This lecture was delivered at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum on April 24, 1983, published in The Objectivist Forum in October – December 1983 and anthologized in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought in 1989.
Intellectuals around the world generally take a certain pride, whether deserved or not, in their own countries’ achievements and traditions. When they lash out at some group, it is not their nation, but some villain allegedly threatening it, such as the rich, the Jews, or the West. This pattern is true of Canada, from which I originally came, and it is true to my knowledge of England, France, Germany, Russia, China. But it is not true of America. One of the most striking things I observed when I first came here was the disapproval, the resentment, even the hatred of America, of the country as such and of most things American, which is displayed by American intellectuals; it is especially evident among professors in the humanities and social sciences, whom I came to know the best.
Typically these professors regard the American political system, capitalism, as barbaric, anachronistic, selfish. They tell their classes that the American past is a record of brutal injustice, whether to the poor, or to the Third World, or to the fish, or to the ethnic group of the moment. They describe the American people as materialistic, insensitive, racist. They seem to regard most things European or Oriental or even primitive as interesting, cultured, potentially deep, and anything characteristically American — from rugged individualism to moon landings to tap dancing to hamburgers — as junk, as superficial, vulgar, philistine. When the New Left, taught by these same professors, erupted a while back, the student rebels expressed their philosophy by desecrating the American flag — blowing their noses in it, or using it to patch the seat of their pants. I do not know another country in which anti-patriotism has ever on such a scale been the symbol of an ideology.
It happened here because America at root is an ideology. America is the only country in history created not by meaningless warfare or geographical accident, but deliberately, on the basis of certain fundamental ideas. The founding fathers explicitly championed a certain philosophy, which they made the basis of America’s distinctive political institutions and national character, and that philosophy to some extent survives among the citizens to this day. That is why the professors I mentioned can feel at home and at peace anywhere else in the world, but not here: the fundamental ideas of the founding fathers are anathema to today’s intellectuals.
The war against America mentioned in the title of my talk is not a political or anticapitalist war as such; that is merely a result, a last consequence. The war I want to discuss is deeper: it is the assault against the founding philosophy of this country that is now being conducted by our universities. This war is being conducted not only by radicals and by leftists, but also by most of the mainstream, respectable moderates on the faculties. There are exceptions; there are professors still carrying on some traditions from a better era. But these men are not a power in our colleges, merely a remnant of the past that has not yet fully died out.
The basic philosophic credo of the United States was eloquently stated two centuries ago by Elihu Palmer, a spokesman of the revolutionary era. “The strength of the human understanding,” he wrote, “is incalculable, its keenness of discernment would ultimately penetrate into every part of nature, were it permitted to operate with uncontrolled and unqualified freedom.’’ At last, he says, men have escaped from the mind-destroying ideas of the Middle Ages; they have grasped “the unlimited power of human reason,” “reason, which is the glory of our nature.” Now, he says, men should feel “an unqualified confidence” in their mental powers and energy, and they should proceed to remake the world accordingly. 1 Principles of Nature (New York: 1801); excerpted in Ideas in America, ed. by G.N. Grob and R. N. Beck (Free Press: 1970), pp. 81 –84.
Such was the basic approach of the men who threw off the shackles of a despotic past and built this nation.
Now let me quote, more or less at random, from some modern college teachers. In preparation for this talk, I asked Objectivists around the country to tell me what they are being taught in college on basic issues. I received a flood of eloquent mail and clippings, for which I am very grateful, and I would like to share some of it with you.
First, an excerpt from a textbook on The Craft of Writing prepared by some professors of rhetoric at Berkeley:
“What do Plato’s opinions, or any other writer’s opinions we might choose to study, have to do with learning to write? Everything. Before anything good can come out of writing, the students must at least sense the presuppositions of the writer in his civilization. And the first presupposition is this: we do not really know, surely and indubitably, the answer to any important question. Other cultures know such answers, or think they do, and writing is consequently a very different experience for them. But we, collectively, do not. . . . It would be very comfortable to be able to act upon the basis of immutable truth, but it is not available to us.’’ 2 W.J. Brandt, R. Beloof, L. Nathan, and C.E. Selph (Prentice Hall: 1969), p. 23. Note here the statement of pure skepticism: truth or knowledge is not available to us — offered as a flat statement, uncontroversial, even self-evident.
Next I quote from The Washington Post, from a story about a symposium held at Catholic University, dealing with Galileo’s intransigent defense of his beliefs against the Inquisition. At one point, a prominent Harvard astronomer made an offhand comment contrasting Galileo’s attitude toward scientific beliefs with that of modern scientists. “Today in science,” the professor said, “there is no ‘belief’ as such, only probability.”
A man in the audience, visibly emotional, stood up [the story continues]. “I cannot credit it. I cannot believe you would say” that scientists do not really “believe” in the objects they study. . . . “Do you really think it’s possible that [astronomical science] is all wrong?” he demanded. Yes,” said [the astronomer]. “It is possible.”
We cannot, he went on, know that there are atoms or what stars are. The reporter then summarizes the astronomer’s conclusion:
Scientists now cannot fail to remember that absolute reality collapsed just after the turn of the century, with Einstein. . . . Since then, one simply cannot speak of certainties, of what is real and what is not. “I cannot believe it,” muttered the man in the audience as he sat down. 3 Philip J. Hilts, “Caught Between Faith and Fact,” Sept. 26, 1982, p. H1.
He better believe it. This viewpoint is standard today; the latest scientific discoveries, we are told regularly, invalidate everything we thought we once knew, and prove that reality is inaccessible to our minds. If so, one might ask, what is it that scientists are studying? If we can know nothing, how did Einstein arrive at his discoveries and how do we know that they are right? And if certainty is unattainable and inconceivable, how can we decide how close we are to it, which is what a probability estimate is? But it is no use asking such questions, because the cause of modern skepticism is not Einstein or any scientific discoveries.
