Reflections on Higher Education in the Global Age

Joshua Mitchell Georgetown University
Abstract: In this essay I consider, first, the three sorts of programs—Ph.D., M.A., and Undergraduate degree—that Universities are charged with offering, with a view of distinguishing the multiple tasks set for the professorate by each. The failure to distinguish these tasks, and to grant each their due, is, I suggest, a part of the problem we face. Second, I distinguish between the hermeneutic of suspicion and the hermeneutic of deference, and consider why in the "democratic age" (following Tocqueville’s usage) the former comes to prevail. Thereafter I suggest that the one-sided emphasis on the former needs to be rethought if the Humanities are to survive. Third, I raise the issue of why the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, and point out that no effort to reinvigorate the Humanities can succeed in the current cost environment. Fourth and finally, I propose the category, Comparative Canonical Inquiry, as a framework for a reengagement of the Humanities with the world in the twenty-first century.

We have been asked to reflect on a vital area of research in our subfield, and to ponder its significance for our discipline as a whole. In my case the subfield is political theory, and the discipline is political science. The discipline of political science arose in the late nineteenth century out of the moral impulse of the Social Gospel movement in the hope that through social science, American democracy could be improved. Political theory as we have inherited it in America arose in Europe at a different time and out of a different impulse. It is bound together with political science by an arranged marriage in which neither party is fully comforted. Begotten in the twentieth century, the subfield of political theory is unthinkable without reference to the two Great Wars in Europe, and to the questions they raised about modernity: what was political theory; against what backdrop must it be understood; was its foundation faulty; what is its future? The discipline of political science proper does not address these questions; it presumes a scalar world whose measured units can, in principle, stand in numerical relation to one-another, not—as was the postulate of political theorists after the Great Wars—a world in crisis, whose units have no such coherent and measurable relations, and whose units of analysis are in fact contestable even if not always contested.

Might political theory find a better home in one of the other extant disciplines, for example, philosophy? Because the object of its study is the history of political thought, the material warrant for which are books and essays written in a political setting about that setting, political theory does not find a home in philosophy departments where the analytical turn in the twentieth century generally now disposes practitioners to attend to “arguments,” without regard to narrative context and literary form, or to the question of whether works written in times of crisis invariably have a contested meaning―and sometimes even an esoteric meaning. While some political theory is analytical, most political theory is not. The portion that is not is at home neither in philosophy departments nor in political science departments. The former finds political theory too sullied by empirics, and the latter finds political theory too aloof from them.

The tension between political science and political theory reached its apogee in the 1960s. Thereafter, each largely went its own way, housed together by virtue of sharing a common family name, but sleeping in separate beds. They are now cordial at the kitchen table, at faculty meetings, but go their separate ways when they search for their daily bread–political scientists in numbers, equations, and models; political theorists in books and essays. The former generally seek to contribute to the literature. The latter, notwithstanding pretentions to the contrary, generally offer commentary on the Literature. Whether this is an aristocratic marriage of convenience or a divorce in the making, no one is any longer interested in discussing.

Further distinctions could be adduced. I have said enough here, however, to indicate my doubt that political science and political theory should continue to live under the same roof.

Let us step aside from the difference-in-kind argument that I have just made, however, and consider what has happened within political theory itself in the past several generations. Where once the best work was attentive both to events and to the canonical works that illuminated and were illuminated by those events, today political theory is focused, almost singularly, on a body of secondary “literature” produced by tenured political theorists or those involved in the mad-publishing-dash to the tenure finishing line. Political theory, once unthinkable without reference to the two Great Wars of the twentieth century, is now increasingly only thinkable as a scholarly pursuit whose output is the journal article or the book, read only by other like-minded political theory collection specialists. Strauss, Voegelin, and Arendt, who wrote in the shadow of the two Great Wars did, of course, write with other thinkers in mind. As I indicated above, their scholarly engagement was at once undertaken with a view to the crises at hand and mediated through primary canonical works. This “method of correlation,”[1] if you will, was the foundation on which the field of political theory developed the insights that it did. To read Strauss, Voegelin and Arendt in the immediate aftermath of the two Great Wars was not only to encounter what they thought about modernity, it was to be exposed to thinking about what political theory was.

Since 1945 there have been a number of crises that have warranted comment by political theorists. With a few notable exceptions however, 1989 came and went without the two-fold movement back-and-forth between event and canonical text that was almost reflexively adopted by an earlier generation of political theorists;[2] so too did 2001.[3] The so-called financial crisis of 2007-08 has produced no sustained thinking within political theory on the matter. It was an “economic” crisis—nothing more.

We might be tempted, as we pause here, to cite contemptuous passages from Nietzsche’s nineteenth century classic, Beyond Good and Evil, in which he notes that “We Scholars” had taken the place of the philosophers,[4] and so, ruined a noble and rare calling several generations before the time when I have located the problem. And why really stop there? In the Republic, Plato had noted with dismay that “pygmies” always seem to step into the place where philosophy should be,[5] and that they are utterly unworthy. The problem it seems, has been a perennial one.

