Let’s Not Be Political: Notes on Marks’ Conservative Case for Liberal Education

John Locke, coloured stipple engraving by James Godby after G.B. Cipriani. Wellcome Library, London (no. V0003673)
John Locke, disposed to reason

This was originally going to be a different post comparing Marks’ book with Hayot’s Humanist Reason. Although it would have made a pretty good review essay in NYRB (as if they’d publish me!), it proved unwieldy for a blog post. What follows, then, are some moderately connected thoughts about Johnathan Marks’ Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education (Princeton Univ. Press, 2021).

Marks presents intellectual life with metaphors military (battles of ideas) or consumerist (marketplace of ideas). He also tends to position himself in the supposedly reasonable middle between right-wing rejection of the university and the radical “unreasonableness” of the left. Although he criticizes the right when he believes they go too far, he consistently scolds leftists and sarcastically mocks leftist ideas. This perspective was not surprising: Marks declares his political parti pris in the subtitle (a “conservative” case) and explains his particular brand of conservatism in the preface. What was surprising, since Marks is a political scientist, was the slippery and vague way politics as a concept worked throughout the book and how it relates to the reason for his title. I spent a lot of time wondering what politics are for Marks, and my main criticisms of the book center around this problem. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Marks’ main case for liberal education rests in instilling in students a disposition to treat reason as an authority. I’m guessing that this is a normative statement, a call to create this disposition through a specific type of pedagogy, properly applied to old books of the European (?) tradition. I get the sense that Marks does not believe his goal to be the natural result of a liberal arts education generally; it should be, instead, its highest aim, an aim in danger of being lost in the contemporary university. There is much to like in the project of centering reason as a disposition, an inclination to privilege evidence and sound arguments.

Marks is correctly skeptical of defenses based on critical thinking or empathy, but his reason can sometimes be indistinguishable from both. He describes, for example, his ideal educational product as a person who will uniquely know “the value of speech and a diversity of opinion,” who can discern the true teacher from the charlatan, who will be a “smart shopper” in “the marketplace of ideas” (138–9). Aside from buzz words and tired clichés, this student seems like one who has been formed for “critical thinking.” Although he chides universities expressed desire to instill empathy (6), he praises a Marxist professor economist who asks his students to read Hayek with “intellectual empathy” (p.161). When does empathy contribute to instilling a disposition to reason? Presumably when you read Hayek. And when you read Polanyi’s Transformation or Du Bois?

I appreciated that Marks stressed that the right, being culture-war obsessed, exaggerates the danger posed by evil left-wing professors and students. The story of higher education is, as he says, “poorly told” (p.2). Generally, I imagine, because there are no incentives for accuracy among the pundit class. I likewise share his worry about the danger of a creeping presentism, a perspective that risks causing, as Cynthia Ozick put it, “the dying of the imagination through the invisibility of the past.” I value his critique of Lukianoff and Haidt’s Coddling of the American Mind for its invalid generational thinking. Marks’ repeated praise of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind made me anxious that he would adopt Bloom’s distaste for students or follow his anti-democratic inclinations (Martha Nussbaum’s review of Bloom explores these aspects as well as Closing’s impoverished view of philosophy). Both these worries were unfounded. Marks seems fond of his students and seems to desire to spread learning far and wide. However, the final chapter on the BDS movement feels irrelevant to the overall argument; instead, it is polemical, irritatingly hyper-partisan, and fails to deal reasonably with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. It reads like a hobby-horse, revealing more about Marks’ Zionism than his claim that a liberal education should instill a disposition to reason; the book would have been better without it.

