Ideologies are mind-traps: They are constructed in such a way that they prejudge the motive of opposition to their systems. The great aim of liberal education is to liberate students from mere unexamined opinion into genuine thought…

Some people use the word “ideology” neutrally, as though it meant any fairly comprehensive set of ideas. Not so in my view: “Ideology” is always a negative description. It denotes the rationalization of a position that has become opaque to inquiry, one so constructed that it casts suspicion on those who dare to question it. An ideology is a false religion, regardless of how secular its premises.

Every month or so, it seems, a new article about the crisis of education in the humanities circulates among sympathetic audiences. The most recent online edition of First Things, for example, features a short piece by Nathan Nielson called “Humanities and Communities.” Mr. Nielson does not spend much time dealing with the causes or results of the crisis (a task that editor R.R. Reno takes up himself); instead, he makes an argument for the good effect that the humanities have on building communities.[1]

By “the humanities,” he means “Liberal Arts. The classics. Literature. The great books. Wisdom of the Ages”—certainly a definition that suits what we teach at Wyoming Catholic College. Mr. Nielson writes that the humanities strengthen communities in three ways: 1) by fostering dialogue; 2) by providing “a meeting ground for secular and religious people”; and 3) by hedging against “the certainties of ideology.” Yes, discussing the great books can bring about community, but only for those who can be convinced to read them—and there’s the rub. The protest against Humanities 110 at Reed College last fall by a group called “Reedies Against Racism” underscores the difficulty: It is the nature of ideology to suppress dialogue and to prevent any meeting ground from being established.[2]

Ideologies are mind-traps: They are constructed in such a way that they prejudge the motive of opposition to their systems. The great aim of liberal education is to liberate students from mere unexamined opinion into genuine thought. Ideologies, by contrast, claim to liberate their adherents from oppressive systems, whereas they actually imprison their victims in a narrow way of interpreting the world. Students are liberated, yes, but from their common sense; they are convinced to see everything around them in terms of the oppression of gender identity or racial politics, for example.

It is as though they had the disease that Dostoyevsky describes in a dream of Raskolnikov’s toward the end of Crime and Punishment (which our students read in their senior year): “Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible.”

That is why Mr. Nielson’s third point strikes home with me most forcefully—the fact that, when they are honored as they should be, the humanities provide a hedge against “the certainties of ideology.” At Wyoming Catholic College and our sister institutions, ideologies stand little chance, since every fixed notion that tends toward the wrong kind of certainty gets its edges worn away over the course of four years. An entirely different point of view can suddenly shift the ground; I can attest to that phenomenon from many questions I have gotten after lectures I have given. Both in seminars and outside them, exchanges draw out more and more points of view and more facets of the ideas in question. Ideologues know very well that their ideologies will not endure this kind of scrutiny, and that is precisely why they try to prevent the conversation from ever beginning.

I know what it feels like to come under the spell of an ideology. When I was a freshman in college, my one attempt at a kind of Marxist radicalism came when I attended an SDS meeting, feeling very edgy and bold. But the leader of the group was so self-serving in his bloviation that I could not keep up the illusion of a cause for half an hour. Later that same year (trying a different tack) I consumed the works of Ayn Rand, whose “objectivism” galvanized me—her praise of selfishness, her depiction of the almost classical heroism liberated by competitive free market capitalism. Howard Roark, Hank Riordan, Dagny Taggart—I still remember the names. I understood that opponents to Rand’s ideas were spineless “altruists,” a word that I still cannot encounter with indifference. But the charm of Rand began to wear off as soon as I encountered two other Randian true believers with whom I hoped for real conversation, I suppose; their pretension and dismissive arrogance toward others disenchanted me more rapidly than any argument could have.

More than once, I have come to understand the sentence in the Gospels: “By their fruits you shall know them.” Ideas reveal their genuine natures when you see what they do to the people who hold them. My own conversion to Catholicism a few years later owed little to arguments and a great deal to the fact that the most generous, morally intelligent, and genuine people I knew had refused to be liberated from belief in God.

Even though the massive, goose-stepping ideologies of the 20th century seem to have lost ground, ideologies of personal freedom are legion. As Mr. Reno says in his recent jeremiad, “Today’s culture is the result of a more than fifty-year effort of deregulation, rejection of traditional norms, and denigration of commonplace pieties.” Liberal elites “insist upon a political correctness that rejects moral correctness.” For all of these ills, there is a cure, and Wyoming Catholic College exists to participate in bringing it to students. Those who have truly experienced the breadth of knowledge and the force of great thought in these mountain environs take something new into the world—not a narrow Catholic ideology, as some might think, but a way to the truth of each human situation in its moral and spiritual complexity, a discerning openness that will allow the achievement of genuine communities.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College (June 2018).

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[1] “The Smell of Death,” by R.R. Reno, in First Things (May 2018)

[2] “The Surprising Revolt at the Most Liberal College in the Country,” by Chris Bodenner, in The Atlantic (November 2017)

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