The Intellectual Foundations of Cultural Decline: An Inquiry


My colleague Stephen B. Young doesn’t waste any time getting to the tough heart of the matter in this philosophical grand tour of cultural decline in the United States.

“A powerful, corrosive force,” he begins, “has been at work in American culture since the mid-1960s.” Its origins, he says, predate that often-crazed decade, but its “power is a contemporary phenomenon.” This dismantling force, he contends, has caused an “American tradition of freedom and liberty under law” to lose out to a “new social code of personal license under a protective mantle of moral relativism.”

Our society, he quickly understates, has “not gained from this experiment with deconstruction of traditional norms and institutions.”

“The Intellectual Foundations of Cultural Decline” is a challenging study in several ways, starting with the fact that few writers are as inclined and skilled as Mr. Young in drawing on centuries of difficult scholarship.

In the essay in hand, he traces current problems in American society generally, and American higher education more specifically, to what he describes as a latter-day victory of a French ethic, founded by Rousseau, over that of a more enlightened English ethic best identified with Bacon, Locke, Hume and Adam Smith. Kant, Hegel and a few other Germans also get into the act.

Mr. Young’s strictures, moreover, can be sharp and local. “True leadership,” he writes, “has become impossible in universities and colleges.” Closer to home: “The effort to improve the University of Minnesota has dragged on for a decade with no signs of significant success.” And, “Those outside the [American] university must assert leadership by imposing on the university accountability to the wider society.”

Mr. Young is likewise not hesitant about rekindling arguments about American involvement in Vietnam which many folks (myself included, frankly) would just as soon keep dampened. For instance, he writes that: “College-educated American males of the Baby Boom generation . . . and their sympathetic parents constituted the social base for a political movement of protest opposing the founding ethic of this country. The protesters [of whom I was one back then] looked for a political philosophy with which to oppose traditional claims of the American state.”

But it’s precisely because it is demanding — intellectually certainly and emotionally quite possibly — that this essay makes the serious contribution it does. It’s a paper of large ideas and unusual sweep, and I’m pleased to disseminate it broadly.

Steve Young, as friends of American Experiment likely recall, was the Center’s first chairman, and happily for us, has continued his service on the Board. A former dean of the Hamline University School of Law, a former administrator at Harvard Law, and a veteran of State Department service in Vietnam during the war, Mr. Young — as I’ve been fond of describing him since his arrival in the Twin Cities in the early ’80s — is one of Minnesota’s most creative social theorists.

He also has been known to practice on the stump what he preaches on the keyboard.

American Experiment members receive free copies of almost all Center publications, including “The Intellectual Foundations of Cultural Decline: An Inquiry.” Additional copies of this essay are $4 for members and $5 for nonmembers. Bulk discounts are available for schools, civic groups and other organizations. Please note our phone and address on the previous page for membership and other information.

Thanks very much, and as always, I welcome your comments.

Mitchell B. PearlsteinPresidentMarch 1996


A powerful, corrosive force has been at work in American culture since the mid-1960s. Its origins predate that decade but its power is a contemporary phenomenon. As the civil rights movement changed course from seeking equality of individual opportunity in a color-blind society and grew, instead, into a new program advocating equality of results for individuals emancipated from traditional normative constraint and responsibility, an American tradition of freedom and liberty under law lost out to a new social code of personal license under a protective mantle of moral relativism.

Our society has not gained from this experiment with deconstruction of traditional norms and institutions.

Our Center of the American Experiment has published many papers describing the decline. And William Bennett, among others, has written of the consequences following upon the loss of faith in core American beliefs.

In 1965, America began a cultural war between its founding conceptions of knowledge, education and politics which derived from an English ethic — and rival conceptions sired by an ethic imported from France and Germany. The battle over which intellectual framework would govern America opened first in academia and related institutions of intellectual commentary and then spread to politics. The protagonists of change were Hippies of the Woodstock generation, student protesters of SDS, leaders of the effort to demonize the war in Vietnam as immoral and impossible to win, and the Robert Kennedy-Eugene McCarthy-George McGovern faction of the Democratic Party. They popularized a Bohemian ethic of earlier decades.

That Bohemian ethic had emerged in New York City’s Greenwich Village as a meeting place of the avant garde in art, those who rejected bourgeois social conventions, and the socialist left in politics. The American-Bohemian creed may be summarized, as literary critic Malcolm Cowley has suggested, in a few articles of belief:

  • The idea of self-expression: Each man’s and woman’s purpose in life is fully to express himself, to realize his full individuality.
  • The idea of living for the moment, the rejection of the puritan ethos of deferred gratification: One should burn one’s candle at both ends.
  • The idea of female equality: Women should be the economic and moral equals of men and should have the same opportunities for making a living, smoking, drinking, and taking or dismissing lovers.
  • The idea of psychological adjustment: We are maladjusted because we are repressed; the removal of repression liberates the true man.
  • The idea of salvation by the child: If children are encouraged by new educational methods to realize their full personalities, they will bring forth a new and freer world.
  • The idea of liberty: All laws and conventions that hamper free expression should be abolished, for puritanism is the great enemy.
  • And the idea of cosmopolitanism: The rejection of American cultural provincialism.

