We conservatives are and should be suspicious of the modern distinction between rights and duties. Both words seem too modern, too abstract, too detached from the realities of a particular person living in a particular time and place. The idea of rights is somehow too negative, too much about being free from constraints, and based upon a too minimalist or inadequately defined personal self-understanding. And the word duties in its own way seems too unpleasant or unfulfilling, too much about irksome conditions placed upon our exercise of freedom.
It’s more natural—and more noble—to connect privileges with responsibilities. Each of us is privileged by nature with a free will and being able to live in the truth. The exercise of privileges begins with the enjoyment of the capabilities we alone have been given. And some of us have been given more than others, either by nature or circumstance or both. Even rights properly understood are privileges—point of pride or honor for which we are willing to fight and die. We are the privileged beings in the cosmos, and one characteristic of our enhanced status is to be concerned with status or personal significance.
It is true enough that we democrats are suspicious of the word privileges. It sounds much like what aristocrats unjustly have. We even turn it into a verb that’s synonymous with unjust thought and action. As in: She privileges heterosexual monogamy over other expressions of relational union between autonomous beings. Or: He privileges the logocentric perspective of science or the phallocentric perspective of men over other ways of experiencing the world. Or even: He or she privileges our species over the other species.
Now, from our conservative view, the democratic deconstruction of privileges becomes pathologically self-denying when it denies the real existence of personal responsibility. It is fine and even noble to claim that “nobody’s better than me,” and even “I’m no better than anyone else.” But as Alexis de Tocqueville explained, the denial that I have a privileged point of view by which to think and act can readily produce passive deference to the various forces that surround me—such as fashionable public opinion, technology, market forces, “history,” and so forth. Because “I’m no better than anyone else,” I can think I have no right to exempt myself from the sea of public opinion that surrounds me, opinion for which no one in particular takes responsibility.
From an educational view, part of the pathology here is the denial of personal authority. In my free and democratic effort to “think for myself,” I refuse to defer to the authority of those who claim to direct me to “the best that has been thought and said.” I refuse to trust the possibility that there are some who deserve the privilege of providing intellectual guidance to us all. Thought is typically most free when it occurs within the context of tradition of shared texts and ideas, and free thought—which is good in itself—is only rarely innovative thought. The privilege of living in the truth depends on the responsibility of deferring to the truth wherever it is found. Consciousness is knowing with others, and most knowing is sharing in what was discovered by others.
Part of the characteristically modern error here is confusing unprecedented technological progress with personal progress. Technological development is real, and it is possible for us today to make small contributions to a process that is beyond our real comprehension and control. But making that contribution depends on a kind of self-forgetfulness or surrendering oneself to the impersonal imperatives of science. That self-surrender to technical expertise is so pervasive that some say that we live in a time “after virtue” or after some reasonable shared understanding of personal privileges and their corresponding responsibilities. The indefinite process that is technological progress does not define who any of us in particular is.
One of the key privileges each member of our species has been given is what the philosopher Hannah Arendt calls “natality.” Each of us has a beginning and an end in this world. And so education, for each of us, is a return to the beginning, to learning who we are and what each of us is supposed to do as a unique and irreplaceable being born to know, love, and die. The one true progress, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us, is the progress toward wisdom and virtue over the course of a particular life. The one true progress is the singular responsibility of a particular person who does not experience himself or herself primarily as a part of a whole or a process. It is true, of course, that we are relational beings; our personal identities are in relation to other persons. Still, as our biblical religion teaches us, we were made to retain our personal identities even while in love with others, even while in love with the free and relational God in whose image each of us is made.
Education is primarily about the privilege of personal responsibility each of us has been given, and that means attending to who we are as particular beings living in a particular time and place, with irreducible and intrinsically both enjoyable and deeply demanding responsibilities as friends, parents, children, citizens, and creatures capable by nature of living in the truth. There is no way, of course, that any of us could discover who we are and what we are supposed to do all on his or her own or by rejecting the authority of other persons—priests, poets, philosophers, politicians, parents, and so forth—as simply modes of oppression, just as it is not true that we are free to define the mystery of our existences however we please.
