This Philadelphia Inquirer editorial is from famous ethics professor Robert P. George.
When many of the flower children and new-left activists of the ’60s became professors and university administrators in the ’70s and ’80s, they did not entirely overthrow the idea of liberal-arts education. Many proclaimed themselves its loyal partisans.Now, it is true that many think it their mission to create soldiers in the battle for “social change” – aspiring ACLU lawyers, Planned Parenthood volunteers, and “community organizers.” But others resist the idea that learning should be instrumentalized. They profess allegiance to the idea that the point of liberal education is to enrich and even liberate the student-learner. That’s what is supposed to be “liberal” about liberal-arts learning – it is supposed to convey the knowledge and impart the intellectual skills and habits of mind that are liberating.Still, there is a chasm between the idea of liberal-arts education as classically conceived, and the conception promoted by some (mercifully, not all) in positions of influence in academic departments today. Many of today’s academic humanists and social scientists have a different view of what students need liberation from.In their view (what I will call the revisionist conception), it is liberation from traditional social constraints and moral norms – beliefs, principles, and structures by which earlier generations of Americans and people in the West generally had been taught to govern themselves for the sake of personal virtue and the common good. For them, it has become a dogma that these traditional norms and structures are irrational – “hang ups” that stifle our personalities by impeding desire-fulfillment.
Liberal-arts learning is thus seen as a way to undermine whatever is left of the old norms and structures. Teaching and scholarship are meant either (1) to expose the texts and traditions once regarded as the intellectual treasures of our civilization – the Bible, Plato, Augustine, Dante, Aquinas, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Locke, Gibbon, the authors of The Federalist, etc. – as mere propaganda propping up unjust (racist, sexist, classist, homophobic) social orders, or still worse (2) to show how they can be “reappropriated” to subvert allegedly unjust contemporary social orders.
Beyond this, liberal-arts learning is meant to enable students to become “authentic” – true to themselves – which means, to these liberal-arts revisionists, acting on one’s feelings and desires. For the self is understood precisely as a bundle of feelings and desires, to be acted on without regard to supposedly outmoded moral and social norms.
On the revisionist conception of personal authenticity, whatever impedes one from doing what one most wants (unless what one happens to want would be politically incorrect) is a mere hang-up. So religious convictions and traditional moral ideals are to be transcended for the sake of the free and full development of one’s personality – for example, by acting on sexual desires that one might have been “repressing.”
This is something I often encounter when dealing with college kids, especially with women who went to college and fell under the influence of feminism. Even if they come back to the faith later and want to get serious about it, there is a lingering effect of their indoctrination in college that causes them to doubt the traditional virtues and prefer to make decisions on the basis of feelings. They really, really believe in being true to their feelings, and deciding what to do on the basis of these feelings, rather then thinking about virtues like stewardship, or moral obligations in general. We are not good at loving other people, and focusing on ourselves above all does not help us to do that.