G-d and Man and Sex (!) on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part II
Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here. This is part two of a three-part series.
The Chicago Fight
In May 1934, at a University of Chicago student conference on education, two softball teams took to the field to settle an ongoing intellectual dispute. No ordinary pick-up game, the match pitted the Aristotelians against the Social Scientists, the two sides then engaged in an acrimonious debate over the nature of knowledge that had erupted on the Chicago campus during the 1933-34 academic year.
The Aristotelians, led by Mortimer Adler (pictured above), argued that as rational animals human beings, through the use of reason, could discover the ultimate and immutable principles that explained the nature of reality. Their opponents, led by the economist Harry Gideonse and the physiologist Anton Carlson, claimed that true knowledge could only be discovered through scientific method and was limited to empirical, particular, and experimentally-verifiable phenomenon.
Each side composed their own chants with which to taunt their opponents. The Aristotelians, adopting the tune of the University’s fight song Wave the Flag sang:
Wave the flag for social science
They stand for facts alone.
Ever shall they be dogmatic
John Dewey they enthrone.
With pragmatists to lead them
Without a thought they stand
So cheer again for social science
For they’re zeroes every man.
The Social Scientists lampooned both Adler and his supporters on the campus newspaper, the Daily Maroon. Their song was set to the tune of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen:
Nobody knows what Aristotle means,
Nobody knows but Adler.
Nobody knows what Adler means,
Let’s ask the Daily Maroon.
The whole is the essence of its parts,
Logis is the essence of the arts,
Everybody knows Aquinas is dead,
Everybody knows but Adler.
Nobody knows what Adler knows,
Let’s ask the Daily Maroon.
The softball game, which the Aristotelians won, resolved little, but nonetheless serves as a fitting metaphor for the larger issues in what became known as the “Chicago Fight.” Ignited by “Boy Wonder” University President Robert Maynard Hutchins–he was 29 when chosen as Chicago’s President–the fight attracted national attention to the University because it brought into sharp focus several ideas that bitterly divided American intellectuals in the 1930s.
As Adler described it, Chicago became the leading forum for debate 0n the crucial issue of the day: ”
… whether science is enough, theoretically or practically; whether a culture can be defended, if theology and metaphysics, ethics and politics are either despised, or, what is the same, degraded to topics about which laboratory scientists pontificate after they have won the Nobel Prize…
Science, and by implication scientific method, could not answer questions of meaning and value, and it was these questions, Hutchins and Adler argued, that most centrally concerned both individuals and society. If science was inadequate to the task, then the only hope lay in the non-scientific, humanistic disciplines, especially philosophy.
At the center of the Chicago Fight stood two fundamentally different views of what constituted knowledge and the nature of the knowable, visions that could not be reconciled. On the one hand, the proponents of scientific method claimed that knowledge moved from facts to theory, and that theory had to be applied, tested, verified, and revised as necessary. Social and political theory, in particular, needed to be altered as social conditions changed. Theory had to be tested by facts. Philosophy had to change with the times; it had to reflect present conditions rather than illusory eternal truths.
On the other hand, Hutchins, Adler, and their supporters believed that philosophical truths were indeed eternal and self-evident. Philosophical formulations were based on the common experience of all men and women; experience that was essentially unchanging.* Hutchins and Adler feared that scientific knowledge, if not regulated by the moral wisdom discovered through philosophical inquiry, would engender moral relativism, which could be extended “to cover not only decisions” about personal conduct “but also moral judgments about economics systems and political programs,” as Adler put it in a 1940 article in Harper’s Magazine.
Adler believed that modern individuals accepted “without question the complete divorce of economics from ethics and, in discipleship to Machiavelli,” had become as much “realists in their politics as Hitler and Mussolini.” Being modern, for all to many 20th-century Americans, meant dismissing as “medieval” and “scholastic” anyone who spoke about “standards of goodness, principles of justice, [or] moral virtues.”
Moral Relativism and The Higher Learning
Just as William Buckley and Nathan Harden would later bemoan the corrosive effects of the moral relativism they saw at Yale, so too Hutchins and Adler, decades earlier, proclaimed that moral relativism afflicted most of their students. These students unhesitatingly informed them that there was no right or wrong, that moral values were no more than private opinions, and that everything was relative.
Such statements proved particularly galling to Hutchins and Adler as fascism gathered strength in Germany and Italy. To both men, the ascent of Hitler and Mussolini to power related directly to the corruption of science and to the moral relativism it generated. Worse still, the enemy was to be found not just abroad but also at home–even within their own university–in the skepticism, presentism, scientism, and anti-intellectualism of most scholars.
Not surprisingly, linking their intellectual opponents to the rise of fascism didn’t win Hutchins and Adler many converts among the Chicago faculty. Likewise, Hutchins’ 1936 release of his critique of the American university system, The Higher Learning in America,** did little to mollify his critics.
In The Higher Learning, Hutchins (pictured above) joined a chorus of earlier thinkers in deploring the confusion, vocationalism, and love of money that beset higher education in the 20th century–a chorus that included William James, Thorstein Veblen, Alexander Meiklejohn, Irving Babbitt, Norman Foerster, and Abraham Flexner. Within Hutchins’ small tome, he proposed his alternative: a system of education organized and unified by metaphysics.