Opening salvo

The opening salvo in our current culture war was fired by the 1964 Free Speech Movement at the University of California-Berkeley, where Mario Savio and students exposed the older, white, male administrators as hollow authority figures. After student takeovers of university administration offices at Columbia and Harvard in 1968 and 1969, the power structure of American colleges and universities was fragmented. Trustees, presidents, deans, senior professors capitulated to the new counterculture without serious resistance.

By the early 1970s colleges and universities became institutions without authority, but filled with jealous internal competition over individual status, power, and money. Faculties, protected by tenure, successfully asserted the power to define the ideals and priorities for their institutions. Presidents, deans, and boards of trustees were reduced to a subservient role of finding the funding necessary for higher salaries and better facilities for tenured faculties and for transfer payments among students via student aid from wealthier students to less advantaged ones. Presidents and deans fell as well into the complementary role of facilitating interaction among the fractious parts of the university for allocation of resources and coordination of instructional programs.

Minnesota’s colleges and universities did not escape this trend.

Access to the establishment for African-Americans as the civil rights movement won its victory in 1965 grew into race-based preferences in admissions and hiring under the doctrine of affirmative action, later expanding to include women, Hispanics, Native Americans, and, grudgingly, Asian-Americans. A vision of the individual as victim and America as guilty gained notoriety.

An important goal of education after 1968 became promotion of “self-esteem” for all students, accomplished by providing them with a “feel-good” environment. Colleges and universities no longer enforced traditional moral standards. Dorms became co-educational. Contraceptives were freely dispensed. Drug use was not stigmatized. This desire to indulge students was designed to cure the “victimization” felt by psychologically alienated individuals.

This desire to promote self-esteem combined with affirmative action then evolved into an invidious kind of “multiculturalism.”

Grade inflation set in as professors no longer felt secure in holding to standards of achievement. Differences in achievement were considered to be social inequalities. Pass-fail grading had many supporters. The standardized admission tests such as the SAT could be used to argue that grades had no meaning for students with previously demonstrated abilities.

In politics, the emerging counter-culture of the left broke into the mainstream with convulsions over the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago. Earlier that year, protest had already driven Lyndon Johnson to abandon his re-election campaign in an abdication of leadership. Murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had further eroded faith in America’s traditional political habits and structures.

The Vietnam War serendipitously served nicely as the weapon of cultural aggression undermining America’s traditional ethic. The anti-war movement began in 1965 with campus teach-ins. Leaders of the anti-war movement were first and foremost professors and intellectuals, not laborers or farmers. The media became the instrument for dissemination of anti-war critique. Walter Cronkite with his unjustified pessimism of 1968 about the war turned more Americans against the war in Vietnam than anyone else. James Reston of The New York Times wrote that, in the last analysis, it had been the press which had caused the United States to fail in its promise of protection to the peoples of Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam.

Support for the War had been justified by the old English ethic of faith in liberal bourgeois democratic prospects, even in Vietnam, and opposition to totalitarian coercion, even of Vietnamese. College-educated American males of the Baby Boom generation had no wish to be drafted to fight in such a cause; they and their sympathetic parents constituted the social base for a political movement of protest opposing the founding ethic of this country. The protesters looked for a political philosophy with which to oppose traditional claims of the American state.

They found it in a French ethic set forth by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century, which ethic first taught that conventional structures of authority did not reflect a true General Will, promoted illegitimate hierarchy, and did not deserve respect. Thanks to this French perspective, for the first time in our history, America was painted as an inherently bad, guilty, undeserving society. Its claim on the loyalty of its youth was portrayed as bogus. Past sins against Blacks, Native Americans, the environment, and women, along with the asserted evils of capitalism, were seized upon with fervor by the counter-culture as evidence of this newly perceived truth of America as unjust.

When Martin Luther King joined in this anti-war critique of America as impure and undeserving, the legitimate righteousness of the civil rights movement under moral constructs of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was grafted onto the inconsistent ambitions of the French ethic. The tradition of the European left, which had been shaped by Rousseau and which had emerged in the French Revolution, now stripped respectability from American ideals.

Hollywood and New York provided homes to a media elite which used popular entertainment of movies and television to promote — particularly through sex and sexuality — self-indulgent and hedonistic themes of personal liberty and freedom from responsibility.

A drug practice added reality to a counter-culture of alienation from authority. Self-expression in this way was illegal, generating more disrespect for law.

Feminism found voice in the counter-culture and added to the cultural war its critique of all conventional authority structures, even the family, as unjustly supportive of men as against women. The feminist critique, as had the claims for equality of African-Americans, quickly achieved legal protection through federal laws on affirmative action, no discrimination in hiring and promotion, and protection against sexual harassment.

Subsequently, the demands of gays and lesbians for protection and validation of their subcultures followed feminism in seeking social rules consistent with their cultural preferences.

The dominant theme of the new American culture of the left has become the will to power of perspectives freed from past conventions by the exercise of allegedly rational thought and by genuine romantic selfishness. The expansion of the French ethic in American culture has led to actualization of the will to power by an increasing number of groups under the banner of “multiculturalism.”

Consequences of following the wrong ethic

With the rise to cultural power of the French ethic, educational quality has deteriorated. Undergraduate education has been dumbed down. A commitment to excellence no longer inspires either faculties or students. There is no canon of greatness. The college or university serves above all else to give students professional credentials and faculty members professional recognition. As a result, graduates lack skills for leadership at a time when we need leaders of genuine quality.