Now let me tell you about another incident. One Objectivist undergraduate at Columbia University wrote, for a composition course, a research paper presenting the founding fathers’ view of reason. The paper was sympathetic to the founding fathers’ view, though not explicitly so. The teacher several times put question marks beside phrases that bothered her (e.g., beside “facts of reality”) or wrote marginal comments such as “Do you really believe this?” At the end, she summed up: “The paper is very well written. . . . It’s difficult for me to see how we can write about ‘reason’ without the nineteenth century’s sad discovery in mind — that . . . [the belief that] reason will help us get better and better meant naiveté in many senses. Let’s discuss.” In the discussion, the student told me, the teacher said that the nineteenth century had established the inability of reason to know reality. Freud in particular, she said, had refuted the founding fathers. “He showed that man is really an irrational creature, and that the Enlightenment idea that all our problems can be solved by reason is quite unjustified.” 4 College Composition I, F1101 Y:01, Spring 1980. In cases such as this, to protect the privacy of students, I am citing only the course number and/or year (when known to me).
The founding fathers, as thinkers of the Enlightenment era, championed the power of man’s unaided intellect. It was on this basis, after centuries of European tyranny, that they urged the right to liberty, which was the right of each man to rely in action on his own mind’s judgment. They upheld this right because they believed that the human mind is reliable — that, properly employed, it can reach a knowledge of reality and give the individual the guidance he needs to live. The individual, they held, does not have to submit blindly to any authority, whether church or state, because he has within himself a brilliant and potent cognitive tool to direct him. That tool is the power of reason, the “only oracle” he needs — “oracle” in the sense of a source of absolute, objective truth.
There is no such truth, said the antipode and destroyer of the founding fathers’ legacy. I mean the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant is the basic cause of the modern anti-reason trend. He is the man who, two hundred years ago, launched an unprecedented attack on the power of the human mind, declared that reason is in principle incapable of knowing reality, and thereby put an end to the Enlightenment. Freud was merely one of his many heirs, as are the modern skeptics who distort Einstein’s findings to rationalize their viewpoint, as are the rhetoric professors at Berkeley and all their like-minded colleagues. In countless forms, Kant’s rejection of reason is at the root of our modern colleges.
Question, debate, dispute — the founding fathers urged men — because by this means you will reach answers to your questions and discover how to act. Question, debate, dispute — our Kantianized faculty urges today — not to find the answers, but to discover that there aren’t any, that there is no source of truth and no guide to action, that the Enlightenment viewpoint was merely a comfortable superstition or a naiveté. Come to college, they say, and we’ll cure you of that superstition for life. Which, unfortunately, they often do. “On the first day of classes,” a student from Kent State University in Ohio wrote me, “my English professor said the purpose of college is to take a high school graduate who’s sure of himself and make him confused.”
“Kent fulfills that objective perfectly,” the writer adds, not only in its insistent pro-skepticism propaganda, but also in its very method of presenting the course material. “Its courses are a hodgepodge of random and contradictory information that can’t possibly be integrated into a consistent whole, and one of the first things it teaches its students is not to bother to try. The typical Kent graduate leaves the school feeling bewildered . . . vaguely pleased that his bewilderment must mean he came out of college smarter than when he went in, and vaguely displeased that his enlightened confusion hasn’t made him happier than it has.’’ 5 Fall 1969. This is an exact description of many current graduates, and unfortunately not only in Ohio. That English professor’s statement of the purpose of college was not a wisecrack; it was meant, and practiced, as a serious pedagogical principle. We have reached a variant of the inverted slogans of Orwell’s 1984: the claim to knowledge, we are being taught, betrays ignorance. Knowledge is Ignorance, but Confusion is Enlightenment. That is what you can hope to achieve after tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and four years of study and agonizing term papers — a B.C. degree, Bachelor of Confusion.
If no one can know the truth, you might ask, why are these professors bothering to pursue their subjects at all? Some claim to be attaining probability, by unspecified means. But some are more modern and more frank. Here is another teacher from Columbia, this time from the Graduate School of Business, who offers a course entitled “Individual and Collective Behavior.” According to one of his students, this teacher stated in class “that psychological theories cannot be proved. He added that this was a good thing, since it provided scope for further research.” 6 B9706, sec. 101, Spring 1982.
Do you follow the reasoning here? If we could prove a psychological theory, that would eliminate a whole area of research; there would be no need to investigate that particular question, because we would already have established the answer. On the other hand, if we can never know, we can go on looking forever, with no ugly barriers, such as knowledge, to stand in the way. But why then look? Why is research good if we never prove anything by it? Obviously, it is an end in itself. One does research in order to get research grants from the government, in order to write papers and get promotions so that other researchers can attack one’s papers and thereby get more grants to finance more research for more studies, forever; with a voluminous literature on the weirdest, most senseless subjects pouring out, which everyone must study and no one can keep up with or integrate, and with everyone agreeing that none of it proves anything — all of it a giant academic con game divorced from cognition, from human life, from reality. Such is the nature of research under the reign of skepticism.
No one, however, can be a consistent skeptic; a man devoid of all knowledge would be like a newborn baby, unable to act or function at all. Despite their viewpoint, therefore, skeptics have to find something to rely on and follow as a guide, and what most of them choose to follow ultimately is: the opinion of others, the group, society.