As Hutchins saw it, both the organization and content of the American educational system had to be restructured if it was to foster democratic values. He suggested drawing a sharp line between college and university education. As a necessary part of their education for active citizenship, all Americans would be eligible for college, which would be reorganized to include what were the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. Herein they would receive a general education designed to discipline the mind and cultivate the intellectual virtues. When they graduated they would receive a B.A. degree.
Hutchins argued that college should provide students with an introduction to the “permanent studies” that comprised the core of the nation’s intellectual heritage. These studies furnished the content of general education. Their aim was to connect human beings to one another and to connect past to present, thus introducing students to the culture, traditions, and great books of Western civilization. Hutchins further contended that the study of contemporary issues was also an essential component of a liberal education, but these issues had to be linked to their antecedents in the past. Contemporary studies, by necessity, rested firmly on the permanent ones. The former provided the superstructure of education; the latter, its foundation.
For Hutchins, the primary goal of general education was to provide students with “a common stock of ideas and common methods of dealing with them,” as well as a common language and a common set of cultural allusions. Having acquired a shared cultural literacy, those students with both the desire and the intellectual ability could then proceed to the university for more specialized studies.
To organize the higher learning and render it intelligible, Hutchins proposed that it be ordered by a single, unifying principle. The pursuit of truth for its own sake provided that principle in part, but it was not enough. Real unity within the university required a hierarchy of truths that determined “which were fundamental and which subsidiary, which significant and which not.” Theology had consolidated the medieval university, but the faithlessness of the modern age made it useless as a unifying agent.
Lacking both religious orthodoxy and an orthodox church, modern individuals had to look to the Greeks for a unifying principle. Greek thought, Hutchins noted, “was unified by the study of first principles,” by metaphysics. Among the Greeks, he argued, metaphysics–the science of being qua being–was “the ordering and proportioning discipline:”
It is in light of metaphysics that the social sciences, dealing with man and man, and the physical sciences, dealing with man and nature, take shape and illuminate one another. In metaphysics we are seeking the causes of things that are. It is the highest science, the first science, and as first, universal.
Hutchins never specified which metaphysics would order his ideal university. He later argued that he did not have a definitive metaphysics in mind when he wrote The Higher Learning. Nor did he believe that “a body of common philosophical principles” would hold the university together. But he did want his audience to acknowledge, at least tacitly, that all individuals had “a philosophy or metaphysics” on which they acted. Hutchins hoped that the discussion of philosophical principles and an analysis of the metaphysics each person held, “might help to unite the university and that a common body of knowledge would underlie that discussion.”
The reason Hutchins was so adamant about finding a unifying principle for higher education was because he believed that morality and ethics had to rest on firm and immutable foundation. “Morals degenerate into mores,” he asserted, “unless they have a higher meaning imparted to them by theology or metaphysics.” Similarly, science degenerates into “the indiscriminate accumulation of data” if it lacked an organizing principle.
To achieve mastery over nature, Hutchins argued, people had surrendered themselves to technological imperatives, which were, by their very nature, inhuman. Technology had improved the material conditions of most people’s lives, but such improvements came at a high cost. Modern life had grown increasingly mechanized, increasingly dehumanized, as individuals lost touch with the moral qualities unique to humanity. Enamored with their machines, men and women constructed an instrumental morality that reflected their subordination to technological necessities.
For Hutchins–although he does not make this argument explicit in The Higher Learning–education was as intimately connected to morality as it was to politics. A proper education, he believed, would guide individuals toward “the good life,” the life lived in pursuit of the intellectual and moral virtues, yet in political and social communion with fellow human beings. Hutchins clearly saw education as an agent of social and cultural change, arguing if that a “real university” and a “real program of general education” could be instituted in the United States, then the character of American civilization might be gradually altered. He ended his book on a suitably evangelical note, declaring that:
Upon education our country must pin its hopes of true progress, which involves scientific and technological advance, but under the direction of reason; of true prosperity, which includes external goods but does not overlook those of the soul; and of true liberty, which can exist only in a society rationally ordered.
Buckley and other, more modern, champions of the canon might find solace in Hutchins’ critique of the university and his call for an education ordered around the reading of the great books of all time. But for Buckley and many conservative critics of today’s higher learning, Christianity, the Constitution, and defense of the free market system against the incursions of atheism and European-style socialism would order the university. While all are concerned about the formation of students’ characters, and prescribe what seem like similar reforms of higher education, today’s right-wing version aims at creating young conservatives and limiting the scourge of liberalism in the academy. But both Hutchins’ critique and those of today’s conservatives ignore the issue of whose voices are not represented in the canon and how they might be included. And it’s this issue that makes the question of what knowledge should order education so contentious.
* For an excellent overview of the issues at stake in the Chicago Fight, see Edward A. Purcell, Jr., The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1973).
** Thorstein Veblen released a similarly titled book in 1904–The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Coduct of Universities by Businessmen–in which he decried the infiltration of businessmen and business values into the nation’s universities. Veblen argued that business enterprise was incompatible with the spirit of the higher learning.