With educational achievement in decline, it is little wonder that incomes for the average American have stagnated. Incomes reflect the value that workers can add to the economy. Poorly educated persons add little value to a highly technological and service-oriented economy.

But the damage done by the cultural left has spread beyond colleges and universities to the society at large. This originally French ethic has promoted a cult of victimization in America. Students starting in elementary school are socialized to see the guilt that allegedly is America and to feel no pride in their heritage as Americans. The emphasis on self-esteem won without rigorous achievement leaves students without self-confidence. The irrelevance of grades to most achievement compounds this state of mind among students. Women and minorities are given grounds to assert claims based on group identity, not individual achievement, so works of individual achievement have less salience. Persons are encouraged to find oppressors. Even the new men’s movement sees white males as an oppressed group.

People without self-confidence and looking for others to blame are mistrustful, selfish without a moral counter-balance, and suffer from a social distemper. Public life has become divorced from spirituality. Is it any wonder that the public is cynical, turns on its political leaders, and has little faith in America’s future?

The basis of social policy under the French ethic tends to stress the guilt of those who benefit from social advantages and distinctions and the need for remedial subsidy of these less privileged. An alternative moral ethic of responsibility based upon individual character regardless of social status is not often employed. Social policy therefore exists more to assuage the guilt of the elite than to empower the poor, who, naturally remain dependent and angry.

The rise of the French ethic has undermined the work ethic. The focus of liberty and equality tends to be on immediate ends. It takes more of a concern for social duties and interests to focus on self in the long term. Yet the present justification for savings and hard work is future reward. With less value placed on the future, consumption takes center stage. In any given moment, consumption is more gratifying than saving and enjoyment more fulfilling than sacrifice.

The French ethic, with its embrace of self-victimhood, has accelerated the break up of family structures. Broken families lead to more children living in poverty. Challenges to conventional authority limit the satisfactions of being a parent, adding to intergenerational antagonism and divorces. Advocacy of male-female gender sameness and non-heterosexual marriages have blurred once clear obligations of family responsibilities. The attention given to spouse abuse, usually of the wife by the husband, incest, other forms of child abuse bring traditional family ideals into disrepute. When families become weak or dysfunctional, they fail in their primary function of socialization. Children are permitted to reach adulthood more alienated from society than ever before. Rousseau’s vision of the human as victim is thus given increasing credence. The French ethic has set us on a path of cultural decay and systemic decline as a nation.

Our intellectual elite, the product of our best colleges and universities, has lost faith in the culture and institutions of the English ethic which made America successful and the envy of other peoples. In Minnesota, reporters and editorial writers frequently beat the drum for self-victimization, “multiculturalism,” and enlightened bureaucratic rule.

Charles Colson has referred to these consequences as a crisis of character: A loss of those inner restraints and virtues that prevent civilization from pondering its own darker instincts. We have lost the values of citizenship, valor, honor, duty, responsibility, compassion, and civility.

Robert Bellah’s survey of American values, Habits of the Heart, revealed that, as of the 1970s, most Americans had two overriding goals: vivid personal feelings and personal success. What has happened to the dedication required for excellence?

What explains the polluting power of the left? Where did it come from? What can we do about its detrimental consequences?

As argued at the start, two different traditions, one arising in England and the other in France, have each offered an ethic to inform the goals and ideals of law and public power. The original American ethic was the English one. After the Civil War, the rival French ethic, however, began to provide a basis for modernized and professionalized colleges and universities. After 1968, the French vision finally overthrew its English antagonist and came to dominate our culture.

From institutions of higher education and from intellectuals, the French vision reached out to convert others and so accumulate political power.

I believe that the post-modern vision of culture, derived from the French tradition, is dehumanizing and destructive of the best in civil society. Accordingly, I value the older, English alternative. As justification for a program of cultural reform, this paper will proceed to summarily trace the intellectual origins and evolutions of both traditions. This will permit thoughtful reflection on the advantages and disadvantages of each ethic and so open a dialogue as to which ethic should govern what Minnesota will do in public higher education. If the English ethic can recapture citadels of higher education, a better balance of cultural patterns can be established.

Origins of the two ethics

The two traditions developed separately from the two forms of human knowledge posited by Aristotle, who distinguished scientific knowledge from practical wisdom. The English ethic valued practical wisdom while the French ethic asserted the claims of pure reason, of scientific knowledge.

Scientific knowledge unfolded from the operations of a pure reason, a unique human capacity. Aristotle preferred this form of knowledge, as had Plato before him, as the best, most complete, most infallible form of human knowing. The metaphor for this kind of knowledge is mathematics, especially geometry, where absolute proof (so it was believed) could be had of a proposition; proof so inerrant that the proposition would be true under all conditions of time and space. Western philosophy since Plato and Aristotle has been an effort to infuse this pure reason into the real world; to bring the certainty of scientific knowledge to the contingent experiences of living. Many philosophers (“lovers of wisdom”) and famous thinkers have sought the certainty promised by this Holy Grail of human reason.

