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Academic Freedom is Nonsense

Apparently, some folks who read my article “Don’t Go to College” thought I was urging them not to go to college. I can’t imagine what gave them that impression.

For whatever it’s worth, my opinion of academia is identical to Cardinal Newman’s:

If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society…. It is the education which gives a man a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgements, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.

The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts is one such place, which is why I’ve decided to make it my home. Now your humble correspondent isn’t an intellectual by any means. Where my confreres keep busts of Socrates and Aristotle on their desks, I have a statue of Diogenes.

But I like being around intellectuals. Half the TMC administration are alumni, so I often find professors sitting around the coffeepot with their old students, hashing out the same arguments about Wendell Berry and Pseudo-Dionysius they started freshman year. Meanwhile, I get to stand by and soak up the excess gray matter that gets splashed around the break room.

What sets TMC apart from “mainstream” universities—the ones that milk students for their loan money, hand out condoms, offer courses on Klingon, and pay their administrators immoral gobs of cash while stripping academics of their job security—is that…well, it doesn’t do any of that, for starters.

TMC is also one of a handful of schools recommended by the Cardinal Newman Society, which strives to advance the saintly scholar’s vision of Catholic education. A Great Books school, her students and professors stand proudly in the Western tradition. Every class, from philosophy to literature to art, is taught from the perspective of Christian orthodoxy.

At schools like TMC, students aren’t processed by Taylorist bureaucrats for the almighty B.A., which qualifies them to work as a Starbucks shift leader while they finish their screenplay about a black paraplegic’s struggle to find true love in a Manhattan drag bar. No: they’re trained to rebuild Christendom—as fathers and mothers, priests and soldiers, artists and farmers. There’s no aspect of life at a Newman Guide school that isn’t ordered to God’s greater glory.

That’s the way college ought to be. For the first thousand years of their existence, the universities weren’t about “fostering a free exchange of ideas” or “maximizing students’ potential.” They had a much more important job: they were the guardians of our cultural and intellectual heritage.

To a conservative, this is all immediately compelling. We want our colleges to be more like TMC. We want our son’s professors to hone his moral imagination, not to pervert it with Freudo-Marxian nonsense. We want his reason to be formed by the Western canon and the Christian faith, not dismissed as racist/imperialist/patriarchical/whatever. We want him to become a ready defender of this tradition, preserving the flame of our civilization in this vast post-Christian wasteland.

So when confronted with evidence of left-wing bias at big-name colleges, why do we immediately start banging on about “academic freedom”?

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Look: undergraduates—conservative, progressive, whatever—don’t need “freedom.” What they need is instruction, formation. They lack knowledge, which is why they pay a professor to share some of his. If they want, they can smoke pipes on the green in between classes and toy around with their half-baked musings about Nietzsche. But it would be insane for them to shell out $40,000 a year for a guy who wrote his doctoral thesis on German existentialism to sit by and quietly observe their efforts to explain Thus Spake Zarathustra to one another.

For all their faults, leftists still understand that college is about learning to distinguish between good and bad ideas, and that lecturers and tutors must have a certain intellectual authority over their students if that’s to be accomplished. The problem with modern left-wing academics is simply this: they’ve gotten True and False hopelessly mixed up.

Even then, however, we can’t blame professors for professing—only for professing error. When a tutor tells your son to use “their” instead of “he” or “she” in his essays because gender is non-binary (or what have you), that’s not mere propaganda: it’s bad science, and even worse grammar.

By the same token, university administrators are right to take an active interest in the moral formation of the young men and women in their charge. Sure, we may prefer single-gender dorms to consent classes. But we can’t dismiss college officials as “neo-puritans” because they want to protect drunk teenaged girls from the scores of male classmates who would readily seize the opportunity to rape them.

Anyway, it’s obvious we don’t believe all the rot we talk about colleges being a “marketplace of ideas.” We’d never demand that a Newman Guide school abandon its binary view of gender and “teach the controversy” by giving an equal hearing to theories about gender fluidity. We wouldn’t decry the Catholic University of America as “neo-puritan” for blocking porn on its wifi servers.

And that’s okay! Better to be a conservative hypocrite than a sincere libertarian. Besides, only a self-important fop like Voltaire would die for someone else’s freedom to be wrong. As conservatives and Christians, we know that Truth is the only cause worth our lives.

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An open and inquisitive mind, as Cardinal Newman makes clear, is essential in the quest for Truth. But as Chesterton would remind us: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. Otherwise, it could end up like a city sewer, rejecting nothing.” Our goal, then, is to make the conservative position on education more solid than sewage. We have to confront error with Truth, not soixante-huitard cant repackaged to sound like a Reagan stump speech.

For starters, stop trying to rout progressives from big-name colleges. There’s nothing left worth saving. The credentials they offer are worth less than the recycled, ethically sourced, gluten-free paper on which they’re printed. A Harvard degree demonstrates that you don’t know how to balance a checkbook, but you’ve definitely thought long and hard about how the dominatrix in BDSM culture serves to reconcile the fluid nature of gender with the objective reality of femininity without resorting to performative notions of womanhood. Or something.

Also don’t waste time gawking at ivory tower idiocy. It’s morbid and uncharitable.

If you want to give your child an intellectually and morally edifying education à la Cardinal Newman, send him to a Newman Guide school. If you’re not Catholic, there are plenty of Protestant and nonsectarian alternatives. New Saint Andrews is Calvinist. Hillsdale is broadly Judeo-Christian, and the Straussians aren’t so bad once you get to know them. Rule of thumb: if your kid isn’t reading the Great Books, he’s probably wasting his time. If the campus culture isn’t explicitly conservative and Christian, he’s almost certainly endangering his soul.

I’m not saying that we quit the field in the Culture Wars, or that we smash the liberal-democratic order. All I’m suggesting is that you not send your son to Penn State or Wesleyan. If he’s not the book-learnin’ type, tell him to get a job. If he is, enroll him in a college where he’ll read improving books under an intellectually well-formed professor in a small tutorial with his morally upright classmates. He’ll pay a fraction of the cost in tuition, and he won’t spend all of Thanksgiving dinner lecturing your guests about the plight of genderqueer albino pygmy women in Hollywood.

That’s hardly revolutionary. In fact, it’s positively convenient.

Michael Warren Davis is associate Editor of the Catholic Herald. Find him at www.michaelwarrendavis.com.

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