Peter Augustine Lawler. American Heresies and Higher Education. St. Augustine’s Press, 2016. 224 pp.


Most contemporary assessments of higher education view the subject in technological and economic terms. The authors stand outside and above their subject and observe its many problems. They introduce possible alternatives only to arrive at a cluster of solutions to resolve these problems all at once. Because their approaches are technological and economic, so are their recommendations. Some, like Glenn Harlan Reynolds in The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, favor technology such as Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to blast information at a once unthinkable scale, drastically reduce costs, and reduce arrogant and useless faculty to the proletariat where they belong. Others, such as the team behind the documentary Starving the Beast, favor policy change as a kind of technology, since policies are merely the implementation of social science research. These latter policies usually call for even greater allocations of public funds so that more students may attend universities, where they, especially the economically disadvantaged, might learn critical thinking skills necessary to become productive “knowledge workers” for the twenty-first century.

In American Heresies and Higher Education, Peter Augustine Lawler, the Dana Professor in Government at Berry College, presents himself as a “postmodern conservative” and a heretic, since he radically breaks with this typical higher education discourse. The central heresy is that technological innovation is a “false hope” that “we can become better or more free than merely humans, a hope that depends on ungratefully misunderstanding how stuck with—and how blessed—we are to be beings born to know, love, and die” (7). For Lawler, there are limits to the liberation that technology can promise, which means his job is to show “how a free person privileged by nature and God with rights is also a rational and relational person with invincible responsibilities” (7). Put simply, Americans, like everyone else, are “stuck with virtue” (7). With respect to higher education, Lawler’s view is similarly heretical. He believes higher education must improve the soul. Lawler has little use for a technological interpretation of higher education, whether in the digital or policy-oriented sense. His method for argumentation is equally heretical in his refusal to describe the purpose of higher education in the strictly economic terms.

Consequently, the ordinary expert in higher education reform might find American Heresies at least a strange text, if not offensive for its explicit contempt for the predominant discourse. Whereas Reynolds begins The New School with the treatment of education as a mode of production, Lawler begins American Heresies by accounting for the several philosophical schools that influence the broader thinking Americans have about the world, of which the technological approach, though presently dominant, is merely one among many. Despite their orthodoxy, mainstream authors in higher education reform are quite heretical themselves, and Reynolds is no exception. After all, Reynolds preaches the Lockean heresy about the nature of the human soul. According to Lawler, Lockean heresy stresses the “individualistic and technological understanding of who each of is” at the expense of the family and tradition (14). The chief demand of Locke is for individuals to devise methods for improving human safety, ease, and plenty by labor and efficiency. The outcome of the Lockean heresy is ironic. As Lawler explains, “In light of that technological imperative not to waste, it is ironic that the wasteland grows” because “the fundamental fact [of our way of life] is not natural scarcity but natural order, and our truthful understanding of this order is embedded in traditions and customs of particular places that are laid waste by promiscuous technological innovation” (14). Even so, heresies “are always partly true, and they highlight part of the truth we might otherwise ignore” (1). The purpose of American Heresies is to capture these partial truths and to conceive of them in a more comprehensive view of the truth concerning higher education.

Diversity in Higher Education, Rightly Understood

Lawler’s thesis is that higher education must become more diverse, but the Lockean embrace of technology and economics drives conformity. “Diversity” does not refer to greater inclusion of racial and religious minorities, though Lawler certainly favors this kind of diversity. Rather, Lawler understands diversity to mean many kinds of institutions of higher education to suit the diverse interests and needs of students. Students naturally vary in their interests and pursuits, and higher education must respond with an equal diversity of institutions. In the past, Lawler observes, such diversity was quite prominent in America, and, though diminished, it still is. The United States has residential colleges, research universities, seminaries, professional schools, community colleges, and continuing education courses. These institutions provide a diverse range of opportunities for formation; therefore, the problem with the current debate over higher education is the desire to end this diversity.

