When I served in law enforcement, I often testified in court that my identification of contraband was based on “my training and experience.” What I say below derives from my training and experience as a graduate student in English at a state university in the Southeast. You are well aware that classical school graduates who enroll in public universities find themselves in an unfamiliar environment. I suspect it is not news that some of their instructors, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, see it as their pedagogical responsibility to challenge, if not dislodge, the presumed default and faulty worldview of these “naive” undergraduate students.
The elements commonly considered in need of reform include the following: any residual beliefs in the supernatural; any sense of pride in our American heritage; the ethical and epistemological systems inherited from the Western tradition; the putative tactics for preserving privilege, especially as practiced by white males; the belief that free-market capitalism is preferable to any other economic system; and adherence to conservative social/ political views. By no means is every public university instructor dedicated to defeating these threats to all things good and left of center. However, enough instructors have accepted this calling to give the stereotype legitimacy. Moreover, freshman composition courses seem to have an undue proportion of these brave warriors.
Strange as it may sound, one of my professors proposed that as an English instructor, my goal should not be to teach English literature or composition per se. Rather, it should be to use writing and literature as a means to shake students out of comfort zones and prepare them for life in a democratic society. To clarify, “democratic” in this context means a pure democracy. My pedagogy should seek to replace the undergraduate’s defective worldview with a combination of the following: social and economic justice, environmentalist values, a sense of global citizenship, and a political perspective that lies somewhere on the progressive-socialist-marxist-communist spectrum. Well aware of the liabilities of oversimplification, I will use “progressive” to refer to the worldview cluster that embraces one or more of these priorities.
As long ago as 1992, Maxine Hairston, former chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, gave this warning: “I see a new model emerging for freshman writing programs, a model that disturbs me greatly. It’s a model that puts dogma before diversity, politics before craft, ideology before critical thinking, and the social goals of the teacher before the educational needs of the student” (698). In 2006, Nan Miller, a retired university English professor, confirmed Hairston’s fears: “freshman composition is more about altering student thinking than it is about improving student writing” (19). That freshman comp provides a captive and often vulnerable audience at a key point in an undergraduate’s academic career is not lost on politically driven instructors.
I suspect that many Classical school graduates place out of freshman composition and happily avoid the provocations described above. Nevertheless, this pedagogical agenda is not limited to freshman comp, nor to English departments. I hope to encourage
Classical school educators, and particularly those in the upper grades, to prepare students for the personal and ideological challenges of a public university. To that end, I want to make transparent two common rhetorical moves of progressives.
This essay does not map out two ways of thinking so much as two ways of arguing. First, progressive argument moves from values to truth and ethics. Second, progressives operate with a different kind of consistency than we are used to in Classical reasoning. I will follow this discussion with suggestions for preparing students to face these challenges.
On May 8, 2012, North Carolina voters cast their ballot for or against a state constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and a woman as the only legal union recognized by the state. The merits and demerits of the amendment are not the issue here. I want to use the event to illustrate the type of argument often heard in progressive college classrooms.
An instructor friend of mine anticipated that the vote would go in favor of the amendment. In frustration, she said the following: “I can’t believe that in a few days North Carolina voters will legislate hate against the gay citizens of our state. I feel like I can no longer enjoy my marriage. I’m ashamed we have privileges that other citizens in the state don’t.” Her remarks illustrate a common progressive rhetorical move.
Most of us in the classical tradition argue, implicitly if not explicitly, from truth to ethics and values. A classical argument might go like this: “Revelation (and/ or Natural Law) tells us that humans have been created as male and female, and that marriage between male and female is the revealed/natural order of things. Therefore, other marital combinations are inappropriate and bad.”
A typical progressive move, however, is to start with values, and then work toward truth and ethics. Affirmation of diversity and equality of privileges are highly valued in the progressive worldview. So, the progressive argument might go like this: “I accept and affirm all people as they are. I affirm every person’s right to any privileges enjoyed by anyone else. Gender preferences and orientations of competent adults constitute the standard by which marriage should be defined. Therefore, gay marriage is just as right and good as heterosexual marriage.”
Given this logic, it is not surprising that my progressive friend accused her political opposition of hatred. Since she argues from compassion and tolerance to a pro- gay marriage stance, she naturally assumed that those who disagree with her must reason from hatred and intolerance.
