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On Rational Inquiry in Universities Today

In the current situation of chronic crisis and intermittent polarization on the campus, and in the country as a whole, what can the professional intellectual do? Especially what can he do if he is an academic intellectual, strongly opposed to the current drift of American society, yet equally strongly committed to certain liberal values, such as rational inquiry, intellectual freedom, tolerance, and civilized discourse, values that some sections of the extreme left now vehemently reject? Does this kind of liberal commitment sooner or later force one inevitably and reluctantly into the arms of those who call the police, and thus not very indirectly into the arms of the military and all those forces responsible for the cruelties that pass under the name of law and order in western civilization?

One answer comes to mind, based on the famous remark attributed to Florence Nightingale: Whatever else hospitals do, at least they should not spread disease. We can paraphrase it thus: Whatever else academic intellectuals do, they should not spread myths.

Let this homely version of the categorical imperative serve as a starting point from which to take bearings. Those who attack myths frequently do so from a perspective that itself rests upon mythical assumptions. There is no perfect cure for this situation—least of all confidence in one’s own infallibility. Nevertheless, the liberal ideal does contain one very powerful antidote. It is the assumption that no idea should or even can be permanently preserved from rigorous critical scrutiny. That assumption or ideal seems to me the essence of the concept of tolerance and intellectual freedom. It means something quite different from the notion that everybody has a right to his own opinions.

That notion may be the first myth that it would be wise to get out of the way. In a strict sense, there is no such thing as a right to opinions. I have no right to believe what is manifestly false, or even what is only moderately likely. All that exist are grounds for opinions, warrants for belief, based on logic and fact. Some of these warrants are much stronger than others. Many of them turn out upon examination to be rather feeble. In a reasonably good university nowadays very many of the most important warrants—pace radicals who see the university as mainly a factory of technical skills and social polish for the managers of the status quo—are undergoing severe re-examination. Thus the liberal commitment to intellectual freedom is a commitment to a process, not to a specific set of beliefs.

Like all commitments it is open to challenge. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century faith that this process would soon make the world a better and happier place to live in now seems absurd. There is no real guarantee that it can do anything of the sort. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to show (a) that once the process has gotten started it is very difficult to stop; and (b) that political efforts to stop it cause enormous misery which extends far beyond the fate of the immediate victims. Finally, unless one wants less rational grounds for belief rather than more rational ones, no other commitment is possible.

Very likely most people, including even acute professional thinkers, by and large would prefer less rational grounds in the sense of more emotionally satisfying ones. The danger that the world will soon lose its mysterious and mythological qualities is probably a romantic exaggeration. That observation takes us back to the starting point, the mythological bias and possibilities of self-deception in any attack on prevailing myths, the hint of arrogance in any effort to stop their spread. Both liberal and radical traditions come to the aid of any thinkers with honest misgivings on this score. Since there is enough freedom here to allow intellectual opponents to leap at the opportunity to pluck motes and beams from the eyes of anyone so rash as to commit thoughts to paper, there is not much risk that such arrogance will be seriously misleading.1

In the study of human affairs, critical rationality is most effective when it asks embarrassing questions about what we would like to believe. That is roughly the way I shall try to proceed in endeavoring to locate the dangers to the process of rational inquiry and hence to intellectual freedom. A substantial number of basically humane academic intellectuals remain most reluctant to acknowledge that the central threat to their values derives from fundamental trends in modern society itself. In other words, the threat comes from and through the Establishment, an imprecise term but one that refers to something very real, of which they form one part.

Here I shall not try to separate out the strands of truth from those of exaggerated rhetoric in neo-Marxist and other radical analyses because that is a difficult and complicated task, one I am doing my best to execute elsewhere. It is sufficient to repeat what is becoming increasingly obvious to many: In American society there are enormous structural obstacles to the humane and constructive use of our tremendous technological power. Partly, though not entirely, for these reasons this frightening power takes destructive forms, finding as its main victims those with dark skins and wretched lives in the economically backward sectors of both American society and the world at large.

The reasons why many academic intellectuals fail to perceive this threat are also fairly clear. To those past the draft age the Establishment poses no physical threat, at least so long as it is able to avoid the prospect of nuclear war. Indeed, the established order is the source of their substantial comforts and privileges. Hence the threat takes the insidious form of a temptation to avoid raising embarrassing questions.