With this caution in mind, let me nevertheless suggest that recent institutional developments shed light on the challenges we currently face in political theory and by extension, in the humanities as a whole. Let us consider the changing institutional landscape, which has also helped bring political theory to its current dead-end within the discipline of political science.

1. Institutional Considerations

In modern American universities, there are three educational nodal points that command our attention and our resources: PhD programs, MA programs, and undergraduate programs. The students in these different kinds of programs arrive at the university with different aspirations; and the faculty members who teach them generally understand their task to be different as well. Or rather, those tasks should be somewhat different. Today, they are increasingly mixed together; but let us return to that in a moment.

The PhD program has as its purpose the reproduction of the discipline. It is the location where the inner secret of the university is laid bare. It is a feudal institution, whose success depends on a student’s apprenticeship with a mentor, through whom is achieved prudential knowledge concerning what constitutes good taste in thinking[6]. PhD programs are, consequently, expensive to build and maintain. Like the pin-making guilds that Adam Smith sought to undermine in the opening chapters of The Wealth of Nations,[7] they are inefficient but reliable fora through which—to use aristocratic language appropriate to the feudal age―the image of “the fathers” is reproduced in “the sons.”

In PhD programs, guild-masters and apprentices have in mind the craft-product they produce: the journal article or the university press book, whose audience is other guild members. As guild membership grows the bar must necessarily be lowered, so that more may join in the conversation. In proportion as this happens, the task within the guild subtly shifts. In graduate school at the University of Chicago in the 1980, it never would have occurred to us to form a group to read each other’s work. If we gathered together, it was to consider Plato, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Heidegger and the other canonical figures. The secondary literature was of secondary importance. Today, more often than not, graduate students gather to read each other’s work. The secondary literature, which carves out smaller problems and projects, occupies their attention a great deal more than it did for an earlier generation. And that is, in part, because graduate students today are under immense pressure from their mentors―most of whom know that their students are as yet ill-equipped―to produce “scholarship” while still in graduate school. Such “scholarship” cannot possibly concern itself with big questions or issues. Who has the time to consider those questions in the grueling race to complete a PhD in four or five years, while being driven to have something publishable or already published to show for it? The agonistic disposition of generations past, which presupposed that graduate students stood before canonical authors as sinners did, unworthy, before God (and needed to be told that publicly) has been replaced by a heart-swelling desire of workshop participants and conference attendees to offer “constructive criticism,” the aim of which is to help “a paper” to become “better.” “We Scholars,” indeed.

This increasingly cautious and conservative guild reproduction is certainly something about which to be concerned. Warranted criticism aside, it is worth reminding ourselves that because of these independent disciplinary guilds, universities in America have flourished. When I was the Chancellor for the American University of Iraq–Sulaimani between 2008 and 2010, I learned that the destruction of these guilds by the Ba’ath regime from the 1970s onward undermined what was once arguably the best university-system in the Middle East. Even today, a decade after the Ba’ath regime was destroyed, every textbook and every course syllabus in Iraqi public universities has to be approved by the Minister of Higher Education in Baghdad. A vibrant journal and university press culture is nowhere to be found. Without these and the disciplinary guilds they presuppose, universities cannot flourish. The habit of centralization remains, long after the facts on the ground that produced it have disappeared.

Are faculty guilds also endangered in American universities? To be sure, there is growing government involvement in their affairs. This should worry us a great deal for as the money flow increases it will probably only be a question of time before government officials demand that their money is spent in a manner they deem appropriate. How the humanities as a whole will fare under such an arrangement is not difficult to discern: certain ideas and self-understandings will win out over others; and professors who teach the approved textbooks[8] will receive tenure while other perspective faculty members who would be ill-disposed to do so will never get hired in the first place. I doubt that this development will appear in the United States in the form of explicit governmental directives. Rather, it will likely come through a shift in the mental habits of all those charged with the stewardship of American universities, and through the educational accrediting agencies, which mediate the relationship between the government and the academy, and which, with each ten-year cycle, require more and more in the way of “compliance.” When the government gives little to the academy, little will be expected; when it gives a great deal, an accounting will be necessary. With the ever-increasing involvement of the government in academic life, it is only a matter of time before post- K-12 education has a “Common Core,” authorized and maintained by the government as well.

On the one hand the disciplinary guilds that we seek to reproduce in our PhD programs are a bulwark against political tyranny—and so they shall remain until such time as publication in the journals and university presses that maintain the guilds no longer count for the tenure that universities still extend to their faculty members. On the other hand, however, it is increasingly clear that journal and university press book publication is in the midst of its own reckoning, which must be squarely faced or else university administrators are going to establish other criteria for tenure, should tenure be granted at all. This reckoning has two aspects, which arise from the problem I described earlier, namely, that political theory has become the craft of collection specialists. Here, I will only name its aspects, and leave it for others to elaborate. First, there is what could be called the problem of connoisseurship and the breakdown of the review. Second, there is the growing problem of hermetically sealed epistemic communities. Both of these have emerged paradoxically at a moment when political theorists are publishing more than ever before, and fewer and fewer scholars or members of the reading public find what they write timely or important, let alone penetrating and profound. Any number of tenured and tenure-track faculty may be satisfied with this current configuration, but university administrators, Boards of Regents, and elected officials are increasingly dubious about the works produced by the guilds in the humanities as a whole and in political theory in particular.

