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Cultivating Free Citizens
A reply to William Galston’s criticism of my higher-education reform proposals.
Wall Street Journal columnist William Galston has offered a thoughtful criticism of my higher-education reform proposals in two recent columns. The crux of Galston’s argument is that, through my work with Florida governor Ron DeSantis abolishing DEI bureaucracies in public universities and recapturing New College of Florida on voters’ behalf, I represent a profound threat to “liberal education.” As evidence, he cites a partial quotation of mine—”the goal of the university is not free inquiry”—to illustrate my supposed illiberalism.
This quotation is a misrepresentation, but an instructive one. My full quotation raises the question not of method, but of purpose: “The goal of the university is not free inquiry—free inquiry is a method toward some other goal.” As I explained as part of a symposium on higher-education reform at Stanford University, in the classical tradition, the goal of “liberal education,” derived from the Latin word liber, meant the cultivation of the free citizen and the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. Today, many universities have relinquished these transcendental ends and have replaced them with a new, secularized trinity—”diversity, equity, and inclusion”—or, like Galston, have settled on a defense of procedural values, such as “free inquiry” and “academic freedom,” with no particular end in mind.
This is a grave error. Though free inquiry and academic freedom can serve as powerful methods, being value-neutral, they cannot establish a value hierarchy or provide a firm basis for scholarly standards. In his essay, Galston suggests that Nazi scapegoating and Soviet pseudo-science should be excluded from academic life, but on what standard does this judgment rest? If “academic freedom” is the ultimate criterion, scholars who pursue error are just as entitled to their positions within the university as those who pursue truth. Under a regime in which “free inquiry” is the highest value, nothing can be prohibited—everything must be allowed, including ideas that are anathema to right reason.
Galston describes the “civic education” he received at Cornell University and University of Chicago as an ideal, beginning with the Greeks and Romans, traveling through the American Founding, and concluding with the radical criticism of Rousseau and Nietzsche. I object to none of this. In fact, it resembles the kind of thoughtful, rigorous core curriculum I hope to see at New College of Florida, where I am a trustee. Scholars who illuminate the great ideas of our civilization and have a shared commitment to the telos, or proper end, of education, deserve the support of state institutions, and a wide variety of viewpoints within those bounds should be encouraged.
The problem, however, is that Galston’s ideal is nowhere to be found in many state universities. The ideologies that now dominate humanities departments—critical race theory, queer theory, and others—are not producing the insights of Nietzsche or Rousseau, let alone Aristotle or Plato. They are producing pseudo-scholarship more akin to the racial scapegoating and Lysenkoist genetics that Galston rightly decries. Their adherents’ capture of academic departments has been documented to the point of exhaustion—but for just one example, look no further than Galston’s own almae matres, which are hosting “vent tents“ for students to rage in favor of abortion, offering a “fat studies” course on “care, fatness, queerness, and family,” and were considering a proposed course on “the problem of whiteness,” based on the theory that whites are a malignant force in society. (The last of these was postponed after public criticism.)
My contention is that these activist disciplines are not scholarly, rigorous, or worthy of public subsidy. In the past, the basic social compact regarding higher education was that the people, through their state legislators, would charter and fund state universities in order to advance the cause of knowledge and to educate young people as citizens of the republic; in exchange, public-university administrators and faculty pledged to be prudent stewards of public resources and to pursue truth, rather than partisan activism.
That social compact has been broken. Activist administrators and professors have treated the public universities as a vehicle for their private political interests and openly flouted the wishes of the voters who pay their salaries, establishing coercive DEI departments and transforming scholarly initiatives into little more than agitprop. These activists have used the structures of “academic freedom” not to help discern the truth, as intended, but to protect their domination over the academy, which has become untethered from the old ends. Only a naïve person would believe that departments of critical race theory and queer theory are oriented toward the true, the good, and the beautiful; they are, in their own words, explicitly opposed to these concepts.
In his column, Galston boils down this complex dilemma into an old shibboleth: “Can the government rightly restrict the content of instruction in higher education?” This formulation misses the point. In the matter of public universities, it is the same as asking if the government can rightly restrict the government—an oxymoron. A better question, which captures the essential nature of our dilemma, would be: Can legislators reform the public universities to bring them back into alignment with their scholarly mission and the wishes of the public? The answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” In a republic, the people have an absolute right to limit, reform, and restrict their government, including their public universities.
The alternative is a form of tyranny. If the people do not have the ability to limit their government, their basic democratic right is compromised. Legislators have not only the authority, but the duty, to ensure that public universities align with the mission of higher education—which includes, in a practical sense, terminating any program that does not conform with that mission or meet scholarly standards. Contra Galston, the termination of these highly ideological programs does not signify the abandonment of classical liberalism, but a restoration of classical liberalism, properly understood—that is, an education befitting a free people and oriented toward the highest principles, with the sensible limits that this concept entails.
The American public has the intuitive sense that higher education has been compromised. The ideologues who have hijacked our public universities have shown no ability to self-correct. Political intervention is not only legitimate but necessary. As Aristotle warned, the survival of our regime depends on it.
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This article was originally published in City Journal.