(Editor’s Note: SeeThruEdu has confirmed that the author, who (for obvious reasons) requested anonymity, is in fact an undergraduate student at a liberal arts college.)
The moment finally came: my professor mocked one of my core beliefs right there in class. As a freshman (er, excuse me, “first-year student”—”freshman” is sexist), I was nervous. I sat across the table from him and replied with all the reason and rhetorical polish I could muster. I was expecting a sharp rejoinder, but my professor just gave me an ironic smile and moved on.
I was puzzled. He’d taken a pot shot, I’d returned fire, and then . . . nothing. I wanted a fair fight, so I found him during office hours to continue the conversation. When I tried to push back on a couple of his fundamental assumptions, he replied that he hadn’t considered that perspective and didn’t care. He was already sure he was right.
This gets right to the rotten heart of modern academia: the apathy of relativism. That professor is a great scholar and a wonderful teacher (one of my favorites), but he wasn’t prepared to seek truth with me. His close-mindedness is not bigotry, but the indifference of relativism.
Relativism says that there is no truth, just competing narratives created by entrenched interests (according to progressive followers of Foucault, white, rich, male interests). To a relativist, there cannot be any real debate, just storytelling sessions. They already like their own story; so, it’s a waste of time to engage anyone else’s.
This is deeply troubling for American democracy. John Stuart Mill argued that meaningful, impassioned debate is necessary for the good of mankind. Our best and brightest, the future leaders of our country, are spending their formative years in classrooms where relativism rules and apathy castrates conversations. We aren’t taught to pursue truth through reasoned dialogue, but to make politically correct pleas with scholarship and sophistic eloquence. Dissident ideas are generally tolerated but not engaged. If our national dialogue is a childish shouting match, it’s because our universities teach the American elite that reasoned debate is pointless.
Instead of a rugby scrum for truth, everyone is playing solitaire by their own rules.
G.K. Chesterton spied this problem developing years ago: “A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization. All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.”
This is certainly true at my alma mater, an elite liberal arts college on the East Coast. The college’s goal is to help students “build relationships across differences for a healthy self and a better society.” Because there is no objective “good life” or “good man,” the administration is reduced to preaching “healthy selves.” We are told not to vomit all over the hallway, not because such behavior is disgraceful or wrong, but because it is against “community standards,” a kind of quasi-social contract. Relativism has so weakened modern academia that “health” becomes the closest thing to an objective standard it can endorse.
As a result, students have never seriously asked what the good life is, how political power should be constituted, or what government’s role should be in our lives. Sure, we can talk (or rather tweet), but we can’t debate; we can’t have a fair exchange of ideas about the public good. We’ve never done it or seen it modeled in our classrooms.
This is a deep ill, and one not easily fixed. Relativism is antithetical to the democratic values of debate and collaboration. To restore health to American democracy, we must first restore the university.