Before turning to undergraduate programs, the consideration of which will shed additional light on the problems raised above, let us note with a few summary observations, a second distinct educational nodal point: the MA Program. Unlike the PhD program, which is held together as a guild through journal and university press book publication, the MA program offers a specific set of career skills for those who will soon enter a profession or who are already within one. Students learn from faculty members, though not with a view to becoming one. Where PhD programs are underwritten largely by graduate schools within universities, MA programs are generally “full-freight” for those students who are enrolled in them—a fact that has prompted administratively top-heavy universities everywhere to develop these programs as rapidly as they possibly can. While these programs seem tangential to many within the university, they are in fact the canary in the coal mine whose song alerts us that the staggering administrative costs that now burden universities can no longer be borne by tuition fees alone or even in conjunction with endowment funds. For instance, the fixation with MOOCs is driven in some part by the hope of administrators that their share of the university budget may remain unchallenged and that the budgetary cuts they seek may be borne on the faculty side of the ledger.

The third educational nodal point in the modern university is the undergraduate degree program. These vary immensely, but share the common trait of drawing in a generation of young men and women not yet able to participate in the business of society, with a view to preparing them to do so in four years or so. The task of the undergraduate program, I dare say, is to help produce thoughtful citizens, in addition to whatever other immediate competencies these citizens-in-training are also trained to pick up in their classrooms.

Nowhere is the tension between the two sorts of understandings more obvious than in the Middle East, where in most of their undergraduate programs students are trained only to pick specific competencies. The French and the English systems of education, themselves highly specialized, hover in the background. However, colonial legacy alone does not account for undergraduate hyper-specialization in the Middle East so many decades later. For highly specialized undergraduate programs to perdure, the economy must be organized in a top-down fashion by state planners who think they can know how many doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers, and teachers their societies will need, years in advance of the graduation of a student cohort. In Iraq once students have a major (decided by national test administered while still in High School) they can never change it.

In a command economy, choreographed from above, highly specialized undergraduate programs may have their place; in a vibrant, market commerce oriented economy, however, such programs are ill-fitting. Market commerce, unlike a command economy, involves entrepreneurs making competing wagers concerning possible futures. A society oriented by market commerce, in short, does not have an economy at all. The pricing mechanism of market commerce presumes that the future cannot be known, and therefore opposes the establishment, by political fiat or in the name of stabilizing an extant order, of a permanent set of winners or losers that the term, “the economy,” names. The undergraduate education appropriate to such an unknowable future must be concerned to nourish young men and women whose challenge it will be to find their way in a world whose future is unknowable. Only in a completely controlled command economy, or only at the “end of history,” will we be able to establish with certainty what undergraduates should know for their future. In a liberal society, oriented by market commerce, education must do more than teach students what they should know, if only for the reason that it cannot be unequivocally established what that might be. In a liberal society, education must involve the sort of midwifery that prepares students for a future that neither teachers nor government officials can know. An education in political theory, and in the humanities, can prepare them to do just that.

There is, finally, a necessary tension between these three distinct educational nodes—PhD, MA and Undergraduate programs. This necessary tension, however, is heightened when the disciplinary guilds that are concerned with reproducing themselves are not mindful that the guilds themselves do not pay faculty salaries. Student tuition, university endowments, state and national governments do. These salary-paying bodies, in principle, remind faculty members that whatever their important guild-obligations may be in the PhD program, they must not lose sight of the citizen-producing task in the Undergraduate program. This healthy attenuation of the disciplinary guilds, which ought to ground the thinking of faculty practitioners enough to keep them from succumbing to reification in writing, seems less and less to be happening. I suspect this is part of the reason why political theory has been less and less concerned to address significant historical events, and why the annual disciplinary meetings amount increasingly to tired debates within well-established sub-groups, whose territory topography was carved out decades ago.

2. The Crisis in the Humanities

Let us extend our discussion to the humanities. The humanities are those disciplines, concerned with the full range of human experience chronicled in books, whose study does not admit the degree of precision that is attainable in the natural sciences. This states the obvious, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the obvious from time to time. As Aristotle put the matter:

A well-schooled man is one who searches for that degree of precision in each kind of study which the nature of the subject at hand admits: it is obviously just as foolish to accept arguments of probability from a mathematician as to demand strict demonstrations from an orator.[9]

The desire for precision, which Plato intimated betrays a soul that longs for power,[10] is not precisely our concern here. More important is the haunting question: why is precision demanded of all knowledge? Tocqueville (on whom I will be relying for much of what follows) answered that the longing for parsimony would intoxicate us in the democratic age,[11] and that true pluralism would therefore be rare. So captivated, it would be exceedingly difficult for persons in the democratic age to hold onto Aristotle’s wisdom, let alone organize a university with that wisdom firmly in mind. Tocqueville thought that in the democratic age, the idea that different domains of knowledge might have differing and incommensurable methods appropriate to them would scarcely enter the mind. The need for parsimony—the confident expression of which would be methodological monism of the sort that demands precision everywhere the human gaze fixes—would entrance us all. The study of politics, admitted by Aristotle not to be renderable through mathematics, has largely succumbed to this need, as has the study of history, which is increasingly embarrassed with “small N samples”—hence, in part, the turn to “social” history.