Lawler is most concerned with challenging technophile libertarians, over the advocates of public support. The latter Lawler dismisses by detailing the excessive compliance costs driven by the regulatory overhead a dependence on state money inevitably creates. For the state-funding advocates, Lawler half-seriously recommends the MOOA, or massively open online administration, to handle all compliance issues for all the other colleges. The reason Lawler focuses on the libertarians is that they, as keepers of contemporary Lockean orthodoxy, are supposed to want more choice and diversity, while the expressed position among state-funding advocates is greater regulation of increasingly state-managed institutions. While I mentioned Reynolds, the name Lawler frequently raises is that of the George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen. Cowen has made a name for himself in popular books on economics, such as Average Is Over, as well as on his blog “Marginal Revolution.” In a signal to the attentive reader, Lawler appends titles to Cowen the way Locke famously did with the “judicious Hooker.” Lawler demurs from calling Cowen “judicious” but instead “honest libertarian,” “candid libertarian futurist,” or sometimes just “libertarian futurist.” Added to Cowen is Peter Thiel, who is the “most astute and reflective of Silicon Valley billionaires” and “the deepest of our Silicon Valley entrepreneurs” and simply “brilliant.” This last title for Thiel is important, since it is an objective rather than relative assessment.

With his audience defined, it is important to note Lawler’s method of argumentation in a careful reading of Socrates and higher education. Lawler observes that Socrates tricks even “his really smart interlocutors” by “changing-up . . . what he said before” (62). He admits that he does not “try to trick my students that way, although I constantly remind them how easy it would be to do so” (62). The readers, however, are not Lawler’s students at Berry, and the variation in titles for Lawler’s audience already indicates his willingness to do what Socrates, as well as Locke, did themselves. It is easy to see why: libertarians are complacently confident in their worldview in a way similar to, for instance, Gorgias. Lawler aims to poke holes in the libertarian epistemic bubble like Socrates did in the proverbial leaky jar. The argument is this: libertarians are supposed to favor greater diversity of choices, but the current approach libertarians recommend produces precisely the opposite result—just two. One is the standardized MOOC for the masses; the other is the standardized brick-and-mortar curriculum for the elite, which would include Cowen and Thiel themselves. In a feat of Socratic irony, Lawler demonstrates that the Lockeans, in pursuit of greater diversity of choice, have produced the opposite.

The techno-optimists and state-funding advocates want less of this kind of diversity because their Lockean heresies preclude the natural student-teacher bond and the “unproductive” reflection that grows out of it. Both techno-optimists and state-funding advocates agree on a need to reduce curriculum to competencies common across educational institutions, held up by universally applied standards, enforced by an ever-more-intrusive group of administrators and accreditors. The only difference is which elites to empower: the techno-optimists of Silicon Valley or the self-aggrandizing bureaucrats spread out among state and federal government offices. If either party’s reforms were to work, more Americans might become college graduates, but very few would ever become truly educated as free men and women. They would merely become credentialed in the vocations that one or the other elite parties set for them. Lawler points out that these elites attend universities mostly insulated from the technological and administrative meddling that substitutes for true education, but their elite education is also standardized and as much a failure to form the soul as the nonelite institutions they wish to reform. So, what alternative does Lawler propose?

Liberal Education and Southern Manliness

American Heresies does not provide a template for one alternative. Early in the book, Lawler articulates several heresies that inform the many kinds of institutions of higher education. He includes the following: aristocratic Platonism, techno-vocational education, political correctness (or social justice), literary liberal education, democratic civic education, Christian education. Lawler spends much of the first half of the book explaining the problems with an overemphasis on techno-vocational education and political correctness. The second half of the book explores the rest, but he does not outline a plan for how to incorporate them into higher education. He does not because such a plan would run directly counter to the genuine diversity he wishes to preserve and revitalize. Instead, Lawler’s later chapters show the fruit of reflection on issues raised by aristocratic Platonism, as well as literary, civic, and Christian education.