But sensibly, Aristotle also recognized that such scientific knowledge was ethereal. It existed in an unreal ether in the sense that only reason within the mind could comprehend such knowledge. Such reason did not exist in physical things which had contingent existences, presences true today but not necessarily tomorrow; such scientific knowledge existed only in words and concepts manipulated by the mind. In an important way, the pure reason supporting scientific knowledge lives and works outside of time and space, outside of what we think of as reality.

Human knowledge of what is contingent, of what is sensuous reality, Aristotle called practical wisdom. This was an alternate form of human knowledge. Pure reason and deductive logic did not apply to this realm of knowing. Statements incorporating practical wisdom, propositions about politics and other human affairs, for example, could not be proved, only argued about.

The process of argument used for practical wisdom was rhetoric — slippery, and susceptible to crass manipulation. On the contrary, rigorous logic existed to prove or disprove the truths of scientific knowledge.

After the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation challenged the thought patterns of medieval Catholicism, the English developed an ethic of knowledge distinct from simultaneous trends arising in France and the European continent.

To oversimplify but without distorting the record, it can be said that the English kept education and culture within the scope of practical wisdom while thinkers on the continent, such as Descartes, aspired to obey the dictates of scientific knowledge.

The English ethic of practical wisdom

The English style was pragmatic, as many historians have noted. The great modern thinkers of England — Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume — were empiricists, looking to facts measurable in the real world to support intellectual conclusions. Such facts were contingent; therefore, English investigations into the substance of knowledge required experimentation with tangible substances. Reason alone was an insufficient guide to truth. Legend has it that it took a falling apple to provoke Newton’s mind into formulating a proposition about gravity.

In this English approach to knowledge, reason was an aid to reflection, but reflection could not be contained exclusively within the ambit of abstract ratiocination. This English approach elevated the process of accepting or formulating a hypothesis for subsequent experimental verification. What worked in practice was often accepted as having sufficient truth value. As a result, the English tradition left room for ideas drawn from intuition and custom regarding how reality worked.

This tradition from the British Isles also left a prominent role for faith and religion in the search for meaningful beliefs, a role for the emotive side of human nature. Such dispositions, unscientific and unprovable, were nonetheless part of an existing practical reality. They, too, could give rise to testable hypotheses.

Reason did not replace religion for the English. Political thinkers tempered their optimism about human potential with a belief in the operative, existential fact of original sin.

On the optimistic side, Francis Hutcheson and his student Adam Smith could believe in the capacity of persons spontaneously to have moral sentiments. This capacity made them trustworthy.

This fusion of experimental science, Old Testament religion, and Roman republicanism gave birth, first, to the English Whig political movement favoring democracy and, later, to its American revolutionary progeny. A Whig constitutional scheme emerged of checks and balances and of government as a public trust and not as a personal dominion. People could be trusted to rule, but not too much.

From this tradition arose constitutional government under law, economic well-being achieved by free markets, freedom of religion, private property regulated by the common law, judges held apart from political machinations, and legal rights protecting individuals and minorities from any tyranny of the majority and fleeting mob passions. This pattern of political organization was institutionalized in the American Constitution and elaborated upon with wisdom and eloquence in the Federalist Papers written by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay. This tradition resonates in the writings of Washington and, later, in the speeches of Lincoln.

This empirical English ethic was not afraid of self-interest. As a practical fact, individual self-interest was an unquestioned, empirical given. So John Locke spoke of the ends of government as promoting the life, liberty and property of individuals. Such acceptance of individual interest was the understanding of David Hume, William Blackstone, and Edmund Burke, great thinkers who shaped the modern British commonwealth. Nor was Adam Smith put off by the selfish aspects of his free-market economic theory, Wealth of Nations. Not only did Smith see how the self-interests of individuals magically interacted (through a market as if moved by an invisible hand) to produce a common good, he also wrote in his companion work, Theory of the Moral Sentiments, how in a free society a moral capacity would be at work to counter-balance the excesses of selfish individualism.

The doctrine of character, of the mastery of self-interest, became important to the education of English citizens. Locke’s theory of education stressed character and common sense as the goals of parents for their children.

For Locke, the true foundation of future ability and happiness is a mastery over inclinations, a temper to resist the importunity of present pleasure or pain. Education was therefore, above all, to inculcate virtue as an incentive to the mind. “Virtue is harder to get than a knowledge of the world,” said Locke in the 1690s. Character, not abstract analytical ability, was the aim of this practical vision of human achievement. “Long discourses and philosophical reasonings, at best, amaze and confound but do not instruct children,” said Locke.

Emphasis on moral character provided Whig political institutions with another important benefit — religious tolerance and an end to sectarian wars between rival theologies. Moral character provided a common ethic for persons of different faiths through which they could enjoy mutually respectful joint participation in public affairs. Respecting each other’s moral characters permitted each to have comfort in the other’s reliability and reduced society’s need to rest social cohesion on a common theological doctrine or creed. John Locke therefore could write an important essay of Christian theology on toleration, which later justified the religious freedom clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

This ethic of knowledge as practical wisdom resting in good character was the guiding light of English colleges and of the preparatory schools training young men for such colleges. The deans, tutors, and readers of Oxford and Cambridge and the dons of Eton all understood knowledge in this practical tradition and provided a general education in the liberal arts to shape a student’s character as much as his faculty of reason. Skills in rhetoric, use of good judgment, and common sense kept the graduate in touch with his society and grounded in practical wisdom. The student in this tradition was tolerant, responsible, and part of a larger social order.