This habit of thought that demands precision wherever knowledge is sought has either coopted those disciplines where some precision is possible (the study of politics, of society, and of history) or pushed those other disciplines where it is not possible (the study of literature, and of theology) into the nether-space of personal taste or mere fancy.[12]

Making this problem of the relevance of the humanities even more challenging is what is supposedly happening on the other side of the lectern, in the synapses of the brains of our students. There, apparently, our thoughtful educational experts think it’s possible to discover “measurable outcomes,” which course surveys promise but never quite deliver. What is the “measurable outcome” of a fifteen-week course on Plato’s Republic, I wonder? How does a fifteen-week course on Rousseau, Tocqueville, Marx, Mill, and Nietzsche, which seeks to diagnose the existential malaise of the modern world, help students toward their career goals in a measurable way? When I ask those administrators at Georgetown who are fixated on “educational assessment” just how I might measure what students learn in these classes, they cannot help me, yet nevertheless insist that such measures are necessary. And I remember Aristotle and Tocqueville whom they have never read.

The desire for precise measurable outcomes is a serious problem faced by the humanities. It is a problem that confronts the observer of the humanities intent on answering the question, how is this sort of knowledge more or less useful than another sort of knowledge? However, there is an even more serious kind of problem that the participant in the humanities must face—namely, how are the books that are the objects of study to be read and taught? Here, too, I believe that Tocqueville’s thinking about the democratic age helps us understand the problem and, perhaps, how we might ameliorate it.

3. The Hermeneutic of Suspicion

The de-linked condition[13] of the democratic age not only facilitates the heightened sense of loneliness among us all, it also establishes the sovereignty of the individual in all matters of deliberation. What hold can the authority of others have on their understanding once this has occurred?

For Tocqueville, the situation during the aristocratic age was otherwise. In 1637, Rene Descartes wrote his now famous Discourse on Method, in which he dares to suggest that for knowledge to be trusted it must not be accounted as true if it rests on the foundation of custom or the authority of others. One of the philosophical harbingers to the democratic age, Tocqueville noted that the Americans are Cartesian without even having read him. As he puts it:

To escape from the spirit of system, from the yoke of habit, from family maxims, from class opinions, and, up to a certain point, from national prejudices; to take tradition only as information, and current facts only as useful study for doing things otherwise and better: these are the principle features that characterize what I shall call the philosophic method of the Americans.[14]

Most but not all of our students intuitively adopt this democratic mode of understanding, if such a term can be used. They instinctively recoil at the notion that an idea should be taken seriously because of the authority of the name associated with it. Especially in America, the prevailing notion is that the political philosophers I have my students read have no authority whatsoever over them. Doubtful, therefore, that there can be such a thing as a Western canon, they are reflexively disposed to approach the books we read with a hermeneutic of suspicion, as it has been called.

The term “hermeneutic of suspicion” may have emerged within the tradition of postmodern thought, but in Tocqueville’s idiom, it names the democratic prejudice about authority. Doubtful that anyone can really teach them anything they have not already discovered by their own lights, our students are ill-disposed to patiently entertain the finally unprovable wagers all great philosophers make concerning the world, its wellsprings, and how we must, accordingly, live.

There is something salutary about this hermeneutic of suspicion. It draws us out of the complacency that can easily befall us if we accept an idea on the basis authority alone. Moreover, because the democratic age summons everyone to become their own arbiter in nearly all matters, it is inevitable that a hermeneutic of suspicion should have the place that it does in our educational institutions today. “Critical thinking” is everywhere, as it should be. At its best this encourages the development of our faculties, and contributes to the formation of that most precious and rare gift: an authorial voice.

4. The Hermeneutic of Deference

I do not think, however, that education worthy of the name can be achieved by the hermeneutic of suspicion alone. And, I will submit here, the humanities are in trouble in no small part because they have bet the farm on the hermeneutic of suspicion.

When suspicion is the singular principle of education, the result, unintended to be sure, is a collapse into solipsism that is no less debilitating than the complacency that blind reverence can produce. Education worthy of the name surely cannot involve a blanket dismissal of ideas because of where or when they emerged, or because of the predicates—race, class, gender, identity, historical moment of production―that adhere to the people who held them. Yet today, that judgment has been definitively made by a vast number of students who have been nourished exclusively by the hermeneutic of suspicion. Convinced that they have found a reason to dismiss much of what has been written in the past, many of my students on our campuses think of their philosophy courses as they would a visit to a mausoleum. They wonder why the books they read should have been declared monuments—and by whom and under what authority. They wish to live among the living whom they think can neither be indebted to nor be overshadowed by the dead.

