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Make academia great again
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Make academia great again

We need to demand the best of our universities. When they repeatedly fall short of the best, we must carefully alter their privileges, alter our way of overseeing the use of those privileges, or both.

In 1951, the 25-year-old veteran and Yale alumnus William F. Buckley published his first book, “God and Man at Yale.” Buckley scandalously claimed that instead of preaching true religion and free market capitalism, Yale professors were preaching atheism and “collectivism.” If we are stuck in 2024-think, we might suppose that Yale’s defenders responded with a resounding, “So, what?”

In fact, while loyal Yalies did more or less shrug off the charge of collectivism, they denied the charge of atheism. McGeorge Bundy of the class of ’41, by then teaching at Harvard, asserted in his scathing review of Buckley’s book that “Yale is more religious than the rest of Protestant America and more religious than it was a generation ago.” In 1951, “For God, for Country, and for Yale” was still that university’s lodestar.

An irresolvable tension exists between education and the unfettered pursuit of truth.

In his recent book, “You Can’t Teach That! The Battle over University Classrooms,” Princeton (soon to be Yale) professor Keith Whittington makes his own Alabama law professor Paul Horwitz’s claim that universities are “‘First Amendment Institutions’ because of their central role in generating, investigating and promulgating ideas.”

Insofar as we know the constitutional and religious history of America, we should be suspicious of Whittington’s and Horwitz’s seemingly innocuous claim. The First Amendment comes to us from an era when universities had not yet claimed for themselves a central role in generating and investigating ideas. Universities were built to promulgate ideas, certainly, but the ideas America’s universities claimed to promulgate were the truth or light of Protestant Christianity: Harvard’s Veritas, Columbia’s Lumen, and Yale’s Lux et Veritas or Urim ve Tumim. America’s greatest scientist of its founding era was Benjamin Franklin, who never attended or taught at a university, but he did help found one: the University of Pennsylvania, alma mater of our two most recent presidents, whose motto is classical rather than Christian but still edifying: Leges sine moribus vanae — laws without morals are useless.

Universities do have an important role in the original understanding of the First Amendment: not as centers for free inquiry, but as religious and educational institutions. Universities were institutions for launching young people into adulthood as credentialed “bachelors” with strong faith and solid morals, and for training clergy as credentialed “masters,” or teachers to pass down that faith and those morals.

What faith and which morals? Part of the genius of the First Amendment as originally conceived was that it left that question for the peoples of the states and the state governments to answer for themselves. Congress, meanwhile, would protect those institutions by laws and even subsidize them by land grants from the lands to be wrested from the Indians. But the assumption was that whatever the pluralism of religious doctrines, men and women who sincerely sought to live and contribute to the same society would converge in their moral views on workable and justifiable principles and practices.

Universities, whether public or private, are privileged by law: The most valuable privileges are those that attract money in forms of donations and tuition. Universities are exempt from corporate income taxation, which enables them to receive tax-free income in the form of donations and accumulate endowments. Universities also have the privilege of accreditation — the legal recognition that their certified graduates are themselves worthy of privileges. It is accreditation that attracts students. Without that vital legally recognized diploma, those graduates cannot become dentists or pharmacists or public-school teachers or lawyers or physical therapists.

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Privileges have to be justified by obligations. In a democracy, it is the role of voters and the officials they elect to monitor and, where necessary, reform those privileges and hold privileged institutions accountable for the fulfillment of those obligations.

One might claim, as Whittington probably would, that among these obligations is the obligation to offer academic freedom: Every university should, and Whittington claims public universities must, allow individual faculty to seek the truth according to their own lights and teach whatever of those truths their faculties find important and useful.

It is true that in the second half of the 20th century, universities became the principal centers for generating and investigating ideas, and in that role were declared core First Amendment institutions. But that is hardly the era from which one should take one’s understanding of what the Constitution requires.

In the second half of the 20th century, the very notion of constitutionalism was most controversial and came under the most sustained attack, not only from judges and politicians but from professors at law schools. Never before or since have so many Americans believed that “the Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it means,” which is, of course, an evisceration of constitutionalism and the rule of law.

In this book, Whittington treats the First Amendment in relation to academic freedom not according to its original intention but primarily according to what Supreme Court justices from Robert Jackson’s ascension to William Brennan’s retirement have made of it. Those judges supported their legal reasonings with dicta about how the freedoms they endorsed would benefit society. Whittington does not examine which of those dicta are true but treats them as if the authority of their pronouncers made them true enough. That might do in a legal brief but not in social science or in the kind of policy discussion that social science should subserve.