Kant gave this approach a complex philosophic defense. There are, he says, two realities. There is reality as it is in itself, which is unknowable. And there is the reality we live in and deal with, the physical world, which, he says, mankind itself creates; the physical world, he says, is created by subjective but universal mechanisms inherent in the human mind. An idea that is merely the product of an individual brain, in this view, may or may not be acceptable; but an idea universal to the mind of the species can necessarily be relied on, because that defines reality for us; that is what creates reality, at least our private, subjective, human reality. Under all its complexities and qualifications (and there are mountains of them) this doctrine amounts to saying: the individual’s mind is helpless, but the group, mankind, is cognitively all-powerful. If mankind collectively thinks in terms of a certain idea, that is truth, not the objective, real truth, of course, we can’t know that; but subjective, human truth, which is the only truth we can know.
The founding fathers, being champions of reason, were champions of the individual. Reason, they held, is an attribute of each man alone, by himself; the power of the mind means the power of the individual. With today’s anti-reason trend, however, such individualism simply disappears. In our colleges today, therefore, alongside Kant’s skepticism about true reality, there is also the other element of Kant, the one systematically promoted by Hegel and Marx: the exaltation of the social. The student gets a powerful double message: you can’t know anything, there is no certainty—and: society knows, you must adapt to its beliefs, who are you to question the consensus?
Here is an example of the second from a psychology textbook written by a professor at the University of North Carolina. Let me preface this by saying that philosophers before Kant used to distinguish two sources of knowledge: experience (which led to empirical knowledge) and reason (rational knowledge). These two were conceived, with whatever errors, as capacities of the individual enabling him to reach truth. Now here are the new, Kantian definitions. “Empirical knowledge is the agreement in reports of repeated observations made by two or more persons. Rational knowledge is the agreement in results of problem solving by two or more persons.’’ 7 William S. Ray, The Science of Psychology (Macmillan: 1964), p. 5. In other words: the genus of knowledge is agreement; the fundamental of knowledge is a social consideration, not the relationship of your mind to reality, but to other men. The individual by himself, on a desert island, cannot learn, he is cut off from the possibility of any knowledge, because he cannot tabulate agreement or disagreement. Empirical observation is not using your eyes, but taking a Gallup poll of others’ reports on their eyes. Rational knowledge is not achieved by your brain grasping a logical argument; it is “agreement in results of problem solving” — and if men happen not to agree, for whatever reason or lack of reason, then there is no rational knowledge. This is nothing less than public ownership of the means of cognition, which, as Ayn Rand observed, is what underlies the notion of public ownership of the means of production.
If you want to see both Kantian elements — skepticism and the worship of the social — come together, consider the field of history today. Here is an excerpt from a course description at the University of Indiana (Bloomington); the course is titled “Freedom and the Historian.”
History is made by the historian. Each generation of historians reinterprets the past in the light of its own historical experience and values. . . . There can be thus no one definitive history of Alexander and no one historical truth about the fall of the Roman Empire. . . . There have been as many concepts of history, as many views of historical truth, as there have been cultures. 8 Course number H300, cross-listed as History K492, sec. 2856; date unknown.
The skeptical theme here is clear — there is “no one definitive history,” “no one historical truth.” An old-fashioned person, even of a skeptic mentality, would react: “Well, then, let’s close down the field, if we can’t know the truth.” But not the moderns. We can’t know the real truth, they say, but we can know the subjective truth that we ourselves create. “History is made by the historian.” If there is a consensus of historians, therefore, their viewpoint is valid and worth studying, for that time and culture. As in Kant, there are two realities: the real past (unknowable), and the private past each generation creates, its own subjective historical truth. Notice that in this viewpoint the historian is at once helpless and omnipotent: he can know nothing really; but on the other hand he is the creator of history, of the history that we can know, and so he is an unchallengeable authority. If any student disagrees with the fraternity of historians, therefore, he has no chance. On the one side, he hears: “Who are you to know? There are no definitive facts.” On the other, he hears: “History is made by the historian. Who are you to question it?”
Observe what people allow themselves when hiding behind a group. If the author of that course description were to say: “History is made by me,” he would be dismissed as a paranoid personality. But when he says it collectively: “History is made by us, by our guild, by historians,” that is acceptable. This is the Kantian exaltation of the social.
There is a further development of Kant’s approach beckoning here. Why, historians soon began to ask, should the social authority be universal? Why can’t there be many groups of historians, each creating history in accordance with its own mental structure, each version being true for that group though not for the others? Why, in effect, shouldn’t we be democratic and let every collective into the act? The result of this line of thinking is pressure-group history, a pluralization of the Kantian approach, in which every group rewrites the past according to its own predilections, and every group’s views are deemed to be as valid (or invalid) as every other group’s. To be progressive in history today means precisely this: it means to respect the rewriting of all the newest groups, especially if their spokesmen make no sense to you; that shows that you are open-minded, and are not trying to impose your group’s private views on others. To each his own subjectivism.
Is this an exaggeration? A prominent history professor at Stanford University, Carl Degler, recently made a plea for women’s history, explaining that history varies subjectively from men to women. He declared: “The real test of the success of affirmative action for women will come not by counting the number or proportion of women in a department or profession, but by the extent to which men . . . are willing to accept the new and peculiar interests of women as legitimate and serious, even when those interests are strikingly novel and perhaps even bizarre when compared with current acceptable work in a given field.’’ 9 “Women Approach History Differently — and Men Must Understand the Difference,” Stanford Observer, Oct., 1982, p. 2; reprinted from Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 15, 1982. Emphasis added. [Emphasis added.]
I once heard a feminist intellectual on television declare that the central fact of the ages is rape, and that the culmination of the historical process is the discovery of the clitoral orgasm, which has finally freed women from men. This is surely an approach to history which is “strikingly novel and even bizarre,’’ but we mustn’t be chauvinistic; history is made by historians, and if a certain group begins to push a certain line, and organizes into a new pressure-unit, that line becomes true, true for these people, as true as any other claim in a world where no one can really know anything. This is what I call Kantianized history.