I do not think, however, that this is all that can be said about our students. They are restless and they hunger for nourishment they cannot yet name. In the democratic age, each generation is bound to look at its predecessor as an archaism, and to revel in the novelties it has discovered and by which it has been captivated. This does not eradicate the restlessness or the hunger.

It would be futile, of course, to declare to our students that canonical texts should be read because through the study of the depth and breadth of their civilizational legacy, their restlessness can be quieted and their hunger sated; no one believes in declarations anymore. In their experience of restlessness and hunger, however, we—their teachers in the humanities―are provided the opportunity to offer them this gentle intimation and wager: through a reverential encounter with certain books to which we continue to return for guidance and provocation, their experience of restlessness and hunger can be given form, named and nourished.

For this wager of ours to be evaluated by our students, the hermeneutic of suspicion must be momentarily suspended. In its place must be enthroned a dangerous maybe–maybe the canonical authors can provide them with a way to understand themselves that currently evades them. That dangerous maybe I term the “hermeneutic of deference.” Might the canonicals author, we must ask, have understood a great deal more than our students accredit to them? Might the teacher of the humanities be singularly able to elicit from students the recognition that without the books of which we are custodians, they have, in fact, been feasting on crumbs?

I do not doubt that this type of education is a rare achievement, not least because it asks of both teacher and student that they be guided by both the hermeneutic of suspicion and the hermeneutic of deference. While I cannot prove it, I suspect, nevertheless, that such a non-parsimonious education is more necessary for self-governance than is often imagined. In the democratic age, we too easily drop off into solitude. We sense ourselves to be cut off and alone, and without a basis for communion with our neighbors, with nature, with the generations that come before and after us, and even with ourselves. A hermeneutic of suspicion will always slip naturally into our thoughts. A hermeneutic of deference will invariably be an afterthought, so to speak, which takes hold only in the aftermath of the discovery that what we have in the way of our own opinions and what we have been given by the popular culture around us cannot satisfy our hunger. That our hunger can be ameliorated, even if not completely sated, by feasting at the table that canonical authors set for us seems horribly out of date with the times. I dare say, however, that that ought to be the wager of every educator in the humanities, and one of the most important tasks set for institutions of higher education in the democratic age.

5. Higher Certification and other Hazards

I have suggested that most of our students are reluctant to adopt a hermeneutic of deference because they think they must “judge the world” for themselves; that is true. There is another reason as well:

As men become more alike and the principle of equality penetrates more peacefully and more deeply into institutions and mores, the rules of advancement become more inflexible and advancement slower; the difficulty of quickly reaching a certain degree of greatness increases. By hatred of privilege and embarrassment over choosing, one comes to compel all men, whatever their stature might be, to pass through the same filter, and one subjects them all indiscriminately to a multitude of little preliminary exercises in the midst of which their youth is lost and their imagination extinguished.[15]

These rather prescient remarks by Tocqueville have been confirmed by developments in higher education over the last generation. Indeed, it is tempting to say that what occurs in our many of our universities nowadays amounts less to higher education than to Higher Certification, perhaps even Higher Stupefaction. The amount of coursework required is often staggering, and reflects political bargains struck among faculty constituencies rather than an overarching consensus about the kind of democratic citizens our colleges should aspire to graduate. It is not unusual for students to take five and even six courses a semester, many of them mind-numbing prerequisites that train them to flirt with ideas but not fall in love with them. Barely able to discuss an idea let alone write about one in depth or with coherence, the tests our students take are, as I mentioned earlier, more and more geared to “measurable outcomes,” which overthrows an older if never fully realizing understanding of the labor teachers in the humanities are called to perform, namely, mentor and midwife. This relationship now almost fully undercut, if students are anxious, searching, and unsure of their bearings, they head over to that corner of the campus reserved for “counseling” rather than to their professor’s office—where in the not-too-distant past at least some of their “problems” might have been treated in light of the range of insights the canonical authors would have offered about them. Only recently has the human psyche been claimed as the exclusive domain and prerogative of psychology and neuroscience. Armed only with the hermeneutic of suspicion, I doubt the humanities will ever be able to claw back the territory it once held.

To these immense constraints in, and modifications of, college life should be added the proliferation of “service-learning” and extra-curricular activities, which further distract students from grappling with ideas in the classroom even while they fill out their resumes with yet another line item. Too hindered by never-ending requirements and too frightened that their resume will be one line shorter than the student sitting next to them, there should be little wonder that students think of university life in terms of certification rather than education, or that most of them graduate without having the good opinion of their suspicion tempered by a breathtaking encounter with a seminal idea that reconfigures their understanding of their own experience.

There is more. In the democratic age, university education comes to be thought of as a universal right. As more and more students are accommodated and “forced through the same filter,” the bond between teacher and student must of necessity be weakened, and the art of reforming character through education nearly abandoned. In order to facilitate this new situation, the older classroom–which required only important books, desks, chairs, blackboards, professors and students—is being replaced by an impoverished but immensely more expensive high-tech, virtual, online and remote “learning environment,” the cost of which is ultimately borne by mind-boggling student loan debt and federal funds that behold colleges to national government in unsavory ways as never before. This cannot end well.

