Last weekend I attended commencement exercises at a very prestigious Northeastern liberal arts college distinguished by its selectiveness, its commitment to social progress, and its extraordinarily beautiful and lavishly funded campus. I was struck by the unity of view of all the speakers. Here’s the gist of what I heard:
- The “scriptural reading” opening the commencement ceremony: a quotation from Learned Hand to the effect that the spirit of liberty is necessary for liberty, and the spirit of liberty is the spirit that is never too sure it is right.
- The student speaker at commencement, a religion studies major and amateur improv comedian: he gave a riff on the college experience as Exodus—the escape from oppression (home and local community), getting over your head in a lot of water and confusion as you cross the sea of learning, and then glorious emergence at graduation followed by attacks on all the walled cities (gated communities?) so all the walls can be destroyed.
- The president of the college at commencement: what distinguishes every graduate of the institution is that he has the qualities of a supremely skilled and disinterested administrator. In every situation he understands the relevant considerations and the viewpoints of all those involved and correctly sorts them into primary and secondary, so that he is able to come to a superior conclusion readily recognizable as such because it only makes manifest the internal logic of the situation and the goals and needs of those involved. That ability means people need and accept him as a leader and he should never fail to act as such. Such a conclusion will apply even more strongly to next year’s class since next year there will be even more knowledge available for them to apply to problems.
- An honoree, a famous professor of philosophy who writes about issues of identity: he believes in falliblism. Whatever you believe it might be wrong, so you should be cautious and open to further investigation. That kind of rational approach has brought an end to slavery and opened the door to women’s rights. People ask him what he does, and he sometimes says he’s a philosopher. When they ask what his philosophy is he says “things are much more complicated than you think.” That shuts them up, apparently a good thing.
- An honoree, a graduate of the college who became a physicist and makes neat stuff: it’s important in physics to be able to scrap your equipment and throw away the manuals and be able to rebuild it to do what you want it to do.
- An honoree, a female graduate who became a lawyer and eventually a high-ranking federal appellate court judge who (as the president said in his introduction) is famous for coming out the right way on every issue: it’s important to fight stereotyping because stereotyping leads to oppression. She’s done that all her life, and it’s been a good and beneficial fight. You graduates have to continue the fight and bring it to a victorious conclusion.
- A professor of theater arts speaking at a Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony: an undergraduate studies program should be designed by the student himself and display both internal integrity and individual uniqueness. (That’s pretty much what Ralph Waldo Emerson said on a similar occasion, but it did make me wonder if the institution thought it had anything solid, reliable and substantive to give students.)
- A professor of education studies at some sort of convocation devoted to general uplift: while you’re questioning and constructing identities, confronting oppressions and inequalities and bringing about social change, you should also appreciate the skill and wisdom of ordinary people in everyday life.
The concerns were always strictly practical, but with a sort of transcendent aura having to do with unprecedented radical transformation of social reality. Everything was amazing and wonderful. Everyone talked about “social change,” never public service or doing your duty to carry things forward. No one mentioned the conduct of life or the good, beautiful and true. I think at one point someone said it’s nice to keep up friendships, and a couple times people said it’s important to get to know the value of the cleaning lady as a contributor and human being. That was about it, though.
It’s hard to do justice to how self-satisfied the speakers were. The president of the college was over the top on how wonderful the graduates were and what they could and should do. The federal judge, the education professor and the student devoted special attention to the wonderfulness of the institution, the graduates and above all the speaker himself. The federal judge was particularly simple-minded (some of the other speakers, the president and the philosopher for example, were actually quite intelligent and forceful in their way). The philosopher talked falliblism, but it’s not clear what function falliblism can have as a philosophy—as a basic principle for dealing with things—apart from saying that since everything is so complicated ordinary ways of thinking that make it possible for ordinary people to function really can’t be relied on so it’s experts like famous philosophy professors in top departments who should decide everything.
The unity of the talks had an obvious ethical and metaphysical basis in a common theory of the world everyone took for granted. In that theory the world is composed of lots and lots of things, each different from all the others. In the ignorant and unjust past order of a sort was achieved through concepts of identity that subordinated one thing to another and so enabled people to say what things are and do something about them. Such concepts are arbitrary, though, since they do not give each separate thing its due and are a matter of popular prejudice or the advantage of the powerful rather than careful investigation. Therefore all inherited concepts of identity must be dissolved and replaced by rationally-designed structures based on human ingenuity and the most general principles and not at all on anything that’s been done before. Naturally, there have to be people to promote the dissolution and to design and enforce the structures, and that’s where the college and its graduates come in.
Although the speakers did not mention it, some people (me, for example) believe there are alternative theories that make more sense and are more humane. One might say, for example, that the world is indeed complicated, and we are part of the world so we cannot step back from it and fully grasp it in thought to say from an external point of view just what it is and what we should do about it. We therefore learn to deal with it through experience. Since we are social beings our experience includes social experience that operates through development of concepts that help realize and stabilize goods and thus reveal what we can know about the things that are worth valuing and how to secure them. Such concepts become objects of our attachment and thus traditions.
The investigation and appreciation of such things was once understood as a basic purpose of humane studies. The speakers at this prestigious liberal arts college nonetheless agreed that traditional concepts of what things are and mean must all be resolutely extirpated as deeply rooted social stereotypes, in the name of tolerance, falliblism and human rights, and in favor of their favored method of progress through expertise. The education professor should, I suppose, have realized that her theory of the wisdom and competence of ordinary people creates problems for this picture, but in spite of her stated fondness for theory she had too little competence in abstract reasoning, and too much attachment to her position and to the people around her, to draw any such conclusion.