The founding fathers, as men of the Enlightenment, were champions of dispassionate objectivity; any form of subjectivism, or of emotion-driven cognition, was considered reprehensible by them. The opposite is true today. If objectivity is not possible to man, as the Kantians hold, then in the end anything goes, including any kind of emotionalism; and the humanities and social sciences end up, not as academic disciplines teaching facts, but as the preserve of shifting lobbyists disseminating sheer propaganda, which is what is happening increasingly in our colleges.
History is merely one example of it. The field of anthropology offers another eloquent illustration. First we read, a few months ago, about the scandal of Margaret Mead. In her famous 1928 book Coming of Age in Samoa, Miss Mead presented an idyllic picture of life in Samoa. The natives, she claimed, were gentle, peaceful, open, devoid of jealousy, free of stress. It was Rousseau over again (the noble savage), and Miss Mead’s implicit moral was: the superiority of primitive culture over competitive, repressed Western society. Now, finally, a true scholar, Derek Freeman, an anthropologist from New Zealand, has set the record straight. After years of study in Samoa, he concluded that the Samoans [I quote The New York Times’s summary] “have high rates of homicide and assault, and the incidence of rape in Samoa is among the highest in the world. . . . [The Samoans] live within an authority system that regularly results in psychological disturbances ranging from compulsive behaviors to hysterical illnesses and suicide. They are extremely prone to fits of jealousy.” Etc. Miss Mead’s claims, in sum, “are fundamentally in error and some of them preposterously false.” 10 Edwin McDowell, “New Samoa Book Challenges Margaret Mead’s Conclusions,” Jan. 31, 1983, p. C21.
Judging by what one can gather from the press, anthropologists had known some of this for some time, but few had wanted to challenge Miss Mead publicly. Why not? Aside from a nature-nurture controversy that became involved here, two main reasons were operative, as far as I can make out.
One was the feeling that Miss Mead’s viewpoint — her endorsement of primitive society over Western civilization — is noble, moral, good. The second is a pervasive subjectivism, which makes a potential dissenter feel: “I can’t be sure, anybody can claim to prove or disprove anything, anthropology is whatever anthropologists say, why start a fight with a saint of the field for nothing?”
Now couple this episode with another recent scandal in anthropology. Did you read about the doctoral candidate from Stanford who, while studying in Red China, found that abortions were being forcibly performed on helpless women after the sixth month of pregnancy (when it is a dangerous, bloody practice), and who published this news in a Taiwanese weekly complete with photographs? The Chinese were furious, though the truth of his charges is not debated; and the Stanford Anthropology Department expelled the student from Stanford for unethical conduct — in effect, so far as one can decipher the department’s statements, for blowing the whistle on his host country, an allegedly unforgivable academic sin. As one radio talk-show host in New York, Barry Farber, asked rhetorically: can you imagine the Stanford Anthropology Department expelling a student for doing exactly the same thing in regard to South Africa, i.e., for publishing articles about that regime’s racial crimes? Such a student would have been treated as an academic hero.
The double standard involved in the two cases is appalling. One scholar, Margaret Mead, who condemns the West, becomes a revered figure for decades, even though her factual claims are dead wrong. Another, who prints the uncontested truth about a communist dictatorship, is expelled from his discipline. Is this fairness? Is this objectivity? Or is this the complete politicization of the field? But we must remember: the Kantians declare that there is no objectivity, and that truth is whatever the group wants it to be. In the social sciences today, the teachers do not leave much doubt about what they want it to be.
I must quote one further example of today’s subjectivist trend, simply to indicate to you how brazen it is becoming. A recent issue of The National Law Journal describes a new development in the teaching of law in our universities, a development sponsored by a Harvard law professor, a law professor from SUNY (Buffalo), a sociologist from the University of Pennsylvania, and many others. These men “agree that an objective legal mode of reasoning, distinguishable from the society where it is being applied and the people applying it and capable of yielding an inevitable result, does not exist; that law, by its mask of objectivity, functions chiefly to legitimize social and economic inequities in the eyes of the lower classes as a way of keeping them docile; that because democracy is a good and the law a shell, the goal is to found a government not by law but by people.” 11 Ben Gerson, “Professors for the Revolution,” Aug. 23, 1982, p. 10.
This statement is a union of Kant and Marx. Let me translate it. “There is no objective legal reasoning; law pretends to be objective, but really it is an instrument of the wealthy to keep the poor docile; law, in effect, is the opiate of the masses” — these are law professors speaking, mind you — “and our goal should be a system run not by law, but by people.” How are the people to govern themselves, if not by reference to an objective code of laws? How are they to settle their disputes and resolve conflicting claims? In this context, there is only one alternative to government by law: government by pressure group, i.e., by every sizable pack or tribe in the land struggling to seize control of the legislature and the courts, and then ramming its arbitrary desires down the throats of the rest, until they rebel and start ramming their desires, etc. — all of it a naked exercise in power politics, of group-eat-group, without the pretense of objectivity or justice.
One of the great achievements of Western civilization was the concept of a society in which men are not left helplessly at the mercy of clashing groups, but can resolve disputes fairly, as individuals, by reference to impersonal principle. This is what used to be called a government of laws and not of men. Today we have the frightening spectacle of law professors telling us that what we need is a government of men and not of laws. If this school needs a name, it should call itself “Lawyers for Gang Warfare.”
