Reasoning in Rough Times

April 29, 2021   •   By Michael S. Roth

Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education

Jonathan Marks

EARLY ON IN Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education, Jonathan Marks points both to the anger conservatives feel in the face of what they consider the “indoctrination” of the young by radical professors and the despair they feel when they encounter the abandonment of Great Books by students and administrators devoted only to building marketable skills. Two reasons to be upset, though Marks says little about the tension between them or the writings of others about either one. Moreover, he never wants to appear too upset, differentiating himself from angry activists by underscoring that his kind of conservatism is partisan, “but not in the scorched-earth style.” Marks’s partisanship is more in the style of the contrarian but still ingratiating professor. He uses the word “bullshitter” more than once on his first page, and he is prone to what might be called “dad jokes.”

Marks tells us he writes for those whose realism has led to despair, and he uses traditions of political philosophy to reel in readers looking less for an ideology than for a conversation from which they can learn. In going to bat against vocationalists and leftists, he writes, “I doubt that we who defend liberal education are going down, but there are worse things than to go down swinging.” Here Marks echoes faintly the more dramatic words of Leo Strauss, who wrote of the value of “going down with all guns blazing and flag flying,” in order to “humbly carry on the works of humanity in a seemingly endless valley of darkness and destruction.” Marks was educated at the University of Chicago, a devoted student of Allan Bloom and, he tells the reader, the son-in-law of Werner Dannhauser, both students of Strauss. Marks’s other book is based on his dissertation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who also attracted Bloom’s, Dannhauser’s, and their teacher’s attention. Let’s Be Reasonable is in the Strauss Family, though without the edgy erudition that characterized the best work of the Chicago side of the clan. Marks signals that he is a Great Books man, and that he likes teaching in a core curriculum, but if he is familiar with any of the scholarship on learning today, or on the traditions of liberal education in the United States, he doesn’t show it in this volume. As a blogger for Commentary magazine, he is used to talking current events, and in this book he is happy to weigh in on popular disputes concerning The Closing of the American Mind, The Coddling of the American Mind, and iGen’s problems with social media.

Marks does show a devotion to the Enlightenment notion of helping students become the kind of people who can think for themselves: able to examine their own principles and change their minds when confronted with better evidence and argument. Such a person will be “ashamed of the right things,” most importantly, of closing one’s mind. An open-minded student will realize that there is much to learn from old books, or at least not assume that the conventional opinions of today are based on wisdom. “We are entirely too confident,” Marks writes, “that we can see with our own eyes and unaware of the narrowness of our field of vision.” Old books widen the field of vision. Over many years of teaching, Marks has seen the canon change, and he seems open to expanding it further to account for new voices and perspectives. He just wants to ensure that we continue to study texts that disrupt our thinking by returning to enduring questions and problems. “To subject oneself to the authority of reason, to feel pride in obeying it and shame in abandoning it,” he writes, “is to accept a limit.” To accept limits while retaining some reverence for tradition is a key component of Marks’s conservatism and of his view of liberal education. Such an education helps produce reasonable people.

Reasonable people accept better arguments regardless of whether they are in sync with their own assumptions or beliefs. Marks, however, is not at all interested in parsing claims or analyzing logic, and he offers no useful advice about how to convince someone that one argument is clearly better than another. Instead, he keeps urging his readers — as I suppose he urges his students — to keep an open mind about important questions about which there have been significant differences of opinion. We can “make use of better and surer principles.” Naturally, he is convinced that his own principles are pretty sure, as he believes that the small liberal arts colleges where he has worked are typical. They are not. Most college students in the United States don’t study at four-year schools, let alone at liberal arts colleges. Marks unreasonably confuses his own experience with the broader culture, something that more research into different traditions and experiences might have prevented.

It’s politically understandable for a book on education to start with a criticism of Harvard — in this case, with its Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion’s ill-advised holiday advice about how to talk with “unwoke” relatives (on a placemat) from 2015. Shooting fish in a barrel is not exactly unreasonable, and it does set up one’s ideological stance. It’s less understandable for a thin book on liberal education to devote a full chapter to BDS: the movement to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. Marks evidently sees the movement not just as a personal interest but as a significant case study that allows him to opine on the tactics a reasonable person on campus should use in dealing with disinformation or propaganda. Though his commitment to Israel seems deep, his scholarship is, once again, thin. For example, he mentions the controversy around a Judith Butler lecture at Brooklyn College, but he doesn’t say anything about what she in fact said there — or anywhere else, for that matter. I happen to agree with his critique of the stance of scholarly associations in regard to the boycott of Israeli colleagues (and I said so in the Los Angeles Times in 2013), but it would have been helpful, not to say reasonable, to hear more about the tendency over the last four years to threaten campuses for not displaying enough support for Israel. It’s only in an endnote that Marks worries about governmental heavy-handedness, and he has almost nothing to say about the Trump administration’s policies on education. Surely, recent threats of censorship from the federal government are more menacing to liberal education than a vote of the Association for Asian American Studies (on which he spends several pages).

Let’s Be Reasonable indicates on its title page that it is written by a conservative, but this gentle professor at a liberal arts college wants to separate his politics from the kind that will be fired up at CPAC conferences. He rejects the hardball tactics used by the most pro-Zionist groups, and he eschews the overheated, bigoted language favored by the cultish West Coast Straussians. He doesn’t want conservatives to adopt political tactics that they accuse leftist activists of using. And, at least on college campuses, he doesn’t think they have to. He has persuaded his colleagues to support a Common Intellectual Experience, and he continues to find students eager to learn from old books with arguments that turn out to be as relevant as ever. In other words, even as a conservative, he remains a part of the ecology of liberal education, a contributor to the health of its complex ecosystem — like it or not.

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Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses and Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.