Becoming reasonable
May 02 2021 10:35 PM
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Law

By Jonathan Marks/Collegeville, Pennsylvania

Colleges and universities should shape reasonable people, but that does not appear to be an educational priority nowadays, perhaps because shame has become a dirty word. To shame someone is to judge them, and who are we to judge? 
We expect spokespeople and other hired guns to do their best with losing arguments if no winning ones are available. But it is dismaying when we, too, behave like a cornered politician’s press secretary, scoring points however we can and ignoring what we can’t refute.
We find ourselves in that position not because we don’t understand basic logic, but because we are straying from good sense – something we normally regard as demeaning. If a friend exclaims, “Be reasonable!” they don’t mean, “Mind your syllogisms!” A question lurks behind their exclamation: “Aren’t you ashamed?”
But to be reasonable is not merely to use “critical thinking” tools. Consider a man trained in what John Locke called “the art and formality of disputing.” He is ashamed, above all, of being shown to be unable “to maintain whatever he has once affirmed.”
The reasonable person, on the other hand, considers nothing to be more shameful than refusing to “yield to plain reason and the conviction of clear arguments.” For her, reason is not a tool but an authority that is honourable to obey and disgraceful to betray. In short, reasonable people are ashamed of the right things.
Colleges and universities should shape reasonable people, but that does not appear to be an educational priority nowadays, perhaps because shame has become a dirty word. To shame someone is to judge them, and who are we to judge?
In fact, shame is rife on campuses in the United States and elsewhere. Mark Edmundson, a veteran English professor at the University of Virginia, describes a “culture of hip,” in which “passion and strong admiration,” particularly for what one encounters in school, must be suppressed if they arise and hidden if they can’t be suppressed.
If other students roll their eyes at the nerd who responds enthusiastically to a professor’s plea to dig into Dante, it isn’t necessarily because they resent her intelligence. They may be just as clever as she is. The nerd’s offence, of which she is expected to be ashamed, is her earnestness. She cares too much about the wrong things, which is uncool.
More present to our minds, because more sensational, is “call-out culture.” When, in 2017, student protesters at the College of William & Mary shouted down Claire Gastañaga, then executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, they chanted “Shame!” They called out Gastañaga for caring too little about the right things, for standing on First Amendment principle rather than with the targets of white supremacist speech.
The students who silenced Gastañaga subscribed to a standard of praise and blame according to which it is disgraceful to be on the “wrong side of history.” That standard suits activist communities whose members are convinced they know where history is headed and how to hurry it along.
Neither of these shaming cultures suits a college or university community that seeks to be reasonable. Because the culture of hip already knows “what’s up,” it supplies no motive for open-ended inquiry. And call-out culture has no patience for free speech that is perceived as obstructing progress toward social justice. What campuses now lack, for the most part, is a standard of praise and blame according to which it is shameful to close one’s ears to challenging arguments and disorienting questions.
Setting such a standard need not require a wagging finger. But good teachers make us aware of our regular failings: our refusal to follow arguments where they lead, our resistance to reason when thinking gets hard, and our unwillingness to entertain arguments that threaten our self-confidence.
Joseph Cropsey, my first political philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, would sometimes say, “Courage,” when the class confronted an especially difficult passage of text. But any task that requires courage puts us at risk of displaying cowardice.
We shouldn’t whip ourselves too hard over understandable shortcomings, but we couldn’t honour reason if we didn’t think it dishonourable to abandon it. Cropsey, engaged in the same work of becoming reasonable that he invited us to join, didn’t need or presume to wag his finger.
Anyone who has done time in a classroom might doubt the power of teachers to influence the norms of praise and blame that guide their students. It’s all we can do to get students to stop deleting our emails. But we also know that they can be drawn into communities whose standards differ from those they had when they first arrived on campus.
Members of a scientific community, for example, are expected to channel their ambition into the pursuit of a common good, the truth about nature. So, they offer their findings to be confirmed or debunked. Scientific communities shape their initiates to be proud of pursuing the truth via experiment, and therefore of their readiness to live with the intellectual ground shifting beneath their feet.
Similarly, professions like journalism, medicine, and law have intellectual and moral standards that define praiseworthy and shameful activity, and reshape the people working in them. The professions’ success, however incomplete, at transmitting their standards to recruits should make educators optimistic about initiating students into a community that honours reason. We should not treat them as if their standards of praise and blame are fixed forever.
Becoming reasonable is a less sharply defined aim than becoming a scientist or a journalist. But, as Locke explained, our understanding is the “last resort a man has recourse to in the conduct of himself” in every important matter. And even if none of our students enters college in answer to the call to be reasonable, they can still be moved to heed it. — Colleges and universities should shape reasonable people, but that does not appear to be an educational priority nowadays, perhaps because shame has become a dirty word. To shame someone is to judge them, and who are we to judge?


* Jonathan Marks, a professor of politics at Ursinus College, is the author of Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education.



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