Our technological success allows us the pride of thinking of the present situation as unprecedented in the sense that we live in a time when people can know and do more than ever. That pride comes when we think of our world in relation to the past, but it dissolves when we consider how insignificant each of us is in relation to the techno-future, a future in which persons might be out-thought and out-witted by genius machines and robots unhobbled by our evolutionary baggage. But what is most authentically unprecedented—what is most deeply singular—is the birth of each of us. The people who run an Amazon warehouse might replace my imperfectly scripted labor with that of an ingeniously programmed machine. But that robot, of course, does not really replace me.
Technological progress will never replace the progress—the character formation—that I can take pride in over my particular life. Or, to remember Solzhenitsyn again, the line between good and evil will continue to run through every human heart. And to use a most untechnical term: Sin will continue to be the failure to deploy the privileges I have been given to fulfill my relational responsibilities. Technology will probably allow most of our lives to continue to become longer and more comfortable, but it will not reliably cure of us of our loneliness and anxiety. It will not reliably allow us to feel good without being good.
The paradox of technology is that it is an impersonal, indefinite process that is designed to serve the free being of particular persons. It was not so long ago that technology was derailed to serve monstrous ideologies, ideologies that reduce the person to an expendable part. But, for now, those ideologies are gone. (Well, I am skipping over the complicated and fairly scary case of China here.) Our hopes for biotechnological progress remain “eugenic,” but they are focused on sustaining and enhancing the being of free persons. Our most advanced techno-thinkers these days seem to be mostly transhumanists, hoping for that coming Singularity that somehow makes the free person other than a biological being by disconnecting him or her from any dependence on a contingent, ephemeral body. The Singularity, as Peter Thiel explains, will serve the “singularity” that is each of our particular lives. From this view, because we are privileged to have been given the capacity to develop the creative power to transform nature on behalf of ourselves, we have the responsibility to deploy it to save each of us from the prospect of personal extinction. The final stage in our personal development is to replace completely impersonal natural evolution with conscious and volitional evolution, to free ourselves from the degradation of being the expendable parts of nature that Mr. Darwin describes.
From an educational perspective, there is something to be said for the transhumanist attempts to reconcile personal progress with technological progress. But one problem, the general modern tendency to define the person negatively—as the being who is not determined by nature—is enhanced beyond belief. Thiel, I think quite sincerely, thinks of himself as a Christian, as opposed to a pagan. It is generically pagan to be a fatalist, to think of personal significance as ephemeral and somewhat delusional. It is generically Christian to think of unique and irreplaceable persons as the bottom line. In Thiel’s tale of salvation, God’s gift to us was our creative freedom, and our Creator graciously steps aside to allows us to work to save ourselves from our natural fate of personal extinction. Traditional and transhumanist Christians agree that we all long for personal freedom from anxious contingency and inevitable mortality, and that freedom is achieved for us through the gracious or “supernatural” effort of creative personal being.
Now, the obvious criticism of this way of thinking is that it is extremely self-centered. A pagan criticism of Christianity is that it is vanity masquerading as humility. How likely is it that there is a God out there who loves and cares about me in particular, who became man and died by my sins, and who graciously offers me personal being without end? Christianity is the delusion that frees each of us of the personal responsibility of living well with death, with being genuinely courageous and genuinely open to the truth about how insignificant each of us is in the light of eternity.
The genuinely Christian (as opposed to Thiel’s) response here, of course, is that the bottom line is personal love. We are free and relational beings, and we are called to love one another as God loves each of us. The core Christian virtue is less humility than charity. And God’s loving promise frees each of us from anxious self-obsession about personal extinction for being in love with each other. I retain my personal identity even or especially in love with personal God, as he does in love with me. From this view, it is the pagans who are selfish. Pagan virtue—such as magnanimity and generosity—is about being of service to others to display one’s own excellence, one’s “class.” And Socrates was so involved in his personal quest that he neglected his relational duties to his fellow citizens and members of his family. His intellectual and social privileges were not, for him, the source of loving personal responsibilities. Pagan virtue is, at heart, self-flattery combined with an anxious quest for social affirmation.