There is a third reason why our students are reluctant to adopt a hermeneutic of deference. During the last half-century or so, there has been a tectonic shift in the way history has been taught. A perusal of the course offerings at most colleges will reveal scarcely a course about the singular actions of “great men” and a great many courses about social history—notably “race,” “class,” and “gender.” In the aristocratic age, the task of the historian was to provide exemplars for human conduct, as would be expected in an age when human beings looked to the past for models of action, commerce, beauty, and piety. In the democratic age, when each person becomes small and the body social looms large, a different kind of history gets written.

In reading the historians of aristocratic ages and particularly those of antiquity, it seems that to become master of his fate and to govern those like him, a man has only to know how to subdue himself. In running through the history written in our own time, one can say that man can do nothing either about himself or his surroundings. Historians of antiquity instruct on how to command; those of our day hardly teach anything other than how to obey. In their writings, the author often appears great, but humanity is always small.[16]

Tocqueville did not think it inappropriate to attend to social history; he did think, however, that over-emphasizing it in the democratic age taught a dangerous moral lesson to students, namely, that no single person armed with clarity of mind and formidable character, can alter the course of history. Habituated by the mode of history-telling that pays little attention to individual greatness, the very idea of adopting a hermeneutic of deference seems quite odd. Today, our students believe that the world is animated wholly by social forces. How might an in-depth and patient study of a canonical author’s ideas, which would also require a hermeneutic of deference, possibly benefit them? The hermeneutic of suspicion that comes so naturally to their imagination is in some measure a consequence of the inevitable prejudice about social forces in the democratic age. It is therefore very difficult to counter-balance. We do not serve our students well, however, if we take our task to be to reinforce the habit of mind they already largely know by heart.

6. A Deeper Kind of Inquiry: Placing the Humanities in the Twenty-First Century

What of the twenty-first century, and of the fate of political theory, and the humanities, in this global age? Can universities around the world, very old ones and very new ones, produce thoughtful undergraduates, who are able to think both critically and deferentially? Here, I think it important to start from the common observation of the growing tensions around the world, and the intuition so many of us have that liberalism is not going to triumph in an easy way, or perhaps even at all. The blur of daily events in the Middle East alone, not to mention elsewhere, often fogs the mind; and when we are not “[seeking] a refuge under a little wall from a storm of dust and hail driven by the wind,”[17] the terms that immediately come to mind to explain that daily blur generally coalesce around what can loosely be called nineteenth-century liberal triumphalism, on the one hand, and twentieth-century post-colonial indignation, on the other. The one is unmindful of the intransigent fact that liberty is not the meta-narrative of the Middle East and elsewhere; the other, professing to support the indigenous peoples there with a clean conscience, adopts European anti-modern tropes in order to defend them. In short, the analyses rely on ideas that emerge over the period of the two-century wound that is European colonialism, but go no further. Even when purportedly pure Islamic thought in the Middle East is brought forth, it is, I venture to say, suffused with and overwhelmed by European anti-modern tropes. In sum, the terms of the debate are as one-sided as was colonialism itself.

Much more is needed. My discussions with administrators, teachers, fathers and mothers in the Middle East and elsewhere has convinced me that while they know their institutions of higher education must be reformed, they are also frightened by the prospect that their sons and daughters, like ours in America, may very well acquire knowledge that can be “measured,” but that such knowledge will contribute little to their understanding of the civilization that is their inheritance, and which will guide them either in secret, because they have remained unreflective about their own formation, or expressly, if through their education they have become more reflective than they otherwise would have been. Absent this undertaking, they will lack the fluency needed to grasp the wagers made by the canonical authors who formulated the range of understandings that constitute their own inheritance and those of members of other civilizations. How is understanding between the different peoples of the world even possible without this fluency?

We flatter ourselves to say that ours is the first global century. There is, nevertheless, an urgent need for us to begin a global conversation that neither starts from the pretense that there is a “universal human discourse” nor from a supposition that reifies civilizations or groups within them into sacrosanct and impervious “identities.” Beyond the blur of events, beyond the well-worked-out oppositions between liberal triumphalism and post-colonial indignation, lies a third alternative, still without a name, that might be called comparative canonical inquiry, which seeks to return to the origins of all durable civilizations and trace their development through the great ideas, often at odds with one another, that are registered in their respective canons. Developing this sort of inquiry, I take to be the most important task for political theory and the humanities as a whole in the twenty-first century.