You may be wondering whether things are better in the physical sciences today. They are, somewhat, but science, too, depends on philosophy. Modern science arose in an Aristotelian period, a period characterized by respect for reason and objective reality, and it cannot survive the collapse of that philosophy. One sign of this is the skepticism among scientists illustrated by the Harvard astronomer I quoted earlier. But there is another, even more ominous sign. I mean the claims made by an increasing number of physicists that modern physics is growing closer to Oriental mysticism; you may have heard the tributes that these scientists now lavish on works such as the Upanishads and the I Ching. In a rather mild statement, one such scientist wrote recently that there is a “curious connection between the sub-rational and the super-rational. Intuition, sudden flashes of insight, and even mystical experiences seem to play a role in the restructuring of science.” This quote, by the way, is from a textbook written by the Head of the Astrophysics Department at the University of Colorado (Boulder).
I have said that men cannot be consistent skeptics. One way out is to turn for guidance to society. But there is another way: old-fashioned mysticism — the turning not to society, but to the supernatural. Although this method was hardly originated by Kant, here, too, his influence is at work today. Our minds cannot know reality, Kant said, but certain of our feelings — our unprovable, nonconceptual, nonrational feelings — can give us a hint as to its nature. This Kantian suggestion — that the mind is helpless, but feelings may be able to replace it as a cognitive faculty — was taken up in the nineteenth century by a whole school of Romanticists, such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who admired and agreed with the essential ideas of Kant, and proceeded to unleash a flood of overt irrationalism, often including a deep admiration for Oriental mysticism. Today, this particular development has also become widespread in the West; you can see it in everything from art to psychotherapy to diet fads, and it is showing up now even in physics. If scientists do not have a rational philosophy to guide them, they, too, have to sink back ultimately into the common horde.
If you wonder what kind of physics is being produced by these mystical scientists, let me quote one paragraph from the Colorado textbook. The passage occurs in the context of an attack on the concept of reality.
Even more disruptive to our notions of reality is the recognition that it is impossible to describe the entirety of an object at one time. Because of the finite speed of light no object has an instantaneous existence. All extended objects are fuzzy time averages. In order for an object to be totally present at a given instant of time, instantaneous communication would be required. Since that is impossible, all parts of an object exist in the past of every other part.
Our present does not exist. One not only needs a clairvoyant to foretell the future but also to foretell the present.
The name of this textbook, by the way, is The Fermenting Universe. 12 J. McKim Malville (Seabury Press: 1981), pp. 44, 18. I do not say that this book is typical of our college science, not yet. What I do say is this: it is significant, it is frightening, that such a book by an author in such a prestigious position is even possible.
As to the wider meaning of the latest scientific theorizing taken as a whole, I will leave it to an intellectual historian from SUNY (Oswego) to comment. This professor seems to agree with all the skeptical and mystical modern interpretations of science. In a lecture entitled “The Collapse of Absolutes,” he sums up for his students:
What does all this mean? Well, first of all, it means that the universe has become unintelligible. . . . Secondly, scientists themselves have become humble and admit that science may never be able to observe reality. . . . Thirdly, the physical world of Einstein has become something that even the most educated layman finds difficult to understand . . . He in short finds it incomprehensible and irrational. 13 Lecture by Thomas Judd; date and course title unknown.
In other words, if the college student runs to science as an escape from the humanities and the social sciences, he is learning there, too, that the mind is impotent.
Philosophy sets the standards for every school and department within a university. When philosophy goes bad, corrupt manifestations turn up everywhere. Visit Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, for instance, and audit a course titled “Creativity in Business” offered to MBA candidates. I quote the San Francisco Chronicle:
The students [in this course] learn meditation and chanting, analyze dreams, paint pictures, study I Ching and tarot cards. . . . The course reading includes I am That by Swami Muktananda . . . Precision Nirvana . . . Yoga Aphorisms. . . . One woman who had been a Moonie earlier in her life was fearful after a couple of sessions that she was getting into the same sort of thing, said [the professor]. It’s nothing of the kind, he added, but the heavy emphasis on developing the intuitive side of a student’s mind, where creativity is expressed, can sometimes leave that impression.
There are, this professor teaches his students, two main blocks to creativity. One is fear; the other is: “the endless chattering of the mind.” 14 Jerry Carroll, “Over-Achievers Swarm to This Exotic Class,” Feb. 17, 1983, p. 46. If mysticism is the fashion among scientists, why not among our future business leaders, too?
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas have become a problem to the colleges. “Many administrators . . . agree that religious cults have found college campuses to be among their more profitable recruiting grounds in recent years.” 15 Lawrence Biemiller, “Campuses Trying to Control Religious Cults,” April 6, 1983. This is hardly a mystery. The colleges, by means of what they are teaching, are systematically setting the students up to be taken over. The Reverend Moon or his equivalent will be the ultimate profiteer of today’s trends if these are not stopped.
Now let us switch fields and turn to the area of sex education. I suggest you read a text widely used in junior high and high schools, cited by the American Library Association as one of the “Best Books for Young Adults in 1978.” The book claims, to impressionable teenagers, that anything in the realm of sex is acceptable as long as those who do it feel no guilt. Among other practices, the book explicitly endorses transvestism, prostitution, open marriage, sado-masochism, and bestiality. In regard to this latter, however, the book cautions the youngsters to avoid “poor hygiene, injury by the animal or to the animal, or guilt on the part of the human.” 16 Quoted by Diane Ravitch, “The New Right and the Schools,” American Educator, Fall 1982, p. 13. Professor Ravitch does not give the book’s title.