The first professors of Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and Princeton and the founders of Exeter and Groton built similar educational institutions in America.

The English ethic directly informed Minnesota’s first institution of higher learning: Hamline University. Founded by the Methodist Church in Red Wing in 1854, Hamline taught its students in keeping with (Methodism’s founder) John Wesley’s vision of reason united with the vital piety. This was Wesley’s formulation of the mingled fields of reason and moral character. His standard was the sensible English one of “reasonableness” in using either the mind or the heart.

Out of similar religious traditions, Carleton, Macalester, St. Olaf, Gustavus Adolphus, Augsburg, Bethel, and the Concordia colleges were founded by different ethnic and religious collectivities.

The Catholic Church founded the colleges of St. John’s, St. Benedict’s, St. Thomas, St. Catherine’s, St. Scholastica, and St. Mary’s in the tradition of Catholic teaching that the play of reason was subordinate to revelation and church doctrine. Again, though not of the English educational enlightenment tradition, Minnesota’s Catholic colleges had a religious orientation in keeping with the mixed character of the English preference for practical wisdom.

In its early years, though publicly funded, the University of Minnesota took its standard of excellence from such universities as Harvard and Yale. The University of Minnesota then grew to prestige and earned world-wide respect with its rigorous research and high standards of scholarship. It was neither provincial or irrelevant to its times.

The French ethic of scientific knowledge

Between the work of Plato and his student Aristotle and the much later rise of the French ethic of knowledge was the majestic intellectual effort of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas did not renovate Aristotle’s concept of practical wisdom. Aquinas strove rather to bring the revealed religious truth of his Holy Roman Catholic Church within the bounds of scientific knowledge. Reason, pure reason, uncontaminated by contingent empiricism, was his tool for vindicating the truth of his religion in the eyes of all persons. Aquinas’s thought provided a guide for subsequent European philosophers.

The exciting actual progenitor of the French ethic in education was Descartes, who, as he said in an aphorism, was because he thought. Catholic priest as well as a mathematician, Descartes used formal propositions of symbolic logic and language, both disconnected from experimentation, to establish truth.

What followed from this technique was a belief in the perfectibility of the human, a rejection of original sin, and an idealism regarding human circumstances constructed out of faith in the power of scientific knowledge. With faith in reason, mystery drained from the experience of living. The cosmos became a predictable machine; religion became useless obscurantism, fit only for undeveloped minds. The great project of humanity became a vigorous campaign to enlighten all persons with the power of reason.

Rousseau, in my judgment, then set in motion the intellectual effort which over two centuries turned Descartes’s faith in reason step-by-step into the pernicious doctrines of cultural deconstruction and the wrong kind of “multiculturalism” which vex us this day. Rousseau’s intellectual descendants now dominate the counterculture of left-liberalism which has undermined so effectively our national self-confidence.

For politics, Rousseau banished self-interest and called for all to live according to the dictates of the General Will. Rousseau’s General Will was only the stuff of linguistic definition, possessed of no more substance than any other construct of words. Reason thought its way to the General Will and then the state, according to Rousseau, had the duty of imposing the General Will on individual particular wills. In his Social Contract, Rousseau wrote that the more common mores differed from the General Will, the greater the force was required to repress common mores. Sic Semper Tyrannis. Thus did Rousseau invent the modern totalitarian state and cloak it with the superior claims of scientific knowledge.

Rousseau not only gave hope to a vicious political tradition of coercive bureaucratic tyranny, he gave prominence to a divisive scheme of education. In his Confessions and in Emile, Rousseau blended a naive vision of persons as inherently simple, pure, and good prior to socialization with an intense belief in the individual as victim looking for oppressors to blame. For Rousseau, society was the enemy of the individual.

Rousseau’s scheme of education was permissive — to let innate potential grow in individuals and to minimize their socialization. Reason, he believed, would prevent distortions from arising within people and reason would make all things well in a better world to be built by governments guided by the General Will.

Rousseau wrote that people are born free yet everywhere society keeps them in chains. With pure reason as their guide, Rousseau thought that men and women would break the chains of social convention and revolt against inequalities of status and opportunity. There was no authority recognized by Rousseau for God, the King, the Church, fathers, families, or any social position not justified by the General Will. Only distinctions justified by reason would stand as part of the General Will. Persons were free, equal, and only bound together through fraternal ties of one free individual voluntarily associated with another.

Sadly, since individuals always come to be through, and live in, social situations, individuals are always in a condition of Rousseauist victimization under social pressures, a sorry state demanding, from Rousseau’s perspective, constant vexation of mind and spirit. Rousseau’s bleak vision prevents its adherents from acquiring much self-confidence. They are constantly seeking to undo the damage inflicted on them by society.

Rousseau himself lived with a guilty conscience, caused by his mother’s death while giving him birth. He then spent his life at odds with those more fortunate than he.

