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Don’t Let the Woke Own Liberal Education

Conservatives should live up to their name and strive to conserve the best in higher ed.

Sean Keeley
Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education
by Jonathan Marks (Princeton University Press, 248 pp., $27.95)

The title of Jonathan Marks’ new book on higher education is modest enough to be a suggestion and daring enough to be a rallying cry. Let’s Be Reasonable, the title implores. Who could disagree? Alas, Marks argues, all too many can—not only the progressive activists whose antics dominate campus headlines, but also many of his fellow conservatives, so convinced that academia is beyond saving that they are ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Against these critics of right and left, Marks—a professor of politics at Ursinus College—makes two main arguments. First, he articulates a positive case for liberal education, whose mission he sees as the formation of “reasonable people.” In this vein, like many a concerned conservative, Marks is keen to summon the wisdom of canonical greats like Locke and Tocqueville, while deploring the antics of the “woke” Left. But he also defends the modern university against right-wing critics who want to burn it all down. Marks finds the diatribes of Trumpist intellectuals like Michael Anton and Sohrab Ahmari imbued with an apocalyptic strain that doesn’t reflect his own experience of campus.

Conservatives, Marks says, should neither concede defeat nor declare total war on today’s universities. They should instead make their own case for liberal education, without resorting to hapless outrage or culture war cliché.

In straddling both sides of the debate, Marks has his work cut out for him. It’s a tribute to his wit, good sense, and, indeed, reasonableness that he largely succeeds.

Marks, a former student of Allan Bloom’s at the University of Chicago, is aware that he covers well trod territory. He cites Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) as a formative influence, along with William F. Buckley, Jr.’s, God and Man at Yale (1951). But Marks’ approach carves a distinct path in style and substance.

For one thing, Let’s Be Reasonable is more playful than polemical, less a thunderbolt from on high than a professor’s good-natured attempt to engage with his students. At any given moment, Marks may draw on Tocqueville for a point about intellectual freedom or on Locke to support an argument about cultivating reason; yet he has the style of an engaged teacher, not a distant theorist. Those looking for Straussian semantics should apply elsewhere.

Marks’ book also distinguishes itself by focusing on non-elite schools. He knows that outrage at Yale or Middlebury sells; so does lamentation about the malformation of Ivy League elites. He suggests, modestly, that we expand the debate to less rarified environments—places like Ursinus College, where Marks teaches, or the Clemente Course, which offers tuition-free humanities instruction to poor students across the country. It’s a refreshing rebuke to the myopia of so many campus polemics. Perhaps, Marks suggests, concerned educators could more usefully share liberal education with the underserved many, rather than lamenting its abuse by the privileged few.

After all, what is the purpose of liberal education? In addressing the question, Marks dismisses a host of unsatisfactory platitudes. Liberal education is not about preparing students for the 21st century through “integrative” or “entrepreneurial” or “dynamic” approaches to problem-solving. Nor should the campus be an unregulated battleground of ideas that students must traverse on their own: “We’ve been asking students to love a Wild West of speech in which they’ll derive truth from the clash of white- and black-hatted partisans,” Marks complains. “That approach barely distinguishes college campuses from public parks.”

Instead, liberal education’s job of creating “reasonable people” entails shaping not just students’ intellects but their characters. It means, more particularly, ensuring that they end up “ashamed of the right things.”

The focus on shame is striking. Marks touts “constructive shaming,” meaning the duty to goad students into rejecting easy, comforting answers. A healthy sense of shame, Marks observes, marks the difference “between those who consider reason an instrument to get the better of others and those who consider reason an authority.” The former are clever sophists who wield reason as a cudgel on behalf of their unchanging prior assumptions. The latter are those “reasonable people” who will resist bad arguments and entertain changing evidence.

The question, naturally, is how universities can form such people. Marks does not think the obstacles lie primarily in the students themselves. He rejects the condescending view of today’s students as inherently safety-obsessed, attention-deficient, or viewpoint-intolerant. The problem, rather, is institutional: Those on the activist fringe dictate policies on hiring, speakers, and curriculum, while those who disagree look the other way, saying, in effect, “We don’t want no trouble.”

Marks uses the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) as a case study, documenting how activists have browbeaten universities into embracing BDS’ narrative of Israel as an “apartheid” state. This chapter is a disappointment: After explaining why we shouldn’t limit our attention to high-profile controversies at elite schools, he closes by zeroing in on …  a high-profile controversy at elite schools. He does, however, make a worthwhile concluding point: that it was liberal historians at the American Historical Association, appealing to standards of professionalism and historical accuracy, who managed to defeat a major pro-BDS resolution and slow the movement’s march. Perhaps, Marks suggests, such victories prove that all is not lost in academia. Perhaps “reasonable people” of all political persuasions can still find common cause.

Marks’ hopeful argument is a timely rebuttal to the kind of scorched-earth conservatism now ascendant on the intellectual right. Marks takes issue with firebrands like Roger Kimball, who wants to “starve Academia Inc. of funds;” Ahmari, who preaches a politics of “war and enmity” aimed at “discrediting [our] opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions;” and Victor Davis Hanson, the Stanford historian who derides universities as “outlaw institutions” that have “forfeited” their once worthy purpose. In these broadsides by ostensible conservatives, Marks detects a reckless zeal for dismantling institutions that mirrors their adversaries on the left.

Marks’ argument is instead conservative in the proper sense: He wants to preserve what is best in liberal education and pass its higher purposes on to the next generation. Still, the question remains: Is such a vision capable of garnering support from liberals as well as conservatives?

Marks is not blind to the obstacles. He readily allows that a culture of “safety-ism” and offense-taking has grown on campus in recent years. Moreover, he concedes, “it’s naive to imagine that good ideas drive out bad ideas in most communities.” Still, Marks advises prudence and engagement, not despair. Educators can’t reverse adverse trends overnight, nor should conservatives fantasize about replacing wholly progressive institutions with wholly conservative ones. But it is certainly possible to fight “for more of this and less of that”—“more of a culture in which it is shameful to commit oneself without weighing the arguments and the evidence,” and less of the other kind.

This is a modest conclusion, promising no final victories. But that is precisely why the sentiment is refreshing. Let’s Be Reasonable does not style itself the final word on the campus wars so much as an invitation to a smarter dialogue on the subject. For extending that invitation, and pursuing that dialogue in the classroom and on the page, Jonathan Marks deserves his readers’ thanks.

Sean Keeley, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is pursuing a master’s degree in international affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where he serves as assistant editor of the Journal of International Affairs.

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