Pluralism is not license. Universities have valuable privileges, and they can only justify and retain those privileges by advancing the cause of 'one nation under God.'

“Academic freedom” is just the American English translation of the German Lehrfreiheit. It received its first important American articulation with the founding of the American Association of University Professors in 1915. Academic freedom was imported into Progressive Era Wilsonian America from an imperial Germany that had neither freedom of speech nor freedom of the press, and where every recognized religion was a state-regulated establishment. German universities of that era were institutions of tertiary education: They accepted only students who can presume to have been formed by the secondary education they completed in Gymnasium, and their first degree was the doctorate.

American universities include bachelor's-degree-granting college programs, which complete for their undergraduates the secondary education they began in high school. Lehrfreiheit thus warranted a more skeptical reception in our free and pluralistic democracy than it has ever received.

In this era when academic freedom of individual professors has come closest to being entrenched as judge-made “constitutional law,” actual progress in our understanding of ourselves and our world has slowed and, in some cases, reversed. As Steve Sailer has written of the intellectual eminence Edward Said, whose attitude and rhetoric drive this year’s campus protests, “Knowledge is power ... so he wanted Westerners to be more ignorant about his homeland in order that they would have less power over it.”

In fact, an irresolvable tension exists between education and the unfettered pursuit of truth: People who educate must believe that they know what is important and true, while people who inquire must think that there are things they don’t know that are important enough to spend the time to find out. Whittington repeatedly acknowledges that what the First Amendment protects in the classroom is not unfettered classroom discussion but the right of the faculty to fetter classroom discussion as they deem wise.

Wise enough to know that wisdom requires more than learning, the Christian originals of universities separated their faculties of philosophy from their faculties of theology: the presupposition-less pursuit of knowledge was confined to the faculty of philosophy, while the faculty of theology formulated and taught the dogmas — the teachings of God as revealed in the canonical Scriptures. The rulers of the university came, of course, from the graduates of the faculty of theology, whether as presidents, deans, or rectors, or as external ecclesiastical “visitors” or “overseers” ensuring that the university did not throw off the yoke of divine wisdom.

In our pluralistic democracy, with no federally established church, democracy has to take the place of hierarchy. Vox populi vox Dei as proclaimed in the Latin translation of the Hebrew book of Isaiah, the voice of the people is the voice of God. The only legitimate oracles of that “divine” voice are those men and women anointed for office by popular election and officers those men and women in turn appoint or elect.

But just as Americans are and always have been religious pluralists, they are and always have been higher education pluralists: they have, in their wisdom, mostly left it up to every denomination, every board of trustees, and every state board of regents to understand “God and Country” in their own way.

This pluralism is not license. Universities have valuable privileges, and they can only justify and retain those privileges by advancing the cause of America, “one nation under God.” Every university in America is a settler-colonial university, granted valuable privileges by a settler-controlled legislature, executive, and judiciary. In return for those privileges, universities are obliged to advance the cause of the American people, themselves immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, some coerced and some voluntary.

How should universities advance the cause of America? In our pluralistic system of higher education, that is mostly a question that university administrators and trustees have to answer. And in fact, when they are reminded of their obligation to advance the cause of America, university heads acknowledge that obligation, even if, like every other human being reminded of an obligation, they would unconscionably prefer to be judges in their own case of their success at fulfilling it.

It is the job of citizens and officials to ensure that universities are run by sincere and competent men and women who accept the obligations that come with universities’ privileges. But mere acceptance is not enough: We need to demand the best of our universities, and when they repeatedly and continually fall short of the best, we must carefully and deliberately alter their privileges, alter our mechanisms for oversight of the use of those privileges, or both.

Unless we can return universities to their original mission of fostering religion and morals, America will not survive. As John Adams wrote: “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Or to quote the motto of the first federally chartered college, Ohio University, funded in part out of the College Lands of which Ohio’s Indians were despoiled, Religio Doctrina Civilitas; Prae Omnibus Virtus — Religion, learning, civility; Above all, virtue.

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Michael S. Kochin

Michael S. Kochin

Michael Kochin is a visiting scholar at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center and the Catholic University of America.