From Rousseau came the vaunting ambitions of the French Revolution, not a modest contest to modify absolute monarchy with constitutional restraints, but a grandiose project to build a just society according to the dictates of reason. The French Revolution’s creed was “liberte, egalite, and fraternite”: the triumph of reason over social authority. Religion was to be replaced with the worship of Reason; every aspect of the ancient regime, legitimated by no more than custom and convention, was replaced by a centralized state bureaucracy governing according to rational civil and criminal codes, using metric measurements of universal application.

Under Rousseau’s disciples, the Jacobins, the guillotine stood tall to enforce revolutionary truth on unbelievers and eliminate those whose past had defiled them in revolutionary eyes. Many aristocrats followed their king and queen to a speedy death.

Napoleon then took this new French system by arms to other nations of Europe.

Over in England, Edmund Burke saw the underlying evil in the turmoil and pretension of revolutionary change in France. Burke’s book Reflections on the Revolution in France sharpens — perhaps better than any work except Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies or Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions — the differences between the rival approaches to truth of Britain and France.

On the other hand, the French ethic had some impact in Great Britain. Jeremy Bentham rejected the conventions of the common law as glamorized by Blackstone and promoted law reform based upon rational analysis. Government, argued Bentham, could improve society by using its powers to order relationships as reason requires. William Godwin, taking up French Enlightenment ideals, wrote for the emancipation of women and advocated other radical rejections of traditional British social order. His daughter married the romantic poet Shelley and wrote Frankenstein, blending the French ethic with English artistic romanticism.

Unfortunately, over in the newly independent United States, Thomas Jefferson was more credulous of French theories than was Burke. Jefferson (who was not a founder of our constitutional structure) lent dignity to the claims of reason alone as the foundation of justice and to reason’s insistence on leveling social conventions and distinctions. Jefferson, a Deist, argued for a thick wall between church and state. Also, it is not coincidence that Jefferson wanted to be remembered most as the founder of the University of Virginia, a state university and a temple to reason.

With Jefferson the French ethic gained a foothold in American political culture. Where Washington, Hamilton, John Marshall, and the Federalists felt sympathy for the English ethic, Jefferson and his rising Democratic Party stood for emancipated France and against privilege of any sort. The Jeffersonian approach led to the War of 1812 against England.

On its side of the Atlantic, the French ethic rejected two capable French thinkers inspired by the British/American alternative. In the early months of the French Revolution, Lafayette, influenced by Washington and the American Revolution, attempted to craft for France a moderate course of pragmatic constitutionalism, but he was passed over as those more radical pressed for the execution of the king and abolition of old ways. Forty years later the wise observations of Alexis de Tocqueville on American democracy and the excesses of the French Revolution were similarly ignored by his compatriots.

German development of the French ethic

The cause of scientific knowledge and the superiority of reason picked up impressive advocates in Germany. Following on after Rousseau, Immanuel Kant wrote on pure reason and practical reason. His formulation of the General Will had individuals separately will to do that which could be of universal, that is non-contingent, application. But since reason was taken by Kant as a transcendent universal, in exercising their wills, all individuals would end up in agreement on the same coercive principles of right conduct. Reason would democratically lead to moral order, believed Kant.

Following Kant, Hegel took reason to great complexities of analysis. He looked at the mind and its ability to comprehend reality. By creating concepts, what Hegel called “begrift,” the mind, according to Hegel, could be master of its empirical surroundings. Thus arose from Hegel’s influence the modern German university where conceptual classification and specialization brought studies of various disciplines to professional exactitude.

Karl Marx used dialectical materialism to ground reason in the real world and so save its title to intellectual stature. Max Weber blended a practical Hegelian faith in reason with prescriptions for bureaucratic rationalization of economic and political organizations. The arguments of Marx and Weber have guided the creation of the modern, bureaucratic, welfare state.

The French ethic grows in America with help from Germany

After the American Civil War, the tradition of reason as elevated by Kant and Hegel, but not yet challenged by Nietzsche, came to the United States. The German vision of the professional university was imported to train a cadre of experts to modernize and improve everything in America. The first university with departments and specialized teaching was Johns Hopkins. Then Harvard under Eliot followed. Reason and the application of reason to society defined the nineteenth-century culture of progress. Social engineering, the deployment of expertise to remedy social ills, the creation of bureaucracies with public funding to step in where the free market stabilized at a less than optimal equilibrium were made possible by the new confidence in rational planning.

The new university was to find through thoughtful analysis a common good, a public interest arrived at dispassionately through expert study. Sciences of human nature, law, politics, and society were thought possible as well. Schools for the scientific study of law and medicine were started.

The mission of the new professional, rational, and scientific university was to serve society by changing it for the better. As Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “Up to now philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it.” The results of this intellectual effort then had to be transferred to daily life through the medium of government and learned professions, often working in tandem.

In the 1880s and 1890s, professional associations were started to improve systematically the standards of professional fields. Lawyers, doctors, nurses, historians, and social workers formed the unions which, ever since, have monitored knowledge-based occupations.

While professionalism grounded its self-confidence in good measure on the French faith in reason, the personal codes and habits of professors and the new professionals still drew inspiration from the undergraduate colleges following the English approach to knowledge. But a tension had been introduced between the new graduate schools with their vision of professional education and the older English ethic residing in liberal arts colleges.