Marks rightly insists that the relatively smaller numbers of conservative faculty are not due to left-wing exclusions. He is right, as well, to find absurd and insulting the attempt to explain the numbers by prejudices about closed-minded conservatives. Yet, it left me wondering, Why are conservatives underrepresented? And why are conservatives essentially completely absent from fields like women’s and gender studies or black studies? Race and gender are essential features of the social world, affecting nearly every aspect of our lives. Humanists and social scientists who work in these fields deploy reason and empirical methods; they follow the evidence. Where does the problem lie? A conservative might answer that these fields themselves are the problem because they are not based on reason but in politics, not scholarly but propagandistic. Marks, unfortunately, does not discuss this problem explicitly, though my reading of his book suggests to me that he would agree with the conservative answer above. Without claiming that conservatives are somehow uniquely closed-minded, it may also be true that a conservative world-view accompanies a systematic blindness to the role of gender and race in society. I do not know if this explanation is true (it seems overly facile, but see, for example, Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Blog Post from 2012). I will not pretend that the way out of this issue is yielding to the seductive non-answer so beloved of the desperate and lazy, i.e., it is both! Rather, I do not have an answer, but the problem itself illustrates a tension inherent in the book as a whole: What is politics, and how does it relate to reason?

Marks writes, at times, as if they are closely related. Conservatism is a movement centered on ideas, he says (xiii), and not as Trilling put it, a series of “irritable mental gestures” or, as I sometimes wonder (adapting Mencken), “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may become happy.” Marks does not explain what he means by politics, so readers must puzzle out his view from various, scattered statements. Locke's centrality initially suggested that perhaps he favored the classical liberal idea of reconciling competing interests via rational deliberation. The various metaphors of idea marketplaces encouraged such a view, but it is wrong. Marks states explicitly that compared to progressives (or classical liberals), his conservatism has “a dimmer view than progressives do of reason’s power in politics.” But he does not follow Schmitt’s view of the political as an unending conflict between friends and foes either. Marks acknowledges the existence of reasonable disagreement, and although he claims to be a partisan, he insists that it is not in “the scorched-earth style” (xii). So perhaps his politics are closer to the democratic agonism discussed by Chantal Mouffe: “agonism is a we/they relation where the conflicting parties, although acknowledging that there is no rational solution to their conflict, nevertheless recognize the legitimacy of their opponents. They are ‘adversaries,’ not enemies” (On the Political p. 20). As Martin Jay summarizes, the political for Mouffe (and perhaps Marks) is “a permanent, if shifting pluralistic competition of groups for hegemony within a polity.” (The Virtues of Mendacity). Or, perhaps, the single mention of Leo Strauss (xi) implies an influence of the theological-political predicament or a general Straussian approach to politics and philosophy?

Politics remains vague. Reason — the central hero of the book — also does not receive a complex portrait. Marks appeals to Locke, who, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, speaks of the “use and end of right reasoning” in terms of being able to distinguish truth from falsity, right from wrong, “and act accordingly.” This disposition contrasts with the simple disputant, who cannot or will not “yield to plain reason and the conviction of clear arguments” (section 189). We do not get much more clarity than this, and reason is frequently glossed as “following the arguments wherever they lead” (p.106; see also p.15, 27, 70, 105, 138, 161, 169, 172). This cliché is a common metaphor, but it makes little sense. Arguments are not autonomous machines: they do not go anywhere on their own, and we cannot “follow” them. People make arguments, and the arguments can be complex, simple, convincing, silly, partisan, generous. We can agree with an argument in toto, or more commonly in parte. Surprisingly, a book that advocates reason spends so little time discussing it.

The Locke quotation reminded me of a passage from James Baldwin’s Talk to Teachers that will bring us back to the central problem.

The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.

Baldwin shares with Locke the idea that education aims to instill the ability to distinguish truth and right from falsity and wrong (black from white). Like Locke, he is aware that society will generally be hostile to this independence since social contexts, whatever their political tendencies, can militate against independence of judgment. All this lines up nicely with Marks' position on a disposition to reason. But Baldwin continues:

The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it — at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

Social change is not exactly a conservative value. Marks is explicitly hostile to activism as an educational goal, which is an idea he attributes to the left (bizarrely referring to a somewhat obscure book by Richard Rorty). What I want to stress, however, is that Locke also explicitly links reason to action (“and act accordingly”). In other words, the problem of the relationship of reason to politics sits at the center of the work.

If reason is the hero of the story, politics (especially activism) often serves as the villain. “Politics makes most of us stupid” begins the second chapter (p.29). Colleges and universities that desire to put reason at the core should “be leery of politics.” They are not, as the Port Huron Statement illustrates.