At first, these inclusions strike readers as strange. Where are the data? Where are the solutions? Where are the futuristic vistas of technological change or inspiring narratives of upward mobility among first generation college graduates? Lawler refuses to comport with the standard structure for a book on higher education reform because he is not focused on the technological and economic issues. Instead, he explores subjects on which liberal education can provide answers or insight. Among these subjects are issues that technological thought can say nothing about—subjects such as the bond between father and son, a sense of place and tradition, and the relationship between citizen and the law. There are many examples, but I will confine this review to those on southern Stoicism and his review of Man of Steel, since these two together incorporate aristocratic, literary, civic, and Christian education.

Lawler has two chapters on southern Stoicism, and he explicitly refers to a southern college that remains a strong bearer of this tradition: Hampden-Sydney College (HSC; full disclosure: my former employer). Its example illustrates the importance of true diversity in education and formation of the soul. HSC has low grade inflation and a strong core curriculum with a course on rhetoric at its center. It is also a men’s college, one of the two remaining in the United States. By Lawler’s standard, HSC is one of the most diverse colleges there can be because it so radically departs from the norms set by Silicon Valley and state bureaucrats. In my experience, Hampden-Sydney men spend their first and second years as if they were in a kind of trial purging them of their adolescence. They struggle to pass courses with efforts that earned them easy grades in high school, and so they turn to faculty for help. The faculty have a small, supportive administration at their back, giving them the freedom to challenge the men to improve. The result for me was a greater student respect for the faculty.

Hampden-Sydney College still struggles with the southern vices of slavery and segregation (indeed, it is in Prince Edward County, one of the centers of Massive Resistance), but its faculty and administration make an honest confession of that legacy. At the same time, HSC has preserved its emphasis on southern virtues, which Lawler sees dramatized in the book and film American Sniper. American Sniper is a biopic about the greatest sharpshooter in American history Chris Kyle. Lawler describes Kyle as “the American Platonic warrior/guardian” who is dedicated to “‘God, country, and family’ . . . [and] his ‘brother’ warriors in the Marine Corps” (197). HSC has many such students. For example, in one of my introductory courses on American politics, one of my students took on the role of organizing the men in the classroom to study for exams. He was a fifth-generation warrior. Specifically, he was an army veteran of multiple tours in Afghanistan and, like so many southern Stoics, was devoted to his father and grandfather. He also had deep ties to Prince Edward County and the college itself (his family name featured in a prominent institution). When my wife gave birth to our daughter, he raised funds in my class to buy me an Ashton 898 cigar (a southern gentleman knows his tobacco) and my wife flowers. His military service and ties to the college were, as Lawler describes it, part of the “privileges coming from nature and social place . . . accompanied by responsibilities” which he “fulfilled through practice of high virtues [of] magnanimity and generosity” (192).

Lawler has several chapters toward the end of American Heresies that focus on fatherhood. Of these, the most heretical is a chapter on Plato and Man of Steel, the Superman reboot that originally hit theaters in 2013. Its heresy is the invocation of what Locke called “paternal power” over Lockean technology and economy and Platonic eugenics. While conservatives have long lamented what appear to be frivolous or explicitly activist courses on film, Lawler demonstrates the grounding even this distinctly average comic book film has in the great Western tradition. He reads the film less for its “content” or its function as a “product” and more as a source of reflection meant to help with moral and spiritual formation. Were readers to wonder at the inclusion of such a strange chapter, they should recall that Cowen and Thiel are the named audience for Lawler’s book. These men favor the idea that “average is over” and that science must study nutrition to preserve the best minds of our generation, or supermen and superwomen. They regard the family as a source of imperfect eugenic transition rather than as a natural bond between spouses and their children. Lawler is especially keen on fathers and their role in educating sons.