The University of Minnesota grew to prominence in this era of confidence in scientific study from 1870 to the 1950s. It built graduate schools of law and medicine. Its graduate faculties in many fields became nationally known. Its scientific research in agriculture had worldwide implications. The University and its supporters in the Legislature believed more and more in the power of scientific knowledge to guide, benevolently and rationally, organized society to even higher levels of prosperity and happiness through planning, regulation, and bureaucracy.

Carleton and Macalester Colleges broke away from their denominational orientation to follow the new ethic of higher education.

Preconditions for the final triumph of the French ethic in American higher education were laid during this rise of professionalism. The professionalism of university graduate schools and departments increasingly became a narrow pursuit of sub-specialization and technical achievement. Granting of Nobel Prizes, peer recognition, journals for publication of investigations and research results combined to create a career structure rewarding focused technical accomplishment. As the number of professionals increased, the areas of their individual expertise multiplied in total but shrunk in scope of individual attainment.

Having large views on culture, religion, history did not lead to advancement. Being a teacher was less important than being a published scholar. As a result, those successful in higher education increasingly lost capacity for moral leadership. They became technicians, qualified for advancement only by a limited expertise. Professors each knew more and more about less and less. Vision evaporated as higher education became ever more bureaucratized. This, however, was inevitable under the hopeful French/German model of rationalism as the apex of human achievement.

This evolution of universities towards a narrow professionalism swept over the University of Minnesota as well. Recruitment and advancement of professors fell in with the norms of the professional establishments governing the different educational disciplines and related academic societies. Publish or perish became the rule for professional achievement.

After World War II, the United States entered an era of rule by experts as government and corporate bureaucracies grew to deploy the talent pool of professionals provided now in increasing numbers, thanks to the GI Bill, by institutions of higher education. As part of the professionalism of higher education, recruitment into the expert professional elite was changed to emphasize mental ability rather than any social criterion of preference such as wealth, religion, or family status. Admitting students into college and university became rationalized with the use of the SAT, a formalistic device to measure all students on a common scale of intellectual ability. Only the best and the brightest would be selected for professional training as experts. By the 1960s colleges and universities were filled with young men and women selected on these rational, meritocratic grounds.

Reason becomes anti-reason

Ironically, reason has produced limitations on itself. Reason is a murderer of other thoughts, killing its own creations with new twists and turns of conceptual manipulations. It turns out that Aristotle’s scientific knowledge is something of a plaything for agile minds, and not an unyielding ultimate truth.

Nietzsche challenged the optimism of Kant and Hegel, and used aesthetics to expose reason. Nietzsche saw, and asserted without using formal, logical argument, that reason was both cannibalistic and capable of infanticide. Reason could be turned against itself and could destroy its own certainties. The inevitable end result of reason, Nietzsche believed, was not truth but rather uncertainty — nihilism. Reason can be an acid, corrosive of confidence and conviction. Far from being a source of ultimate truth, reason was destined to continuous manipulation of concepts, a constant shifting of understanding and meaning with no basis in empirical reality or moral values. The intellectual harvest to be gathered from the fields of reason is radical indeterminacy, not scientific knowledge, argued Nietzsche.

The hope, kept alive since Aristotle, of scientific knowledge leading to truth was thus dashed by Nietzsche, who first formulated the intellectual techniques now called post-modernism and deconstruction.

Nietzsche proposed that individuals assert their will to power, to construct meaning as they want it to be without providing compelling proof for their propositions. Truth-making thus becomes an art form guided by aesthetic principles of pleasure, form, and proportion. But Nietzsche’s new philosophic project contained the same thrust as Rousseau’s vision: Society is to be attacked in order to free the individual. Only Nietzsche was certain that the will of the individual was to find free expression; it was not a rational faculty which would blend a free individual with others voluntarily through acceptance of the transcendent truth of the General Will.

Some of Nietzsche’s insights were taken over by racists and the Nazis, thus discrediting his brutal but unrefutable delegitimization of the superiority of scientific knowledge.

Martin Heidegger, a Nazi to some degree, reformulated the French and Hegelian traditions of scientific knowledge, without, however, rejecting Nietzsche. But it took subsequent non-Nazi French scholars — Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault, Pierre Bourdreau, and Jacques Lacan — to restore intellectual prominence to the nihilistic consequences of reason, having first washed Nietzsche’s insights clean of fascist perversion. These post-World War II French thinkers produced the school of deconstruction or post-modernism which now dominates academic American thinking about education. But, ironically, what has triumphed is not the scientific knowledge of Aristotle, but its unfilial descendant — reason attacking reason.

A program of reform

While we should encourage a revival of religiosity and spirituality, the post-modern world will not permit a complete return to the credulous certainties of traditional faiths. Reason is here to stay; it has accomplished its work of deconstruction. Damage to our culture has been done. Like Humpty Dumpty, a culture, once broken, is impossible to reassemble as it once was.

We should supplement a new respect for religions with a return to primacy of the English ethic as our guide to education, culture, and politics. Practical wisdom, not scientific knowledge, should once again govern our understanding of what is best in life.

In the post-modern society, as described by Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein in The Bell Curve, those educated in formal institutions will constitute our elite. They will manipulate the values, beliefs, and images which drive our culture. Their ethos will have more power over our public policy than other subcultures will. We will not regain a culture of common sense until we tame the power of the French ethic in our educational institutions.