But, from another view, pagan and Christian virtue are both rooted in the thought that natural, personal, and social privileges need to be ennobled through embracing the corresponding responsibilities. Generosity and charity are surely both virtues, and what they demand of us is quite similar. Our neo-Puritanical novelist Marilynne Robinson even reminds us that the Bible itself extols the idea of being liberal as a form of lovingly uncalculating generosity. And Tocqueville does something similar in tying Christian and pagan virtue together when he tells us that what American Christians learned from their Sunday sermons is what Socrates taught about the high and singular destiny each of us as more than a material being, as a being with a soul that is in some sense immortal. We have the high or proud responsibility of having thoughts and performing deeds that stand the test of time, and we need to get our minds off our puny selves in service with and for others. Virtue really is, in some sense, displaying your privileged class, as the Stoic Atticus Finch rationally and courageously does in To Kill a Mockingbird, and as the Christians do every time we see them loving one another and, in fact, everyone regardless of level of natural gifts or social class.
From the relational view of the classical and classically Christian thinkers, our techno-enthusiastic transhumanists err in thinking that the point of human life, the point of human freedom, is simply sustaining my personal being as long as possible against a hostile natural environment. It is not true that my personal existence is identical to being itself or that my personal being depends on own techno-creative efforts. The truth is that privileges, first of all, are gifts we have received from nature, God, and other persons. Our most important privileges are unbought and unearned gifts that distinguish each of us from the rest of creation.
We alone among the animals are privileged by being able to live in the truth. We assume for good reasons that not even the supersmart dolphins are able to do that, given the absence of dolphin poets, philosophers, priests, and so forth. That privilege of living in the truth is connected to the responsibility of living well with what we really know—often with what we cannot help but know. We have the responsibility, as the anticommunist dissidents Havel and Solzhenitsyn say, not to lose ourselves in ideological lies. We also have, as Walker Percy says, the responsibility not surrender our personal sovereignty to what the experts and their studies say. And, of course, we have the responsibility not to surrender our lives attempting to divert ourselves, in front of the screen or elsewhere, from what we really know.
We are also privileged by our capacity to use our minds and wills to transform technologically what we have been given by nature. We employ our techno-capabilities to enhance our status on this planet. We have been given the privilege of making ourselves more privileged. In some important ways, we here today are among the most privileged people ever. That also means, of course, that we have some unprecedented responsibilities.
What we can call our techno-privileges also have not been given to the wonderfully social and achingly cute dolphin. We can take out the dolphin anytime we want. But they can not do the same to us. And, to be honest, they, if they could think along those lines, would have plenty of reason to want to do so. So far, we have unevenly but genuinely assumed responsibility for the species’ future, as we have for lots of species we want to keep around. But the news might not be so good for the stupid and ugly, but very tasty, tuna.
Given our singular privileges, some say we have to assume the responsibility for the very future of life itself. Because we have the capacity of trashing our planet and ourselves, we have the responsibility not to do it. But we Christians know that there is no reason to be that paranoid; we are not so privileged that being itself is in our hands. And that is because, in another way, we are so privileged that, made in the image of God, we have been given the personal gift of being more than biological beings. Still, it is easy to understand why obsession with the possibility of the extinction of our species seems pervasive. It might, after all, be the consequence of our irresponsibility. And we might have what it takes these days to do something about, to deflect that asteroid aiming at our planet or, even better, diversify ourselves to any number of planetary homes.
Technology is, in fact, best understood as both a wonderful gift and an intricate trial for our free will. We have, for example, the gift of much better health and much longer (on the average) lives, but at the expense of opening up a rift between the generations. In our techno-society full of preferential options for the young, we have more old people than ever. Meanwhile, we have lost any sense of what the elderly are for, and so their lives are often lonely, disconnected, and seemingly without significance. And we are in some ways better connected than ever through the screens on our smart devices large and small, and virtually all of us have access, for free, through the screen to the best that has been thought, said, written, recorded, and photographed. But the screen also readily leads us to prefer the virtual world of the images to the real world of bodies, as well to lose ourselves in the mindless or at least heartless addictions of games and porn. Who can deny that maybe the challenge of education today is to learn how to use the screen with moderation, to subordinate that “how” to the “why” of worthy human purposes?