If you want still more, turn to art — for instance, poetry — as it is taught today in our colleges. For an eloquent example, read the widely used Norton’s Introduction to Poetry, and see what modern poems are offered to students alongside the recognized classics of the past as equally deserving of study, analysis, respect. One typical entry, which immediately precedes a poem by Blake, is entitled “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane.” The poem begins: “Hard Rock was ‘known not to take no shit / From nobody’ . . .” and continues in similar vein throughout. This item can be topped only by the volume’s editor, who discusses the poem reverently, explaining that it has a profound social message: “the despair of the hopeless.” 17 Ed. by J. Paul Hunter, 2nd ed. (Norton: 1981). Just as history is what historians say, so art today is supposed to be whatever the art world endorses, and this is the kind of stuff it is endorsing. After all, the modernists shrug, who is to say what’s really good in art? Aren’t Hard Rock’s feelings just as good as Tennyson’s or Milton’s?
Now I want to discuss the cash value of the trends we have been considering. The base of philosophy is metaphysics and epistemology, i.e., a view of reality and of reason. The first major result of this base, its most important practical consequence, is ethics or morality, i.e., a code of values.
The founding fathers held a definite view of morality. Although they were not consistent, their distinctive ethical principle was: a man’s right to the pursuit of happiness, his own happiness, to be achieved by his own thought and effort — which means: not an ethics of self-sacrifice, but of self-reliance and self-fulfillment — in other words, an ethics of egoism, or what Ayn Rand called “the virtue of selfishness.” The founding fathers built this country on a twofold philosophical basis: first, on the championship of reason; then, as a result, on the principle of egoism, in the sense just indicated. The product of this combination was the idea: let us have a political system in which the individual is free to function by his own mind and for his own sake or profit. Such was the grounding of capitalism in America.
Just as our modern colleges have declared war on the first of these ideas (on reason), so they have declared war on the second. Here again they are following Kant. Kant was the greatest champion of self-sacrifice in the history of thought. He held that total selflessness is man’s duty, that suffering is man’s destiny in life, and that any egoistic motive, any quest for personal joy and any form of self-love, is the antonym of morality.
The Dean of Arts and Sciences at Colgate University expressed a similar viewpoint clearly in some convocation remarks he offered in 1981, attacking what he saw as an epidemic of egoism on campus. Egoism, the dean claimed, necessarily means whim-worship. Here is his definition of egoism: “serving the self, or taking care of number one . . . mindless hedonism and a concern for me, me now.” Where did he get this definition? Why can’t an egoist be enlightened, rational, long-range? No answer was given. The proper path for us to follow, the dean went on, was indicated by the “socially concerned” students of the sixties, with their “emphasis on duty to others” and on “the ascetic mode.” We may leave aside here the actual moral character of those violent, drug-addicted rebels of the sixties so admired by the dean. The point is the choice he offers: mindless hedonism versus asceticism — note the word — i.e., utter self-abnegation, renunciation, sacrifice. Today’s students, the dean said disapprovingly, attend college for reasons such as “to get a better job and to make more money.” This, he said, is wrong. “It is . . . my hope for you that you will recognize that there is life outside the self, that we live in a world that cries out for those with visions of a community founded upon just principles. . . . and [I] wish that preoccupation with self will give way to concern for others.” 18 Founders Day Convocation remarks, Sept. 8, 1981, reprinted in Colgate Scene, Oct. 1981, pp. 1–2.
Professors sometimes take sides in a controversy, but deans, to my knowledge, never do. When a dean makes an ideological statement, you can be sure that it is a universally accepted bromide on campus.
Our colleges are allegedly open to all ideas, yet on the fundamental issues of philosophy we hear everywhere the same rigid, dogmatic viewpoint, just as though the faculties were living and teaching under government censorship. I visited Columbia’s graduation exercises last year, and the priest who delivered the invocation declared to the assembled graduates: “The age of individual achievement has passed. When you come to Columbia, you are not to be motivated by the desire for money, or personal ambition, or success; you are here to learn to serve. And my prayer for you today is that at the end of your life you will be able to say, ‘Lord, I have been an unworthy servant.’“ If that priest had come out with a plug for the Communist party, it would have caused a stir; if he had upheld the superiority of Catholicism, ditto. But to state as self-evident the moral code common to both caused not a murmur of protest.
A social psychologist from Harvard, who also regards that code as self-evident, has devised a test to measure a person’s level of moral reasoning. This test is the basis of many of the new courses in morality now being offered in schools around the country. The testers give the student a hypothetical situation and several possible responses to it. He then chooses the response that best fits his own attitude. Here is a typical example. “Your spouse is dying from a rare cancer, and doctors believe a drug recently discovered by the town pharmacist may provide a cure. The pharmacist, however, charges $2,000 for the drug (which costs only $200 to make). You can’t afford the drug and can’t raise the money.”
Before we proceed to the answers, observe what moral lessons a student would absorb from the statement of the problem alone. Morality does not pertain to normal situations, it is not concerned with how to live, he learns, but with how to meet disaster, death, terminal cancer. The obstacle to his values, he learns, is greed, the greed of the pharmacist who is trying to exploit him by charging ten times the cost of the product. There is no mention of any effort the pharmacist might have exerted to discover the drug, no mention of any research or thought or study required of him in order to have discovered an unprecedented cure for cancer, no mention of any other costs he might have incurred, no question of any gratitude to the man who alone has created the power to save the spouse, no mention of any reason why that pharmacist, counter to every principle of self-interest, would overcharge for the drug when he would make more money in the long run by selling it in greater quantity at a lower price, as the whole history of mass production shows. All of this — in an exercise designed to teach moral reasoning — is omitted as irrelevant. Nor is there any explanation of why the student cannot raise money — no reference to banks, or savings, or insurance, or relatives. The case is simple: senseless greed on the part of a callous inventor, and what do you do about it?