Little can be done to improve our culture if we leave higher education to its own devices under the influence of the French ethic. True leadership has become impossible in universities and colleges. Power has been dispersed too widely. Faculties are no longer guided by a common vision of the good. Professionalism has divided and sub-divided faculties into interest groups and cliques. Claims of preference and position based on gender, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation further complicate decision making. Ideals are most noted for their absence. A circle of opposition to authority based upon principles of deconstruction and “multiculturalism” forces deans and presidents to administer even details through broad-based participation of constituencies and consensus-building. This political structure, often useful to be sure, gives the power of veto to everyone in the institution. The result is a species of lethargy and an inability to rise above a comfortable mediocrity.

With this leadership mode reigning in colleges and universities, including Minnesota’s public institutions of higher education, little can be done to assert standards of cognitive excellence. Only a return to the English tradition of practical wisdom can foster a pattern of leadership which will get results and improve the stature of our universities and colleges.

The effort to improve the University of Minnesota has dragged on for a decade with no signs of significant success. What other conclusion can be drawn from the controversy over pay equity between men’s and women’s basketball coaches of the University of Minnesota than that fealty is owed to gender preferences over other standards and values? Even a new procedure for electing regents to govern the University has succumbed to the politics of special interests and the political correctness of “multiculturalism.” A suitable candidate for provost was nearly rejected by the Regents because he was of an inappropriate gender and race.

Those outside the university must assert leadership by imposing on the university accountability to the wider society. Citizens must not be intimidated by claims of professional expertise asserted by the professional faculty to legitimate its autonomy and self-interest. The arguments of the English ethic of knowledge stand ready to rebut the pretensions of deconstruction and divisive “multiculturalism.”

The current establishment thinking in higher education, with its adherence to the French ethic of abstract reason and with its influence reaching down through high schools and even in elementary education, is ripe for dis-establishment and deconstruction.

From its own perspective of deconstruction, we can insist that the French ethic is a relative intellectual construction, not an absolute truth. There is nothing in the French ethic of scientific knowledge which compels our obedience from the standpoint of pure reason, once we manipulate reason as suggested by deconstruction theory.

Consider as an example of deconstructing the French ethic the following observation: reason as conceived by the French ethic ends up as anti-reason — dismantling rigorous intellectual effort in order to advance standards based, not on reason, but on race and gender.

Deconstruction of divisive multiculturalism can be carried a step further: The construct of race was intellectually created. If persons of two different races marry, what race is their child? Should not our standards be those which embrace and affirm all persons regardless of race? Is that not the best of the American aspiration as a multi-national community? One can therefore inquire under the rules of deconstruction logic as to whose interests are being served when the race construct is employed in argument. If multiculturalism advances interests defined by race, which clique benefits and who is hurt?

Should our universities and colleges be breeding grounds for partisans of this power struggle asserting self-imposed, divisive constructs of the mind?

With special regard to publicly funded institutions of higher education, those whom higher education purports to serve should inquire if they are, indeed, being well-served. The proponents of the French ethic of scientific knowledge should be asked to defend their ethic using the arguments of practical wisdom. Since their social roles are part of contingent reality, the techniques of argument appropriate to such reality — practical wisdom — may be called upon for justification of their academic enterprise: What is the social worth of the French ethic?

John Cooper, formerly of the James Madison Institute in Florida, argues that we should (1) assess higher education curricula for developing civil literacy; (2) examine the value system of universities and colleges; (3) prevent politicization of education by political correctness; and (4) reconceptualize universities and colleges as civic institutions. Cooper argues that colleges and universities play a central role in the processes of “social construction” and “social maintenance” of reality. What social reality is it best to construct and to maintain? In Minnesota it is time to evaluate what good is accomplished by public higher education.

If, in fact, the education enterprise comes up short of justification, we may ask its members and advocates to resign their positions of educational leadership to others found to be more suitable for our times.

As citizens, we have a right to demand that graduates of our expensive, publicly financed, educational endeavors will be fit and worthy. We have a right to know what motives and goals direct these educational enterprises and, we have a collateral right to question those motives and goals if they fall short of doing justice to our future.

We, as citizens, should insist that the University of Minnesota and other public universities and colleges not be organized under the banner of deconstruction and unjust “multiculturalism.” If those ideologies prevail in our public institutions, we should reduce public funding and force such facilities to compete in the marketplace for the tuition dollars of individual students. Those who like the education provided by deconstruction and our contemporary “multiculturalism” will seek it out and pay for it.

Individual academics who believe in and justify deconstruction and the form of multiculturalism I object to will still have full academic freedom for debate to argue the merits of their position. But as the price of admission to a publicly paid position of great power, professors must demonstrate competence in cognitive excellence in addition to whatever views they hold on deconstruction and multiculturalism of any kind. Talent, regardless of race, culture, or creed, is to be sought out and rewarded. Minnesota should draw here from around the world the best minds and the strongest characters so that we may compete with the best in the world economy. No ideology of group preferences should stand in the way of this objective.

Reform should begin at the root of the problem. If our difficulties arise from misunderstandings and incorrect perceptions of what is truly important, then we must change our understandings and perceptions. Intellectual leadership must precede changes to political, social and economic institutions.