removed any required courses there on Western culture, and sparked similar movements at other colleges. Obviously, this couple is interested in concert music, but they might have been surprised to find that a modern composer such as Bernstein, who also composed the popular musical West Side Story, drew inspiration from ancient texts.
I could imagine them wondering as they busied over the program prior to the entry of the conductor, “Who are Plato and Jeremiah and why would Bernstein find them inspirational?” Or perhaps, alternatively, “Too bad, but the courses in which these ancient figures were taught were no longer required at Stanford when we were there.”
Yes, those infinitely wise students of, say, the Class of 1992, barely out of braces and acne ointments, had decided that my thirty-something couple, Class of 2006, were not to be required to study these writers, supposedly tainted somehow by the purported racism of the West.
Of course I’m imagining this. The couple probably never attended Stanford. But I’ll bet they did attend some college and, thanks to the actions at Stanford, which started the whole anti-Western-courses crusade throughout American higher education, they might well have missed out on the likes of Plato and the prophets in favor of diversity writers such as bell hooks and Sandra Cisneros. (Remember them?)
The Founding Fathers who fashioned our system of government set it down for generations to follow but they provided a mechanism of checks and balances and a procedure for amending the Constitution. Today’s student militants don’t think very far ahead.
Some students are daring to think differently, however. In 2016, close to thirty years after the hey-hey-ho-ho-ing, the staff of the Stanford Review, the student newspaper founded in 1987 by Peter Thiel and Norman Book as a conservative/libertarian alternative, drew up a petition to the Faculty Senate to require a two-quarter freshmen course in Western civilization.
It may be protested that a requirement should not be necessary, that students could individually and separately seek out courses in the great figures, assuming that these are somewhere still available, and in relatively unpoliticized form, somewhere in the university, but some students might actually like the guidance of a designed, thought-out curriculum. As the little girl in a free-form, progressive school asked her teacher, “Could we just for one day not do whatever we want?”
The petition garnered enough signatures for the request to be put to a school-wide student vote before it could get to the Faculty Senate. It was defeated, 342 in favor, and 1992 against. It is evidently too late to reverse the actions of previous generations of students. As Lewis says, some men and women get to decide what other men and women can have.
Image Credit: Public Domain.