My students in the Middle East are right to ask me why I only teach the canonical authors from the West. I tell them that I have spent a lifetime trying to understand why and how those authors may be still important for us, and that I am able to take them that far but no further. I can, nevertheless, imagine a day when a generation of scholars with a deep and reverential knowledge of their own inheritance sets itself the noble goal of placing before students around the world the great ideas that have shaped civilizations—not in the form of taste-testing survey courses, which make all such ideas seem unpalatable, but in the form of an extended feast, which demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt why those ideas have nourished the minds and hearts of generation after generation. “Variety is disappearing from within the human species,”[18] Tocqueville wrote, with alarm. Commerce and trade can hasten its disappearance; memory and habit fortify the variety that remains. I suspect that only something like comparative canonical inquiry can provide a foundation substantial enough for members of different civilizations on which to stand and engage in the kinds of conversations that will be required if we are to greet each other under the banner of hospitality during the rest of this already troubled century and beyond. In the Middle East and elsewhere, a curriculum that includes canonical authors from its several overlapping civilizations can move students beyond the borders of thought established by the historically provincial antinomies of liberal triumphalism and post-colonial thought. In the safety of this more ambitious classroom, students can find their way to ideas that they might finally call their own, through a communion with canonical authors who give them reason to believe that they must make a longer journey if they are to find a viable antidote to the solitary, de-linked condition of the democratic age—one that takes them back much farther than the last two centuries. By virtue of the sentiments and habits that already vie for the right to rule in the minds of millions of Middle Eastern students and others around the globe (elicited as they have been by “social media,” mobile phones and text messaging), an education of the capacious sort to which I have pointed is well-suited for a generation in search of a voice it cannot yet find.

In this new global situation, the pertinent question seems less to be whether the inner logic of modernity led to the catastrophe of the Great Wars in Europe than whether the fragile institutions and self-understandings now pervasive in nearly every nation in the world need something more substantial to undergird them than the veneer of modernity that forms their façade but often goes no deeper. Comparative canonical inquiry, I suggest, can contribute to the sorely needed conversation about the range of the durable self-understandings within civilizational domains—a conversation desperately needed, not least to alert us to the fact that no consensus about “global values” is possible at the moment and, in fact, may never be. The field of political theory is, I suggest, better served―and better serves―with this new question firmly in mind.

Notwithstanding the importance of this subfield-reconfiguring formulation of the challenge of the twenty-first century, are there reasons for political theory to stay where it is inside departments of political science, increasingly disregarded as might be expected in an arranged marriage? For many political theorists―I am still among them―it remains self-evident that canonical authors pose the initial questions and provide the categories which alone make interesting work in political science possible. A generation or two ago, political scientists—comprehensively exposed to the canon as undergraduates and further disciplined by it as graduate students―also understood this service political theory provided. Undergraduate programs around the country have, however, slowly left the business of citizen formation through an exposure to the canon. Pressed to graduate and certify the next generation of guild members, PhD programs also have pushed politically theory into the background. Each time faculty members turn in their meetings to a discussion of the dreaded “political theory requirement,” eloquent but uneasy political theorists appeal to their colleagues—less to vindicate the requirement than to ask for leniency—for they know in advance that members of the other subfields (American government, comparative politics, and international relations) no longer believe that political theory offers anything of value to the graduate students in their subfield. Are not the parameters of the questions their students must address already established by “the literature,” these members wonder? Why return to primary sources at all, especially when there is so little time to learn about “the literature” of their subfield anyway? And so, year follows year, and one by one the number of required graduate level political theory courses diminishes. Conjoin this with the factors I identified earlier that conspire against political theory—the desire for precision and the need for parsimonious knowledge—and we come to the current impasse.

My unembarrassed proposal, then, is that political scientists be granted the divorce they truly wish. I suspect that they will soon enough suffer the same fate the discipline of sociology did when, in the 1980s, unsure of themselves because they were not a natural science, sociologists largely abandoned their rich and fertile nineteenth century canon in exchange for rational choice theory. Now a faint echo of its former self, sociology wanders in the dark, hobbled and unable to formulate interesting questions because it is unable to draw from the wellspring of the canonical authors it has repudiated.

Where, then, would political theory find a home? Here, I think the emergence of the regional and areas studies programs in the 1960s is instructive. Developed not because the internal logic of any extant discipline entailed them, but rather because the burden of America’s new super-power status after the Second World War required them, regional and areas studies programs flowered in American universities for a generation before they began to whither―in part, because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and, in part, because of the discomfort over the “naked singularities,”[19] so to speak, many of them had become.

Notwithstanding the eventual demise of area and regional studies programs, the insight that bears on our question is that changing geo-political circumstances can and do alter the organization of the American university. Now well into the twenty-first century, and in the aftermath of the sober realization that the End of History has not brought about the consensus that was once imagined,[20] a new geo-political moment is already being recognized by American universities, and resources pressed into service to respond to it.

From abroad, driven by vanity or by more far-sighted self-interest, ministries of higher education are seeking to facilitating partnerships with American universities―some prominent examples include, Yale in Singapore, New York University in Abu Dhabi, and Georgetown in the multi-university Education City complex in Doha. These partnerships prompt the American parties to ponder the scope of higher education in a global setting. I suspect that it will only be a matter of time before curriculum revisions on their home campuses follow upon those reflections.