Though the temptation is probably a lot stronger now than it was even a generation ago, owing to the massive inflow of government funds, it would be a serious error to conclude that the threat from the Establishment was either really new or really material. All societies have quite effectively controlled their educational institutions in the interests of the dominant groups. Contemporary societies may indeed be historically unique in their incapacity to take effective charge of educational institutions. More important for our immediate concerns is the fact that the Establishment does actually permit and even encourage a great deal of intellectual latitude. Some research sponsored by the military, I am assured on excellent authority, has at least until very recently been very “open” and free of petty bureaucratic vexations, because Congress has not been inclined to meddle.

Most academic intellectuals over forty perceive threats to intellectual freedom in terms of meddling or something stronger that approaches direct physical intervention or threat: censorship, legislative investigations, threats of prison and concentration camps at the hands of movements and governments that scorn or attack liberal democracy. Their own education, together with the experiences of fascism, communism, and the McCarthy era, impel them toward such a perception. These were very real threats, and they have left their imprint as a framework for the interpretation of subsequent events. Since the established order in so-called normal times poses no such threat of direct intrusion, and indeed supports considerable latitude, and since the activist radical students do pose exactly that kind of threat, it is scarcely surprising that to the senior faculty, by and large, the extreme radical students appear as the real danger.

They are a menace, even if a derivative one, a response to trends in the larger society. Both white radicals and black radicals—separately and, so far, much more rarely in combination—threaten and despise critical rationality. Certainly not all of them do. But some do. It is no service to anyone, least of all to simple truth, to deny the existence of the mood, manner, tactics, even strategy of the left-wing storm trooper. Though there are very rapid fluctuations in anything so intangible (yet so real) as currents of student opinion, there are some reasons for fearing that the secular trend against critical rationality may be an increasing one. Nevertheless, the important task for the moment is to understand why it exists. How does the cluster of values and practices that I have called critical rationality look to radical students? Between whites and blacks there are crucial differences that make it necessary to comment on each separately.

Amid the huge variety of psychological, sociological, and historical explanations of white student radicalism, two theses stand out, I suggest, as corresponding most closely with the evidence, especially the American evidence. In the first place, the immediate historical experience of anyone born around 1950 has been one during which the more repulsive aspects of liberal capitalist democracy became highly visible, while the “classic” enemies of freedom during the Thirties and Forties, fascism and communism, both changed their character and became something to learn about from textbooks. That this change in visibility corresponds only partly with what happened does not diminish its significance. Along with this change in the visibility and character of cruelty and suffering—indeed part of this change—has been an increasing contrast between ideals taught in both upper middle-class homes and good universities and the actual state of affairs in the outside world. Thus the young radicals have been both acting upon their elders’ ideals and rebelling against their betrayal, struggling to see what went wrong, and searching desperately for substitutes. The draft brings all these issues out of the realm of dormitory arguments and into the realm of agonizing personal decisions. Simultaneously, at a time when they are still partly outsiders within a continuing academic community, these students become acutely conscious of the way in which liberal values, such as freedom of research, serve to protect vested faculty interests, including the right to work for the Pentagon, which they perceive quite correctly as supporting under present circumstances the forces of cruelty and repression.

Because black students are outsiders in a deeper and more fundamental sense, they embody a different constellation of factors. Once again I shall not try to discuss all black students any more than all white radicals, but only certain trends that appear especially significant in view of the conception of critical rationality and intellectual freedom advanced above. Perhaps the most important fact here is the impact on black students of militant movements within black communities. At least in their rhetoric, these militants reject the workings of white society in almost all of its features. The rejection of rationality too as something racist, inhuman, and domineering—the weapon of those who enslaved the blacks and destroyed their minds and souls—plays a part in all this (sometimes with the help of arguments developed by white romantics of the nineteenth century). Let me add that their indictment is not totally nonsense, though a great deal of it is. Along with this rejection there exist among black students searches for a black identity, partly to override class and factional differences within their midst, partly as a charter myth to serve as the basis of legitimacy for their fight against white oppression.

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    There is also enough good solid human spite for many critics to want to pluck out the author’s eyes as well. Spite has not yet received its due as an engine of intellectual progress.

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