Now comes the answer — six choices, and you must pick one; the answers are given in ascending order, the morally lowest first. The lowest is: not to steal the drug (not out of respect for property rights, that doesn’t enter even on the lowest rung of the test, but out of fear of jail). The other five answers all advocate stealing the drug; they differ merely in their reasons. Here are the three most moral reasons, according to the test: “(4) I would steal the drug because I have a duty springing from the marriage vow I took. (5) I would steal the drug because the right to life is higher than the right to property. (6) I would steal the drug because I respect the dignity of human beings. . . . [I should] act in the best interest of mankind.” 19 The wording of the situation and responses is from Christy Hudgins, “Teaching Morality: A Test for the 1970s,” Minneapolis Star, Mar. 26, 1979, p. 3B. The author of the six-stage morality scale is Lawrence Kohlberg.
Here is an eloquent example of what Ayn Rand has amply demonstrated: the creed of self-sacrifice is not concerned with the “dignity of human beings” or with “the best interest of mankind.” This creed is the destroyer of human dignity and of mankind, because it is incompatible with the requirements of human life. It scorns — and dismisses as irrelevant — thought, effort, work, achievement, property, trade, justice, every value life requires. All of this is to be sacrificed, the altruist claims, to that which has the first right on earth: pain, pain as such, weakness, illness, suffering, regardless of its cause. This is the penalization of success for being success and the rewarding of failure for being failure; it is what Ayn Rand called the hatred of the good for being the good; and it is now being taught to our children, courtesy of a Harvard authority, as an example of high-quality moral reasoning. (As to what will happen to the weak and the sick after the able and productive have been demeaned, expropriated, and throttled, read Atlas Shrugged, or look at Soviet Russia.)
Did Ayn Rand exaggerate in saying that altruists wish to sacrifice thought to pain? Let me quote from Dental Products Report magazine in 1982. I do not know first-hand whether this item is true; I hope not. “Some medical schools in the United States are considering major changes in the traditional curriculum requirements for premed and medical students. Harvard, for example, is considering abolishing requirements for premed science and, instead, requiring courses stressing compassion and understanding in dealing with patients.” 20 “Medical Schools May Stress Compassion, Practical Experience,” Nov.–Dec. 1982.
Did you hear that one? Our doctors may not study much science any longer, but they will be skilled in expressing compassion to the suffering — who will suffer permanently, without any chance of relief, because the doctors will no longer be wasting their time on science or thought. This is a perfect, fiction-like example of an altruistic curriculum change, if ever I heard one.
Now let us sum up the total philosophy advocated by today’s colleges: reality has collapsed; reason is naive; achievement is unnecessary and unreal. I sometimes fantasize the ideal modern curriculum, which would capture explicitly the fundamental ideas of the modern university, and recently I found it. I found three actual courses offered at three different schools, one covering each basic branch of philosophy, the sum indicating the naked essence of the modern trend.
For metaphysics, we go to the University of Delaware (Newark) to take an interdisciplinary honors course titled: “Nothing.” Subtitle: “A study of Nil, Void, Vacuum, Null, Zero, and Other Kinds of Nothingness.” The description: “A lecture course exploring the varieties of nothingness from the vacuum and void of physics and astronomy to political nihilism, to the emptiness of the arts and the soul.” 21 Course no. A5 267–80, Spring 1979. That is our metaphysical base, our view of reality: nothing.
For epistemology, we move to New York University to take a course titled “Theory of Knowledge.” The description: “Various theories of knowledge are discussed, including the view that they are all inadequate and that, in fact, nobody knows anything. The consequences of skepticism are explored for thought, action, language, and emotional relations.” 22 Philosophy V83.0083, 1981–82.
We end up, for ethics, at Indiana (Bloomington), taking a course titled: “Social Reactions to Handicaps,” the description of which reads, in part: “This course will . . . explore some of the different ways in which the handicapped individual and the idea of handicap have been regarded in Western Civilization. Figures from the past such as the fool, the madman, the blind beggar, and the witch . . . will be discussed.” 23 Course no. H200, cross-listed as Education F200; date unknown.
There was once a time when college students studied facts, knowledge, and human greatness. Now they study nothingness, ignorance, and the fool, the madman, the blind beggar, and the witch.
If the philosophical message taught by our colleges is clear to you, the political views of the faculties will require very little discussion. Politics is a consequence of philosophy. The precondition of capitalism is egoism, and beneath that: the efficacy of reason. The consequence of unreason and self-sacrifice, by contrast, is this idea: the individual is helpless on his own and has no value anyway, and therefore should merge himself into the group and obey its spokesman, the state. Given today’s basic ideas, in short, the collectivism and statism of the faculties are inevitable — and too obvious to need documentation.
What I do want to mention is the political end result of our current trend. In The Ominous Parallels I argue that the intellectuals are preparing us for a totalitarian dictatorship. This may seem like an exaggeration, so I want to offer one final quote, this one from a philosopher, Richard Rorty, long at Princeton, now at the University of Virginia. Professor Rorty, himself a thorough modern, does not shrink from spelling out the final consequences of the modern skepticism; whatever you think of him, he has the honesty to state his ideas forthrightly. There is no truth, he holds, there is no such subject as philosophy, there are no objective standards by which to evaluate or criticize social and political practices. No matter what is done to the citizens of a country, therefore, they can have no objective grounds on which to protest.
Once, Professor Rorty writes, men could criticize political dictators, at least in their own minds. They could say to the dictator: “‘There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.’” Once, he states, we could have said that; but no longer. Now we know that there is no knowledge, no values, no standards. Now we must accept the fact “that we have not once seen the Truth, and so will not, intuitively, recognize it when we see it again. This means that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them.” Professor Rorty, I must add, claims to be disturbed by this result; but he is propagating it vigorously all the same. 24 Richard Rorty, “The Fate of Philosophy,” New Republic, Oct. 18, 1982, p. 33.