Some of us, of course, have been given more privileges and so more responsibilities than others. And there is little more repulsive than those who claim privileges but reject the corresponding responsibilities. Tocqueville explains that what made the eighteenth-century French aristocracy repulsive was its detachment of its traditional privileges from corresponding political responsibilities. Those aristocrats were not statesmen like Edmund Burke. They were what Tocqueville called literary politicians who shot the bull in salons and wrote fashionable books about dangerous utopian theories without taking responsibility for the consequences of their words. And so they were, in effect, a stimulus package for a revolution that not only destroyed their privileges but murderously attempted to eradicate civilized privileges in general.
On the PBS show Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham actually is quite admirable when he employs his privileges to take responsibility for the people in his village. He only becomes repulsive when he vainly and lazily neglects what he needs to do to sustain what is basically the family business. We readily compare his sense of responsibility with that of most of our Silicon Valley mega-oligarchs, who, thinking they deserve what they have as the just reward of their productive success, typically do not think they have much responsibility for those not of their class. In this respect, most of the members of our “cognitive elite” have little class. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, worried that if aristocracy did return to our country it would be in the form of an industrious and rational few who had mastered the process of the division of labor by scripting the work of most Americans. They would feel no emotional connection between themselves and those on who they had imposed rational control, and so they would gladly allow the government to care for those who could not provide for themselves. Tocqueville’s worry is, in some measure, our reality, precisely because the privileged few are short on the corresponding sense of responsibility; they have not been raised or educated for lives of virtue beyond what is required to achieve productive disruptive innovation.
That observation, which is meant to be an exaggeration, leads us to the purpose of higher education in America today. Higher education, especially a residential liberal arts education is a privilege especially for people who have been given what it takes to benefit from it. We are privileged by nature and the way we have been raised and our unprecedented material prosperity and technological power not only to benefit from such an education, but actually to need it.
The point of liberal education is to figure out who you are and what you are supposed to do. Now, that kind of education would not have to occur in college, as it does not, for example, for the wandering and wondering characters in Walker Percy novels. It is just that these days it usually does.
So the privilege of higher education is repulsive if the two-part responsibility is not fully embraced. Not only do you have to come to know what you are supposed to do. You have to actually do it. The truth is that more and more Americans are finding what we call liberal education to be repulsive because it seems to be all about aristocratic privileges without the corresponding responsibilities.
Is there any American life today more privileged, more aristocratic than life in our residential liberal arts colleges? People cook for you—and the food is getting better all the time. People clean for you. And you have concierges—the student affairs staff—who are there to make sure you do not get bored and that your abundant leisure time is filled with edifying activities. You can study whatever you want whenever you want. You can indulge your taste for beautiful and useless pursuits. Or not. You can live as you please in the hotel-style dorms. College is more about amenities—tasteful aristocratic perks—than ever. It is a luxury cruise.
Higher education, they say, has become a bubble in two ways. It is a bubble like the housing bubble was. You are paying more and more for a flashy product, one that is not worth anything like what it costs. It is also a bubble in the sense that it is an artificial environment—like the environment of the bubble-boy on the classic Seinfeld episode—that insulates you like a privileged aristocrat from the rigors of the twenty-first-century global competitive marketplace.
There’s no use belaboring all the evidence of how irresponsible college life has become: The self-indulgent moral relativism of some professors, who say it is above their pay grade to tell you anything about who you are and what you are supposed to do. The scientism of other professors, who teach stuff like neuroscience or evolutionary psychology or rational-choice theory with the intention of explaining everything we say and do. They teach that members of our species are not really privileged by nature and so are not really responsible. Then there is the state-of-nature dorms—well, not really state of nature, because campus security is good enough to at least keep you from fear of violent death, although apparently not good enough, in many places, to free young women from some justified fear of being sexually assaulted. The most extreme piece of evidence that the privileged young men on our campuses lack the bare minimum of civilized responsibility is the perception that our campuses are increasingly “a culture of rape,” even or especially if they are really not.
Then, of course, there is the grade inflation, a repulsive scam that originated in that center of irresponsible privilege the Ivy League and trickled down to most of our campuses. Privileged and irresponsible tenured faculty, the perception is, make a corrupt bargain with students. I’ll rate you highly for no good reason, if you do the same for me on the student evaluation. That means that altogether too much of the leisure of college life has been freed up from the discipline of actually learning.