More than fifty years ago, the authors of the Port Huron Statement, a founding document of American student activism, called for “an alliance of students and faculty” to galvanize a new left, taking in “allies in labor, civil rights, and other liberal forces outside the campus.” Within the universities, this alliance would “consciously build a base for [its] assault upon the loci of power.” From “its schools and colleges across the nations,” a “militant left might awaken its allies.” On this view, politics is not an extracurricular activity but the very stuff of higher education. (P.30)

The Port Huron Statement is definitely and explicitly political. It calls for activism. But the phrase directly before supposedly terrifying “assaults” states that they want to “make debate and controversy, not dull pedantic cant, the common style for educational life.” They likewise state that “the university permits the political life to be an adjunct to the academic one, and action to be informed by reason.” Action informed by reason seems to fit with Locke. The Port Huron Statement is a leftist document; it speaks of peace, civil rights, and labor struggles. I can see that a conservative would be unsympathetic. It is not, however, on its surface unreasonable, and scaremongering about “assaults” does nothing to relieve the tension inherent in political reason.

Marks comes closest to addressing this tension in a section of chapter two, What’s Wrong with Being Politicized? (p.42–46). He mainly argues against the perspective that “everything is political.” Sure, but that doesn’t help resolve the tension in his own use of the political. He suggests that convictions should yield to the best argument. That there is a “common good among truth-seekers” that transcends “partisan convictions” and “prejudices and distortions introduced by politics” (45). What is this common good? And what is its relationship to partisan convictions, prejudices, and distortions? The answer, if it is one, comes from an anecdote and some speculative fiction. I’ll look at both since it shows how race cuts to the core of the conservative problem with politics and reason.

The anecdote (p.38–39): A student worries that the book in a first-year course is not helping white students see that they benefit from systematic racial bias. This position is described as cramming a political “point of view through the clenched jaws of our students.” Marks helpfully informs the student that teaching consists of showing students how to “reflect on fundamental questions, like what justice is, rather than to break down their resistance to critical race theory.” Better, Marks says, is his approach which explores a debate on race in American between Ta Nehisi Coates and Johnathan Chait, the former stressing the continued relevance of white supremacy and the latter stressing the clear improvement. As Marks describes them, the two positions are not in obvious conflict, so I tried to read through this “debate” in the linked articles. Chait comes off badly, sophistic and whinging. That may have been his goal, to illustrate the weakness of the avoidance approach to race that Chait uses (claiming that he does not want to talk about race but a culture of poverty).

I’m not convinced that this “debate” does a better job teaching about Race in America than, say, Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning or many, many other approaches. Yet, the anecdote continues: instead of praising his balance, a college (who we are told, for some reason, is somatically paler than Marks) suggests that his arguments display some “white anxiety.” Marks responds that it is unfair to accuse “opponents, without a shred of evidence, of being in the grips of a race-based mental illness.” This “accusation,” he laments, does not advance the discussion on an issue about which reasonable people disagree. The response looks to me like an irritable mental gesture that construes the mention of racial blindness as a personal attack and unproductive. Perhaps the colleague wanted to suggest that Marks reconsider how his approach might be less than reasonable, a suggestion to reflect on his identity-based response. I do not know. I was supposed to learn that left politics undermines neutral reasonable teaching; I actually learned that it is hard for conservatives to see themselves as implicated and politically motivated when discussing race.

The speculative fiction: imagining this same story playing about thirty years ago (god, we are old), a left-leaning professor might have suggested including Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk into a syllabus because it provides a diverse point of view and unique insights. The response to this reasonable suggestion is even more bizarre than the anecdote. Invoking Allan Bloom, Marks suggests that the reasoning for including Du Bois is really a secret, nefarious plan not to open minds but to “propagandize acceptance of different ways” (p.46). At this point, I’m absolutely baffled by how to understand propaganda, activism, and politics. My best guess as to Marks’ positions is that teaching a transcendent universal and general reason must take the place of instrumentalist and self-interested rationality of leftist politics. In other words, politics is unavoidable, but left politics is bad.