Ladies and gentlemen, higher education today has a remarkable press. We hear over and over about the value of our colleges and universities, their importance to the nation, and our need to contribute financially to their survival and growth. In regard to many professional and scientific schools, this is true. But in regard to the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, the opposite is true. In those areas, with some rare exceptions, our colleges and universities are a national menace, and the better the university, such as Harvard and Berkeley and Columbia, the worse it is. Today’s college faculties are hostile to every idea on which this country was founded, they are corrupting an entire generation of students, and they are leading the United States to slavery and destruction.
What is the solution? The only answer to a corrupt philosophy is a rational philosophy, and the only way to spread a rational philosophy is through the universities. The universities today — not the churches any longer, and not the press or TV — are the main transmitters of philosophy; they are what set the tone and direction of a culture. To those of you of college age, therefore, those who do not subscribe to Kant’s philosophy, I want to say that the moral of my remarks is not: quit college. On the contrary, if you are considering college or are already enrolled in one, I urge you to enter or stay, stay and fight the system, by trying to gain a hearing for some other ideas, some pro-American ideas. The colleges pretend to be open to all viewpoints, even though they are not. The only hope is to make them live up to their pretense. If you give up the colleges, you give up any role in the decisive battle for the world, the intellectual battle.
I am not suggesting that you become a martyr, or enter into arguments with professors who will penalize you for your ideas. Not all of them will, however, and I am speaking within the context and limits of rational self-interest. Within that context, I say: speak up when appropriate, let your voice be heard on campus, try to stick it out and obtain your degree, come back to teach if you can get in the door and if that is the lifework you want; and if you are an alumnus, be careful what kind of academic programs you support financially. In this battle, every word, man, and penny counts.
I wish I could tell you that your college years will be a glorious crusade. Actually, they will probably be a miserable experience. If you are a philosophically pro-American student, you have to expect every kind of smear from many of your professors. If you uphold the power of reason, you will be called a fanatic or a dogmatist. If you uphold the right to happiness, you will be called anti-social or even a fascist. If you admire Ayn Rand, you will be called a cultist. You will experience every kind of injustice, and even hatred, and you will be unbelievably bored most of the time, and often you will be alone and lonely. But if you have the courage to venture out into this kind of nightmare, you will not only be acquiring the diploma necessary for your professional future, you will also be helping to save the world, and we are all in your debt.
The young lady who typed this speech said to me at this point: “It’s pretty depressing. Aren’t you going to end on an inspiring note?” I wish I could think of one. Perhaps, someday, Objectivists will start a better university, which would provide a real alternative to the current scene and offer sanctuary to the kind of young minds now being tortured by the Establishment. But this project, though possible, is still far from being a reality.
To those of you in the college trenches today, therefore, I have only a bleak conclusion to offer. And even if I am an atheist, I know no better way to say it: God bless you, and God help you!
Citations & Notes
- 1 Principles of Nature (New York: 1801); excerpted in Ideas in America, ed. by G.N. Grob and R. N. Beck (Free Press: 1970), pp. 81–84.
- 2 W.J. Brandt, R. Beloof, L. Nathan, and C.E. Selph (Prentice Hall: 1969), p. 23.
- 3 Philip J. Hilts, “Caught Between Faith and Fact,” Sept. 26, 1982, p. H1.
- 4 College Composition I, F1101 Y:01, Spring 1980. In cases such as this, to protect the privacy of students, I am citing only the course number and/or year (when known to me).
- 5 Fall 1969.
- 6 B9706, sec. 101, Spring 1982.
- 7 William S. Ray, The Science of Psychology (Macmillan: 1964), p. 5.
- 8 Course number H300, cross-listed as History K492, sec. 2856; date unknown.
- 9 “Women Approach History Differently — and Men Must Understand the Difference,” Stanford Observer, Oct., 1982, p. 2; reprinted from Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 15, 1982. Emphasis added.
- 10 Edwin McDowell, “New Samoa Book Challenges Margaret Mead’s Conclusions,” Jan. 31, 1983, p. C21.
- 11 Ben Gerson, “Professors for the Revolution,” Aug. 23, 1982, p. 10.
- 12 J. McKim Malville (Seabury Press: 1981), pp. 44, 18.
- 13 Lecture by Thomas Judd; date and course title unknown.
- 14 Jerry Carroll, “Over-Achievers Swarm to This Exotic Class,” Feb. 17, 1983, p. 46.
- 15 Lawrence Biemiller, “Campuses Trying to Control Religious Cults,” April 6, 1983.
- 16 Quoted by Diane Ravitch, “The New Right and the Schools,” American Educator, Fall 1982, p. 13. Professor Ravitch does not give the book’s title.
- 17 Ed. by J. Paul Hunter, 2nd ed. (Norton: 1981).
- 18 Founders Day Convocation remarks, Sept. 8, 1981, reprinted in Colgate Scene, Oct. 1981, pp. 1–2.
- 19 The wording of the situation and responses is from Christy Hudgins, “Teaching Morality: A Test for the 1970s,” Minneapolis Star, Mar. 26, 1979, p. 3B. The author of the six-stage morality scale is Lawrence Kohlberg.
- 20 “Medical Schools May Stress Compassion, Practical Experience,” Nov.–Dec. 1982.
- 21 Course no. A5 267–80, Spring 1979.
- 22 Philosophy V83.0083, 1981–82.
- 23 Course no. H200, cross-listed as Education F200; date unknown.
- 24 Richard Rorty, “The Fate of Philosophy,” New Republic, Oct. 18, 1982, p. 33.