The Progressive and liberal revolutions against the Founding call for the
replacement of politics by administration and the denial of individual natural
rights in favor of the will of society and government. These massive
developments require the cooperation of the universities. Thus it is fitting
that Progressive Woodrow Wilson, the first President to openly attack the
Founding, was a distinguished professor of political science and a president of
the American Political Science Association. Both FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great
Society required the involvement of intellectuals, especially social scientists.
This tendency of academics to justify radical and not just Progressive politics
is particularly marked in the humanities, where outrageousness seems to know no
boundaries. But at the end of the outrageousness is the sad banality of old men
(and women) turning over rocks.
In 1989 the American Council of Learned Societies, which describes itself as
“the preeminent representative of American scholarship in the humanities and
related social sciences,” published an essay entitled “Speaking for the
Humanities.” Six distinguished professors of the humanities at prestigious
universities defend their definition of the humanities against attacks by, among
others, Allan Bloom, Lynne Cheney, and William Bennett. Beginning with the
entirely sensible premise that “We should not equate truth with our own
political ideology…,” their plea becomes a demand for a thoroughgoing nihilism
in the teaching of the humanities. They go well beyond the Progressives and
Liberal rejection of natural rights and dismiss any notion of truth altogether.
Skepticism and self-examination have been an essential part of Western
civilization since Socrates. But these professors transform these healthy
qualities into a dogmatic skepticism that denies the possibility of real
knowledge. They attack claims to “objectivity and disinterest.” They maintain
that “the consensus of most of the dominant theories [of today] is that all
thought does, indeed, develop from particular standpoints, perspectives,
interests….” In other words, there is no escaping one’s biases (and there is a
“consensus” about this). In fact, “A system of thought [must be] alert to the
way interests generate thought and ideological assumptions govern the most
self-evident truth…”—including, especially, that essential American self-evident
truth of human equality.
“At its best, contemporary humanistic thinking does not peddle ideology,
but rather attempts to sensitize us to the presence of ideology in our work, and
to its capacity to delude us into promoting as universal values that in fact
belong to one nation, one social class, one sect” (emphasis added). Of course if
one assumes that thinking seeks “values,” then there can be no serious arguing
about values, any more than there can be about tastes. The most important
questions yield only various subjective answers—akin to the search for the next
The contemporary academy is a kind of hall of mirrors where vanities reflect
each other. The attempt to transcend “objectivity and disinterest” leads to a
soft despotism of vanities, aroused sporadically to mock the claims of free men
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of modern thought, even for many humanities professors and certainly for society at large, is its challenge to the positivist ideal of objectivity and disinterest. For that ideal is at the root of modern Western thought; it has been essential to the development of science, the West’s most distinctive intellectual contribution to world culture. Many of those who attack the humanities disciplines mistakenly believe that ideal also to be at the heart of the principles that underlie democracy—the belief that members of a society can act against their own self-interest, recognizing a larger social good. For many, the ideal of objectivity and disinterest, which would seem to be concerned primarily with knowledge, is an issue of profound moral significance.
And the consensus of most of the dominant theories is that all thought does, indeed, develop from particular standpoints, perspectives, interests…. A system of thought [must be] alert to the way interests generate thought and ideological assumptions govern the most self-evident truth
We should not equate truth with our own political ideology. Even within that ideology there is likely to be further questioning by different groups with very different understandings of democracy. All parties believe that the truth is on their ideological side. “Objectivity” and “disinterest” are often the means by which the equation of truth and particular ideological positions can be disguised, even from those who unequivocally believe in the possibility of objectivity and disinterest.
At its best, contemporary humanistic thinking does not peddle ideology, but rather attempts to sensitize us to the presence of ideology in our work, and to its capacity to delude us into promoting as universal values that in fact belong to one nation, one social class, one sect.
The full paper can be read online at http://archives.acls.org/op/7_Speaking_for_Humanities.htm.