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One of our slogans is libertarian means for non-libertarian ends. That one works especially well in education. A big danger to the moral and intellectual diversity that graces our country’s mixture of public and private education—especially higher education—is increasingly intrusive bureaucratic government and quasi-governmental entities, such as accrediting agencies. In this category of homogenizing intruders we have to put various foundations and their experts that partner with government and educational administrators to achieve their technocratic goals. So pushing government back serves the distinctive missions of institutions that are about educating whole free and relational persons. Insofar as libertarians think about ends, they understand the person as an unencumbered person with subjective preferences, and so what some call higher education they regard as a hobby or a lifestyle choice. Postmodern conservatives think about ends (or who we are) before choosing means. We have a more “positive” view of liberty, although not one that involves big government.

In general, the two main enemies to higher education in America are political correctness and technology (or techno-vocationalism), and we can see these two obsessions coming together in both D.C. and Silicon Valley and in the D.C.–Silicon Valley complex that dominates the Democrats’ educational establishment and some of the Republican one. We can’t blame Governor Scott Walker (or many of his fellow Republican governors) for succumbing to political correctness, but we do call them naïve when they believe that administratively scripted techno-vocationalism is its antidote.

In education, pushing back political correctness and techno-obsessiveness means pushing back the regulatory power of government. And when it comes to education, especially higher education, our slogan is: It’s about more than justice and technology. Technology, as Solzhenitsyn explains, ought to be understood as a gift given to us as an intricate trial of our free will. Technological “innovation” by itself typically describes an increase in power that might be used for good or evil. In a narrow technological framework, innovation is progress. But it is far from necessarily accompanied by moral or intellectual progress. And it can be affirmed as good only if we can subordinate the techno “how” to a humanly worthy “why.” At this point, I could go on to talk about the relational costs and benefits of “the screen,” and then wonder whether, at this point, the costs haven’t far outweighed the benefits. And then go on to blame our misguided understanding of education, which hasn’t been about using the screen with the appropriate ironic moderation.

Libertarian means for libertarian ends also works when it comes to the threat that intrusive, politically correct government poses to religious freedom, to the freedom of churches (meaning religious institutions in general) to define their educational and evangelical missions for themselves.

But libertarian means for non-libertarian ends can be misunderstood. We understand free and relational beings to be, among other things, citizens. And self-government is the deliberation of citizens. That means that the “souls” of American government are the various levels of legislatures—from the village council to Congress. Even the Declaration of Independence was a legislative compromise. And in most issues of public policy, the compromise that is the result of genuine deliberation is superior to some judicial or bureaucratic “resolution” according to high principle. It’s superior, for one reason, because it honors the truth that free citizens can reasonably disagree, and because it allows the deliberation to continue even after the necessary decision has been made. It also allows for change we can really believe in, because it has been chosen by the people. Thinking here begins with abortion and marriage.

When I say work for libertarian means for non-libertarian ends, I almost always mean encouraging the legislative choice for less-intrusive government based on the whole truth about each of us. It’s citizens also seeing themselves as creatures, friends, parents, children, free thinkers, entrepreneurs, and so forth—as more than citizens but citizens too.

I hardly ever mean “judicial activism.” Government by judiciary, as much as government by bureaucracy, reduces citizens to subjects, and both are about eliminating or fearfully taming all the “intermediary institutions” that stand between the person and “the state.” Only a fool would count on the Court to protect our religious or intellectual liberty these days. It’s up to free citizens to protect the various dimensions of human liberty, and judicial review and even the “checks and balances” in general are to be understood as “auxiliary precautions” that serve the right of the people to govern themselves mainly through their elected representatives.

So we postmodern conservatives oppose what Richard Reinsch calls “the natural-rights nationalism” that some libertarian legal theorists celebrate as being engineered by the judiciary. Because we’re for genuine “civic engagement,” we’re for federalism and localism as the means given us by our Framers to arouse civic spirit and civic responsibility in as many Americans as possible.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. © February 2015 by National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Having just retired from teaching, I can assure you that the vast majority of my former colleagues and I do not share the view expressed here about what is most threatening to the moral and intellectual diversity of our nation’s universities. Rather, the number one threat we see to college education is the businessfication of college. By insisting that colleges work on a business model, educational standards are being compromised in a number of ways from the influx of unqualified students to the distraction of resources from academic investment to non-academic investment to the redefining of college from being a scholarly venture to that of being a life experience. All of these compromises are what threaten at least the intellectual aspect of college especially when the number of students who should be attending college is primarily determined by profit margin. More and more students are being referred to as customers rather than as students.

    We should note that the ‘techno-vocationalism’ of many colleges is being driven by the businessfication of college. More and more, our schools’ mission have revolved around serving the needs of the business world rather that the educational needs of the students and the needs of society for an educated and an independently thinking populace. Meanwhile, political correctness in schools, though filled with many errors, has a valid concern and needs to work itself out using negative feedback as a corrective.

    As for accrediting agencies, they are both unnecessary but provide useful feedback for any program or school. A balance must be maintained between some level of standardization and the finding of one’s own niche by a program or school. But, as in real life, when outside feedback is deemed threatening, one needs some kind of intervention. This is a truth that those who overemphasize individualism need to learn. It is a truth that taught in the following quote from Martin Luther King Jr.:

    What I’m saying to you this morning is that Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis

    Such brings us to the term ‘self-governance’ because I’m afraid that that means different things to different people. It seems that conservatives stress the individual’s control over one’s own life too much while society’s control over how we live is what is overemphasized by the Left. Note that liberals are not being mentioned here.

    Conservatives, post modern or not, don’t really emphasize the deliberation of bodies of citizens when they use the term ‘self-governance’ otherwise they would be in favor of businesses being run by democratic processes where each employee would have one vote regardless of that employee’s position in the company. For the less that democratic processes are employed in the business world, the less big businesses allow for democratic procedures to be used by society in determining its laws. Too much is at stake for big businesses to all that to happen. Rather, it seems that conservatives selectively promote deliberative processes by citizens when they disagree with judicial decisions. In doing so, they forget that judicial decisions, far from being perfect, act as a check, in the system of checks and balances, on the power of the deliberative decisions made by the majority. For if these conservatives did not forget that fact, they would be more inclined to challenge questionable judicial decisions on a case by case basis rather than the role of the judicial system itself.

    Finally, something Conservatives should think about when they want to use libertarian means to accomplish a conservative end. King firmly believed that one’s ends cannot exceed one’s means. This is just one of the reasons why he opposed the use of violence, both internal and external, in making social changes.

  2. “More and more students are being referred to as customers rather than as students.”

    Given that colleges are charging tuition rates that would make a Mafia loan shark blush, “Customer” probably isn’t the right term. “Sucker” or “Chump” would be more like it.

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