Some say that real scandal of higher education is that so much goes on that is neither liberal education nor vocational education. Consider, for example, all those studies majors—such as women’s studies or environmental studies. They are worthless when it comes either to learning who you are or how to make a living. They are completely irresponsible, and so it is no wonder that Republican governors want to cut off their privileges. Unfortunately, those governors usually say they want to cut off philosophy too—so decadent have the humanities become that it is hard to tell the difference between philosophy and literature on the one hand and women’s studies and film studies on the other. It is too easy to conclude these days that any education that is not vocational education understood as technical education is all about privileges without responsibilities.
A telling indictment of the education available at our so-called residential liberal arts colleges is the excellent and subtextually conservative HBO series Girls. A girl privileged by upbringing and education—but burdened by body image issues and the evidence of a particularly wounded soul that is obsessive-compulsive disorder—majors in film studies at a college we know to be Oberlin. She picks up the idea that she can make a living as a writer, but it turns out she has nothing real to write about. That is because she has never read a real book with real care and she has never thoughtfully assumed responsibility for her relational life. So she moves to the big city with a high sense of entitlement but no marketable skills, and spends a good deal of her time figuring out how to live like a shameless parasite. She quite repulsively thinks she’s so privileged that she’s above being responsible.
Her relational life is ridiculous and degrading, precisely because it is detached from any sense of responsibility. She is a terrible friend. She kind of knows that she is supposed to grow up, get a real job, love a real person, and live responsibly as real adults do. But nothing in her seemingly privileged background—certainly not her higher education—has prepared her to honestly tell either herself or others what she can not help know about who she is. And she is clueless—when she is not being narcissistic—about who she is and what she is supposed do.
The wrong conclusion is that liberal education is leisure cruise for the privileged and self-indulgent, making screwed up people even more screwed up. It has become that in some places, maybe at Oberlin, but not everywhere. It is also wrong to say that liberal education has become irrelevant because the privileged career path enjoyed by some Americans has, in the name of both justice and the imperatives of the twenty-first-century competitive marketplace, withered away. It used to be you could move from the bastion of privilege called the residential liberal arts college to, say, the law school and then on to a secure career in a firm. All along, merit would have some place in your progress, but so would an unearned sense of privilege or entitlement. These days, employer and employee loyalty and all that is toast. And “who you know” has almost been completely replaced by what you know in a measurable, quite technical sense.
Displaying the classy virtues of a lady and gentleman for their own sake is a luxury fewer can afford, as all become independent operators marketing our flexible skills to whoever will pay for them. It is true that even the accustomed work of physicians and lawyers is being done by contractors and increasingly savvy machines that know more and make fewer errors than real persons, and even cherished tenured professors are being replaced by adjunct faculty delivering online instruction that is more reliable or less quirky and self-indulgent (even if less brilliant) that letting particular professors determine—sometimes completely untutored by what studies show about best practices—either the content or mode of delivery. All those claims about relevance have some truth, but they have nothing to do with the relevance of educating the privileged— all of us, to some extent or another—for assuming their responsibilities.
Even from the perspective of our marketplace, we notice that employers do not complain that much about college graduates not having this or that competency that might, after all, readily be learned on the job. The more common complaint is that graduates lack the level of literacy, the good habits and manners, and the solid sense of personal identity that we used to somewhat reliably expect from even high school graduates.
One way higher education is being emptied out of its liberal arts substance is that “general education” is becoming far less about becoming literate in the content of particular disciplines and more about mastering particular “competencies” required to enter the workforce. The competencies are typically “hows” or methods that are content neutral, such as critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and effective communication. Professors in the disciplines, in part because they are suckered by a perception of both market and accreditation imperatives, can routinely be led to justify what they teach in terms of competency acquisition—the study of history can be demonstrated to improve critical and communication skills. The problem, though, is those skills surely can be acquired in ways unsaddled by all that historical or literary or philosophical content.
The right conclusion is that liberal education is the key aristocratic experience available in our democracy. The point of the privilege is to pick up what you can not learn on the street in a middle-class democracy. It is about learning about who you are as being born to know, love, and die.
