The Hollow Soul of Our Universities

We’ve seen at several colleges—most explicitly at Amherst—the call to curtail free speech and academic freedom in favor of particular claims to “social justice.” I keep expecting someone to say any time now: “The much vaunted ‘academic freedom’ will be driven from the . . . university, for this freedom is spurious because purely negative.” Sounds about right, no?

What’s missing from the ellipses above? The word “German.” Go plug it back in and reread it, for this was the phrase Martin Heidegger included in his infamous rector’s address at the University of Freiburg in 1933, when he threw in his lot with the Nazis. It’s not the only parallel that can be drawn. The title of Heidegger’s address was “The Self-Assertion of the German University.” There’s certainly a lot of self-assertion happening on American campuses right now.

And on the other side, there is no assertion of sense from most college administrators and much of the faculty. Instead there is sympathy with the ridiculous grievances and capitulations to many of the demands. Outside observers of this tumultuous scene wonder why the administrators are such spineless cowards. It’s too easy to chalk it up to fearing for their high-paying jobs. I suspect the real reason is that most college professors and administrators no longer believe much in the civilizing mission of universities, and in many cases actually feel guilty about the cultural inheritance of their universities. I was recently told an entirely believeable story from Columbia, one of the few major universities that didn’t abandon its serious core curriculum back in the 1960s, where a dean apologized to incoming freshman that they still had to endure the core curriculum of the great books of western civilization. Is it any wonder that some Columbia students report being “traumatized” by having to read about dead white males?

In other words, today’s college leadership has literally no intellectual defense against the nihilistic radical demands of infantile students. Just like their predecessors on the campuses in the 1960s, today’s liberal administrators do not understand that student radicals are revolting against liberalism, or have contempt for the flabby liberalism that purports to deliver justice (through affirmative action and “diversity” initiatives) without any serious account of justice.

In a little-known lecture Leo Strauss gave in New York in 1941 (note the date) on the subject of German nihilism and how it helped give rise to Hitler, Strauss comments at length about the deficiencies of German education in the face of the rising nihilist tide of German youth. See if it doesn’t sound like a parallel to today:

I am convinced that about the most dangerous thing for these young men was precisely what is called progressive education: they rather needed old-fashioned teachers, such old-fashioned teachers of course as would be undogmatic enough to understand the aspirations of their pupils. Unfortunately, the belief in old-fashioned teaching declined considerably in post-World War I Germany. . .

Those opponents [of German nihilism] committed frequently a grave mistake. They believed to have refuted the No by refuting the Yes, i.e. the inconsistent, if not silly, positive assertions of the young men. But one cannot refute what one has not thoroughly understood. And many opponents did not even try to understand the ardent passion underlying the negation of the present world and its potentialities. As a consequence, the very refutations confirmed the nihilists in their belief; all these refutations seemed to beg the question; most of the refutations seemed to consist of pueris decantata, of repetitions of things the young people knew already by heart. Those young men had come to doubt seriously, and not merely methodically or methodologically, the principles of modern civilization; the great authorities of that civilization did no longer impress them. . .

Consequently, the attitude of the opponents of the young nihilists tended to become apologetic. Thus it came to pass that the most ardent upholders of the principle of progress, of an essentially aggressive principle, were compelled to take a defensive stand; and, in the realm of the mind, taking a defensive stand looks like admitting defeat. The ideas of civilization appeared to the young generation to be old ideas; thus the adherents of the ideal of progress were in the awkward position that they had to resist, in the manner of conservateurs, what in the meantime has been called the wave of the future. They made the impression of being loaded with the heavy burden of a tradition hoary with age and somewhat dusty, whereas the young nihilists, not hampered with any tradition, had complete freedom of movement—and in the wars of the mind no less than in real wars, freedom of action spells victory.

This last paragraph describes the position of craven college presidents who are caving in to student protests just about everywhere.

Strauss goes on from here to suggest that the only present antidote to the sense of “commitment” celebrated by German nihilism was . . . Churchill. But that’s a subject for another post.

SCOTT adds: I think that this is a PDF copy of the Strauss lecture published in Interpretation.