The last part of the section leads me to think that Marks relies on a transcendent universalist reason when he oddly writes about Du Bois sidetracked from his activism and analysis of power.

Du Bois, a keen analyst of power and an activist, is no stranger to this species of argument. But you might say he sometimes got sidetracked by other concerns. In particular, he entertains the idea of a “sovereign human soul that seeks to know itself and the world about it,” that has a good in common with other would- be knowers, that imagines itself in communion with Shakespeare and Aristotle, and supposes it can be “wed with Truth.”

Why does Marks think that Du Bois' ideas about a sovereign human soul and his reading of Shakespeare and Aristotle are a “sidetrack” and not integral to his politics and activism? Again, reason and politics are asserted, at least for leftist positions, to be antagonistic.

The habit of treating calls for racial diversity as secret plans to propagandize left-politics also explains Marks’ strangely hostile reaction to Toni Morrison's inclusion in Columbia’s LitHum syllabus. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon cannot be considered “diversity” because ancient writers like Augustine cannot be considered “white” in modern racial terms. A statement from a supporter of Morrison indeed gave him the hook for that argument, but it is fundamentally irrelevant to the reasons to include Morrison. Would the inclusion of Morrison expand the “range of experience and expression” of the LitHum syllabus?

Marks is right to point to the diversity that comes from authors whose temporal distance from us renders them deeply foreign. Books from different times and addressed to different audiences can allow us to gain new perspectives and see the world differently. This effect, in my experience, only can occur with significant contextualizing work by the teacher. I am a classical philologist who regularly teaches in translation the poems attributed to Homer; simply reading Homer and asking some pointed questions will not reliably, in my view, allow students to understand how they relate to Homer’s world. I am committed to the value of old books and, I have to add, to the careful teaching of ancient history and archeology. I’m convinced that old books are enriched by deep knowledge of their contexts.

Yet, difference does not exist only on a temporal plane, but geographically and experientially. There is a good chance that students faced with Song of Solomon, requiring less detailed discussion of context, might learn of experiences different from their own, experiences that would allow them to grow into more reasonable people. Diversity is relational and exists on different planes and at different scales. In addition, the value of difference cannot be separated from recognizing similarity with works that present different perspectives. There is no obvious reason to exclude Morrison from a syllabus like this. Unless, that is, you are prey to conspiracy theories about racial diversity as a leftist fifth column.

The rejection of Morrison says more about Marks’ conservatism than about the disposition to reason or leftist politics. Likewise, the failure to imagine Du Bois’ intellectual and activist life as intertwined perhaps explains why the book struggles to overcome the inherent tension between reason, politics, and activism. I tried hard to understand how reason and politics relate. Despite my efforts, I found Marks’ usage of politics incoherent. I do not, however, possess a particularly sophisticated understanding of politics; a more informed reader might be able to intuit a real consistency in this book.

I was not impressed with the discussion of reason either. Perhaps it would have helped if Marks was clearer about the relationship between classroom activities and extra-curricular activism. As someone who has not participated in a Saint Johns’ approach, I also would have appreciated more explanation of the mechanism by which reading old books of the European tradition with a focus on “fundamental” questions instills a disposition to take reason as an authority. Even if there is no connection, it seems to be sound pedagogy and valuable. Colleges, however, do much more than teach supposedly great books in a method favoring an open-ended search to discover who we are as humans and what the best life could be. Not only do the liberal arts contain much more (I find it hard to imagine a liberal arts without mathematics!), it fails likewise to talk about how reason, of any sort, might be formed in humanities courses *not* organized around such questions. In other words, in most courses!

In the end, I am not the ideal reader of this book. I’m too skeptical about the power of fundamental questions and great European books to produce a disposition to reason. I am skeptical of many of the author’s claims about the left. Yet, I hope that I’ve not fallen into the carping disputer, who Marks describes as follows (to give him the last word):

Like a spokesperson for a cornered politician, he identifies your exaggerations and errors, but does so in the name of a deeply partisan, perhaps delusional, view of things.

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.