One reason we need higher education today is that we live in a very untraditional time. That is both good and bad. In a certain way, we are all displaced persons. But every Christian knows that the experience of displacement is part of the truth about who we are. Before we can be at home with our homelessness, we have to know that it is not our true place in this life to be completely at home. Sure our techno-liberation has made us more displaced than we need be, but it would be just as bad, in a different way, to have too strong a sense of place, to be too much at home.
Because we live in a very untraditional time, we can not help, as Mark Henrie explains, but experience nostalgia for this or that more traditional or less displaced point in the past. Higher education should discipline our nostalgia by informing it or making it intelligently selective. When we long for the classical polis or the medieval village or the heroic liberalism of our Founders or a secure place on Wendell Berry’s farm or to be Southern ladies and gentlemen irascible enough to be easily provoked to secede or the period before entitlements had produced degrading dependency or the strong family values of the 1950s, we do not long for everything about the way of life we imagine, with some evidence, existed at that point in history. We do not to want to go back to Athenian or Southern slavery or the unrelenting drudgery that was much of the subsistence farming of the past or the degrading civil theology and lack of privacy of the polis or the disfranchisement of women or ancient and medieval dentistry.
To be a conservative, actually to be anyone who lives in our times, it is impossible not have longings based on the experience of being deprived, just as it is equally impossible not to acknowledge that these are not exactly the worst of times in every respect. We do not even really live after virtue. We see virtue all around us if we just look, and in some ways virtue is more needed than ever. People are still privileged, and they are still often admirably responsible.
Nobody really believes that these are simply either the best or the worst of times. When we watch the fascinating but condescending show Mad Men, we have to admit that privileged people not so long who irresponsibly smoked and drank martinis and never exercised were crazy, and the ways they treated women and blacks and gays was cruelly unjust. Thank God or History we’re not like them! But then we also notice they were pretty classy, not as fearfully risk-adverse as we are, knew how to dress, knew enough about language and culture to be surprisingly creative, and could loosen up enough to have unprotected sex and so a decent number of children. We really should be more like them.
The only way we can really come to know who we are is to encounter various ways of life that have shaped life today as displayed in great books—in real books (and, okay, in very recent times real films). If you do not read the books for yourself, you will not really know what the alternatives are, alternatives that in almost every case remain alive or somewhat alive today.
Let me just mention nine of those possibilities. These possibilities are not simply possibilities, because each of them really does express part of who each of us is. So they are not, as sociologists say, roles we play but real features of who we can not help or almost can not help but be.
Here is the list, which is not meant to be complete: Each of us is, in part, a devoted and loyal citizen (a Spartan); a free mind (a Socrates); a moral and rational person secure in his or her place (a Stoic); a free being who works (a member of the American middle class—or bourgeois in the good sense); a restlessly autonomous being (a feminist or a technophile); a social, familial animal (the animal described by neo-Darwinian evolutionary psychology); a friend; displaced or wandering; as well as a free and relational—meaning loving and charitable—person (a Jew or Christian).
This is not the place to explore all those possibilities. But maybe a beginning of the reform of liberal education could at least have them in mind. Only if higher education intentionally connects human privileges with human responsibilities can it reasonably hope to justify what it costs in time and treasure in our techno-enthusiastic era disciplined in so many ways by the dynamic realities of the twenty-first-century global competitive marketplace.
The point of higher education is to explore these possibilities as they exist in the texts of our tradition and in ourselves. The truth is, thank God, not all possibilities are open to us. If they were, life would be hell, because we would be stuck with no guidance at all about what to do even this afternoon. We see that hell displayed in the philosophic film Groundhog Day. We also know that the future paradise described by Karl Marx in one way and the transhumanists in another is the same kind of hell. The world in which we will perfectly unobsessively be able to do what we please whenever we please, where we are totally free from natural necessities and relational love, would reduce each of us to either a kind of an anxious paralysis or a kind of mind-numbing total immersion in diversions. In either case, freedom would be the degrading freedom from the dignity and joy of being defined by both privileges and responsibilities.
Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He served on President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, edits the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science, and the author or editor of nineteen books, including the recent Allergic to Crazy and the forthcoming American Heresies and Higher Education.