From within American universities, animated by the egalitarian tropes of “diversity,” “toleration,” and “inclusiveness,” among others, which have captivated the imagination of most campuses for more than a generation, it is easy to imagine the call to broaden the mix of courses offered, so as to deepen the knowledge our students have of other civilizational domains. What is not easy to imagine is how those animated by these egalitarian tropes will respond when they discover that a not-insubstantial number of students from other civilizational domains do not believe in those egalitarian tropes at all—that they view them as elite American parochialisms rather than truths that are self-evident. What then?

That matter, however, is for another day. What remains, after recognizing the forces from abroad and within American universities that invite the development of a new and comprehensive forum to accommodate it, is to suggest what it might be called and what it might include. I have already suggested a name, comparative canonical inquiry. The enterprise should include political theory, but not only that; for the challenge of civilizational understanding cannot involve but one cross-section of the understandings that different civilizations have produced. Beyond political theory, there will be a need, as well, for those other humanities discipline that have, as I suggested earlier, become increasingly relegated to the realm of fancy–literature, the arts, theology, philosophy, intellectual history, etc.

I include these, however, with one very important caveat: comparative canonical inquiry cannot be based on the hermeneutic of suspicion alone. “Critical thinking” by itself can tear down, but it cannot build up. Comparative canonical inquiry must also begin from the recognition that there are reasons why our different civilizational inheritances, often working at cross-purposes, have endured. Those involved in the enterprise must understand that its purpose is also to wonder aloud together in the safety of the classroom, whether in the fragile twenty-first century setting in which we find ourselves, there are ideas and understandings that can and should be retrieved, not with a view to making them small and excoriating their authors, but with a view to the question of how such ideas and authors may better help us live together, now and in the future.

The subfield of political theory can stay where it is and slowly whither. The humanities can continue to bet the farm on the hermeneutic of suspicion. Alternatively, under the rubric of comparative canonical inquiry, they can together find their voice anew, in response to the geo-political moment that now challenges us all to step forward.


  1. The term comes from Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. I, Introduction, §12 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973). Tillich meant by the term the necessary movement back-and-forth between the existential questions posed by man and the theological answers offered to them by Scripture. I use the term to suggest the necessary movement back-and-forth between existential questions posed by political crises and answers offered by the canonical texts.
  2. Perhaps the most important book to emerge around this event is Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). More a work of political science than of political theory, the silent figure from the canon who informs Putnam’s thinking is Alexis de Tocqueville.
  3. The notable exception is Michael Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). In the aftermath of 2001, the terms of the debate about Islamic “fundamentalism” often involved an opposition between the secular West and a religious Middle East. Gillespie argues that the so-called secular West emerges out of theological ruminations within Christendom.
  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Walter Kaufmann trans. (New York: Random House, 1966), Part Six, §§204-13, pp. 121-41.
  5. See Plato, Republic, Sterling and Scott trans. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1985), Bk. VI, 495d-496a, p. 185.
  6. See Michael Polanyi, Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).
  7. See Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Edwin Cannan ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), Vol. I, Bk. I, Ch. 1, pp. 3-4.
  8. ―And they will be textbooks, not original sources. Through textbooks, extracts from canonical works can be chosen to fit the narrative that an editor chooses and the inconveniences that reading an entire work display can be overlooked. Only by reading complete original sources can narrative overreach be circumvented.
  9. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, W. D. Ross trans., in The Complete Works of Aristotle, Jonathan Barnes ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984, Bk. I, Ch. 3, 1094b, p. 1730.
  10. Plato suggests there are five types of souls: the aristocratic soul, oriented by reason; the timocratic soul, oriented by honor; the oligarchic soul, oriented by gold; the democratic soul, oriented by freedom; and the tyrannical soul, oriented by power. In the Republic, it is Thrasymachus, the tyrannical soul, who is most emphatic about the need for precision. See Plato, Republic, Bk. I, 337d: “So now say what you think justice is. Say it with clarity and precision, and spare us your ponderous analogies…”
  11. See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, J. P. Mayer ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), Appendix I.Y, pp. 734-35.
  12. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by Arthur Krystal (see suggests that in order that the humanities not be relegated to fancy, some of its practitioners are turning to neuroscience.
  13. See Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part II, Ch. 2, p. 508: “Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link.”
  14. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part I, Ch. 1, p. 429.
  15. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part III, Ch. 19, p. 630.
  16. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part I, Ch. 20, p. 496.
  17. Plato, Republic, Bk. VI, 496d, p. 186.
  18. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part III, Ch. 17, p. 615.
  19. Here I use the term in the way physicists might, to indicate a place wholly unto itself, suspended and independent of the understandings that obtain elsewhere.
  20. See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Penguin Books, 1992).


Aristotle. 1984. “Nicomachean Ethics.” In The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1966. Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House.

Plato. 1985. The Republic. Translated by Richard W. Sterling and William C. Scott. 1st ed. New York: Norton.

Polanyi, Michael. 1975. Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Putnam, Robert D. 1994. Making Democracy Work Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Smith, Adam. 1976. The Wealth of Nations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tillich, Paul. 1967. Systematic Theology. 3 vols. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1969. Democracy in America. New York: Harper & Row.

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