What this anecdote illustrates is the kind of “logic” your students will encounter in a progressive college classroom. Instructors rarely confront students head-on with challenges to first principles. The attack more often comes at the point of values and ethics. If an undergraduate attempts to defend her values by an appeal to first principles, a common counter-argument is to show how those first principles have led to undesirable values and practices, such as discrimination against women
and minorities, or unequal power in the hands of white males. Therefore, the argument goes, the first principles themselves are defective and should be abandoned in favor of acceptable values.
To argue from values to truth and ethics is rhetorically powerful. This is especially the case on a university campus where the umfeldgeist (“spirit of the place”) normalizes what our students have grown up considering unacceptable or immoral. It is not enough to prepare students for the classroom (via knowledge) or dorm room (via virtue). We must prepare them for the powerful intersection between the two, where progressive ideology finds its validation in personal relationships and new experiences.
A university campus is an engineered cultural space in which, for the brief span of an undergraduate experience, progressive ethics and practices seem to work and thereby gain plausibility. What for 18 years parents and classical educators have taught “isn’t and shouldn’t” suddenly is and should. This can give an undergraduate moral and philosophical vertigo. What is not apparent (even, I would say, to most university faculty) is that this artificially created environment is underwritten by reliance on the very things the progressive classroom seeks to undermine: the a priori necessity of truth for knowledge, and the values and ethics which flow from truth.
A hallmark of the Classical approach is the connection between first principles and ethics. If you demonstrate that my belief in human dignity requires a change in my ethics or behavior, I will make the necessary adjustments. First principles trump my value and ethical preferences.
The progressive, however, starts with a commitment to a political position. This may be a stance that is anti-death penalty, pro-choice, pro-social justice, pro- universal health care, anti-war, anti-capitalism, or pro-diversity. What matters to the progressive is that he is politically consistent. This trumps any inconsistencies his political positions may have with avowed first principles. Since truth is contingent and a by-product of personal preferences, philosophical inconsistencies are to be expected. They do not undermine the integrity of the ethical or the value system held by the progressive. The consistency valued by the Classical thinker is logical and philosophical. The consistency valued by the progressive is practical and political.
No wonder so many arguments between Classical thinkers and progressives end in a stalemate. The Classical approach tries to push the discussion back to presuppositions and demands logical consistency between ethics, values and first principles. The progressive, on the other hand, only worries about consistent application of her values. The fact that such consistency may
require inconsistency with stated first principles is not a problem. For the progressive, truth is a side-effect of personal values, not the foundation. That a side-effect is compromised is of no consequence.
When we teach students how to analyze arguments, it is not enough to show how progressives are inconsistent with their stated principles. We should also make students privy to the kind of “logic” by which progressives often operate. Principles occupy a different role in progressive argumentation than they do in Classical reasoning. Values and ethics occupy the rhetorical space that first principles enjoy in Classical thought. An undergraduate in the umfeldgeist of the university who fails to understand this can be easily hoodwinked by progressive “consistency” without regard to the inherent logical fallacies it contains.
Preparation for the Progressive University
How do we prepare students for such an environment and experience? Here are a few suggestions, many of which you probably already do.
1. It is a mistake to train students to argue with college professors. Rather, I would teach students how to work through the kinds of implicit and explicit attacks on their tradition, beliefs, values and selves they are likely to encounter. Role plays and “what- if” scenarios in your classroom discussions can prepare students for the real thing.
2. Teach a unit from a progressive perspective.
The unit can be taught in the sciences or the humanities. Every discipline is politicized and influenced by progressive values. I suggest you do this sooner than later, even in the junior year. Students will then be able to digest what they have learned, evaluate their own tradition while still in it, and benefit from the insights of their mentors.
3. Teach students how to use their rhetorical and relational skills to win over peers. By “win over,” I do not just mean win arguments, but win trust. Let us teach our students to argue with love. Teach them to build the kinds of relationships that over time make room for life- changing conversations.
4. Let us own up to the profound errors the great thinkers and influential people in our tradition have made. Do not let your students be caught off guard by college professors who “enlighten” them with the gross faults and errors of their
heroes. The progressive narrative of Western civilization focuses on inconsistencies and failures. The best prophylactic is not a one-sided portrayal, but a true portrayal.
5. Discuss canons. The choice of a canon necessarily omits some texts. Yes, most of the best and influential words written prior to the twentieth century were composed by males. Better for our students to hear from us why that is, why it should not have been, and why it need not be so in the future.
6. Encourage students and parents to find a good church or personal contact in the university’s environs. I would love to see Classical schools network with like-minded people in university towns to set up non-university affiliated fellowships or mentors. Undergraduates need to see that what they were taught “works” somewhere other than in the umfeldgeist of their alma mater.