Man of Steel, for Lawler, represents a repudiation of Cowen and Thiel. Kal-El, Superman’s Kryptonian name, reads Plato’s Republic, whose city reflects the eugenic regime of Krypton. What made Superman great, however, was his rejection of eugenic thinking in favor of relational thinking. His Kryptonian father, Jal-El, was also a heretic embracing the natural family over cloning; he fathered Kal-El with his mother in the biblical sense. Moreover, Kal-El’s adoptive father on earth, Jonathan Kent, raised him with the bourgeois virtues of the Midwest. According to Lawler, relationships and virtues ground Superman’s choices and form the principles for rejecting the eugenic remnants of his old planet. Lawler observes that what made Superman super was “being raised by a trustworthy, steadfast, loving American man and his wife from Kansas. Jonathan didn’t raise Clark to be just like him; he raised him, without really understanding him, with all those natural superpowers in mind. He knew his son had to remain, in part, an alien, and that his was to be a singularly mission-driven life” (183). This movie review, on the surface, drops onto the reader seeking advice on higher education reform as a non sequitur, but the subtext is that a truly super-man reads the best of the ancients, learns virtue from his father, and rejects eugenic heresies in favor of a humanity defined by relationships and virtue. For the “supermen” and “superwomen” in America to remain so requires that ordinary Americans, especially fathers, commit themselves to raising children with virtue and educating them in freedom.

Concluding Comments

American Heresies is not a perfect book. The greatest fault lies in its structure. The first part, “Foundations,” contains Lawler’s more direct efforts to talk about the two subjects in the title of the text: heresies and higher education. This section serves its role. The next section concerns higher education, and heresies recede into the background for readers to find on their own. Lawler chooses to argue in a series of essays, loosely organized around the theme. Chapters in the second section tend to overlap and repeat each other. The overlap is no doubt intentional, since he wants to show how issues from liberal democracy to capitalism overlap with each other on matters of higher education; nevertheless, Lawler would have benefited from more closely linking together the chapters and shaving down the introductory material.

Finally, Lawler’s book, especially in the third part, contradicts ordinary expectations to such a degree that the typical reader could feel bewildered by his choices. It is one thing to challenge the reader but another thing to leave the reader stranded. Individually, the chapters are great, but they badly need consolidation and a brief introductory chapter providing an explanation of the role of the final section. Perhaps most curious was the decision to separate a chapter on the southern Stoicism of To Kill a Mocking Bird from another chapter on southern culture more generally. Even then, there is a chapter on fatherhood that touches on the southern Stoic coach Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights. The theme of southern fatherhood is a strong one, yet Lawler mixes in chapters on originalism and conservative Darwinism that he insufficiently connects to any other subject in the third section or in the book.

Also, the chapters on southern Stoicism and other subjects are mixed together, but for no obvious purpose. Perhaps there is a deeper subtext for the choice of order, but my concern is that the deeper subtext does not matter. This book needs to find its way into the hands of intelligent higher education reformers who have, for too long, subsisted on a diet of technological quick fixes and appeals for ever greater supplies of state funding or, worse, debt. That audience needs less subtext and more direct explanation of why they should care about Lena Dunham and what Lawler has to say about her show Girls. It’s a tough sell, especially since conventional higher education reform books are, at this point, detailing grand utopian vistas of rock-climbing walls with built-in Wi-Fi for students to watch MOOCs before heading to financial aid for another $40,000 loan and then off to their mandatory affirmative sexual consent training.

American Heresies is still an excellent book, especially because of the important argument it advances and the irreplaceable way Lawler advances it. My hope is that he inspires lawmakers to break from the Lockean orthodoxy of economics and technology, since the policies derived from it have wreaked tremendous harm on the ability for universities and colleges to determine the best way to serve the diverse students they welcome each semester.


James M. Patterson is assistant professor of politics at Ave Maria University. He is currently completing a book for the University of Pennsylvania Press addressing the rise and fall of the Judeo-Christian consensus in twentieth-century American politics. In February, he and his wife Julia welcomed their second child, Keats Dominic, into the world.